ABOARD THE ELECTION EXPRESS
OXFORD, Mississippi (CNN)– I don’t recall exactly what was going on politically that particular moment during the 1976 Democratic National Convention in New York; whatever was transpiring on the floor was less than scintillating.
A bunch of us who were working for the Chicago Sun-Times that year were sitting on our folding card-table-type chairs near the podium inside Madison Square Garden: Jim Hoge, who ran the place, Bob Novak, Roger Simon, myself, a few others.
(Roger, feel free to call in any refinements to my recollections here.)
From behind us, a voice said:
“Those phones work?”
On the long plywood desks were big black telephones, installed for convention week; communicating was not quite so effortless then.
We turned around.
Light-blue seersucker suit (trust me, he could pull off that look– he could pull off any look), easy grin, eyes that don’t require description.
He knew no introduction was necessary. He went through life knowing no introduction was necessary.
“They work,” one of us said.
“Mind if I use one for a few minutes?” he said.
If there were camera phones around in 1976, the image of him standing there would have been snapped by dozens of people in the vicinity and sent around the world so quickly that by the time Newman was into his conversation, someone would have posted his image on websites across the globe. But of course, if camera phones had been around that year, he wouldn’t have had to go looking for a place to make a call. He would have had a phone inside one seersucker pocket.
He was intensely interested in politics and he was at the convention that hot July night just to watch; he’d been sitting in the seats of the main arena.
He stood there and talked on the phone– we did our best to pretend not to eavesdrop– and when he was finished either he said, jokingly, “Want a nickel?”, or one of us said, jokingly, “That will be a nickel.” The specifics of the banter are lost to memory.
There were any number of very famous people at that convention: Jimmy Carter and Walter Mondale and Richard J. Daley among the politicians on the main level, Walter Cronkite and David Brinkley up in the booths. But movie star trumps any other kind of star, and Paul Newman trumped just about any movie star.
With the news today of his death at age 83 comes the winsome recognition that those of us who were there for that trifling moment still recall it, and that Newman undoubtedly forgot about it the second it was over.
He didn’t turn around to look back as he walked up the stairs of the arena to his seat in the higher reaches. He didn’t have to. He knew what he would have seen:
Hundreds of pairs of eyes looking at him. Ours included.