February 4th, 2008
01:30 PM ET
15 years ago

Across America with Bob Greene: 'The Singular Storm'

[cnn-photo-caption image= http://i.l.cnn.net/cnn/2008/images/02/04/art.former.gi.jpg caption="Former Presidents Bush, Carter, and Clinton."]
ABOARD THE CNN ELECTION EXPRESS IN DOWNEY, California (CNN) - At some point between right now and the time the polls around the country close tomorrow night, take a look at the faces of the candidates still in the race.

And try to imagine the four-years-later versions of those faces. Or to imagine - in case one of these candidates becomes a two-term president - the eight-years-later versions of the faces.

You know what I’m talking about: the inevitable news photographs, taken in the final months of a president’s administration, to be published side-by-side with photographs of that president on Inauguration Day. The point – always - is to show, in the starkest of visual terms, the ravages of the White House years. The paired-up photos don’t even need captions. They literally bellow out their wordless message: this is what the presidency does to a human being.

So when you look at the candidates’ faces today and tomorrow, and envision what those faces will look like in 2012 or 2016, keep in mind something that the candidates of 2008 probably haven’t stopped to consider yet:

This is as good as it gets. Today - before there is a winner in either set of primaries - is the happiest time. It may not feel like that to them, with the clouds of exhaustion that envelop them right now, with the acrimony and bitterness that, as always, have become part of the campaigns, with the nervous stomachs considering every second the cojoined questions: What will happen if I win. What will happen if I don’t.

I’m hardly a political expert, but there have been four presidents whom I’ve been lucky enough to get to know a little bit as people in the years after they left the White House. You’d think they would have almost nothing in common, except for the job. Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, Gerald Ford, the first George Bush. . . .four distinct and wildly varying personality types.

But there was one thing they shared - something I doubt they were even aware of, because they could not look into their own eyes when they were in the middle of conversations. I could, though - I could look at those eyes when the men were talking about matters of somber and historic importance, I could look at those eyes when they were talking about flighty and trivial things, I could look at those eyes when they were merely making small talk.

And here’s the one thing that linked them:

When they spoke of the time before they became president - when it was still a crazy hope, a seemingly unreachable dream off in the distance– that was when their eyes softened, and became full of wistful yearning. It was when they remembered what it was like to want something so badly, something so grand that it was almost embarrassing for them to admit the dream to others…. that was when they seemed most human and most real. There was a time before every president we have ever had knew that the job really was going to become his. When the seeking of it felt like something they might wake up from in the middle of the night, disoriented and dizzy.

When it was still a hope - when this impossible thing, the attaining of the presidency, had not yet become fully imaginable to them - they were someone else. They were, in one fundamental way, like the rest of us - they were people who weren’t the president.

As are the candidates who will await the vote totals tomorrow night, knowing that soon enough they will find out how many of them will remain to go on from this week and toward the nominating conventions.

So take a look at those faces, between now and tomorrow night. You’ll have plenty of opportunities to do it - they’ll be all over your television screens. One of those faces, in all likelihood, will be in the newspapers and magazines four years from now, or eight years from now. What the presidency has done to that one face will make it look as if the face, and its owner, have been through terrible battle and conflict, and have paid the price.

It’s a price that the men, and the woman, on the ballots tomorrow say they are fully ready to pay. And it’s a pretty safe bet that one of them will someday look back on today - on right now - and his or her eyes will soften, trying to recall what it was like before the singular storm.

Bob Greene is an award-winning journalist and best-selling author.

Filed under: Bob Greene
soundoff (166 Responses)
  1. Justin

    This would make McCain over 100 by the time he finishes...not good.

    February 4, 2008 12:11 pm at 12:11 pm |
  2. Mrs. America

    Well, all you have to do is Chuck Norris' math, and there you have it. Did I say that?

    February 4, 2008 12:11 pm at 12:11 pm |
  3. NO MORE BUSH!!!



    February 4, 2008 12:13 pm at 12:13 pm |
  4. Karen

    Considering the huge amount of aging that occurs in one's face during a presidency, I am even more convinced that John McCain shouldn't run...much less be elected.

    February 4, 2008 12:16 pm at 12:16 pm |
  5. Dave C - N.J.

    I am NO Bush fan however Bush doesn't look "ravished." He looks about 8 years older that the first pics, as he should.
    Weak, Mr. Greene!

    February 4, 2008 12:28 pm at 12:28 pm |
  6. mary cleveland, ohio

    Actually I don't think President Bush looks that bad considering what he SHOULD have on his conscience!

    I mean he IS 8 years older at a time in life when eight years REALLY makes a difference in your looks. Nope, the guy has no conscience. I am convinced now!

    February 4, 2008 12:29 pm at 12:29 pm |
  7. josh

    Clinton was crying and has seemed to age before even beginning the job!

    February 4, 2008 12:30 pm at 12:30 pm |
  8. That's Reality

    I think President Bush looks GREAT eight years later!

    February 4, 2008 12:30 pm at 12:30 pm |
  9. shawn

    But could mccain even make it 4 yrs let alone 8, he can barely walk and talk now.

    February 4, 2008 12:33 pm at 12:33 pm |
  10. Bob

    Looks like Bush fils has aged, what, ten years in seven? Honestly, I don't see that he's aged that badly.

    February 4, 2008 12:33 pm at 12:33 pm |
  11. cindy

    It's what 8 years does to a face. Anyone in that age group without procedures goes splat. I think he looks pretty good.

    February 4, 2008 12:35 pm at 12:35 pm |
  12. Rafi, NY NY

    This just in: Bush looks eight years older than he did eight years ago.

    February 4, 2008 12:35 pm at 12:35 pm |
  13. Terry

    The only difference I see is dumb and dumber.

    February 4, 2008 12:36 pm at 12:36 pm |
  14. An Agnostic Democrat

    I'm still throwing up in my mouth a little bit.

    February 4, 2008 12:36 pm at 12:36 pm |
  15. hr

    bush looks better

    February 4, 2008 12:37 pm at 12:37 pm |
  16. Agnes

    Well, eight years will take a toll on one's face whether one lives in the White House or not. I don't think the presidency has ravaged Bush's face. It's called the aging process....

    February 4, 2008 12:38 pm at 12:38 pm |
  17. ponsetto

    Bob, you could have picked better photos to make your point about how the presidency ages a president. he looked better in the photo on the left (now) than in the photo on the right (8 years ago).

    February 4, 2008 12:38 pm at 12:38 pm |
  18. John Cook

    The amazing thing is to see that there is no difference in the photos of President Bush. I thought maybe they had the wrong ones captioned as before and after. But there is no difference anyway.
    It would be far more instructive to look at before and afters of the other Presidents along with the one of Mr. Bush. The others would show the ravages of doubt and work.

    February 4, 2008 12:40 pm at 12:40 pm |
  19. Deb

    My gracious it is posssible to look more stupid!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    February 4, 2008 12:40 pm at 12:40 pm |
  20. Dev

    Mr. Greene, although I do see the point of this article and have absolutely no disagreement that being President of the United States is probably the hardest job in the world, this article is stupid.

    You have no idea how their faces would look in 8 years if they were not President. That is, there is no control group, so what you see may be perfectly attributable to the normal aging process.

    February 4, 2008 12:42 pm at 12:42 pm |
  21. david Nouakchott, Mauritania

    And this is George W. Bush. Imagine what it does to a Leader.

    February 4, 2008 12:43 pm at 12:43 pm |
  22. E. C., Houston, Texas

    President Bush looks Great.....especially with due consideration to what he has been Leading this Nation through for the last 7 years: 9-11, Iraq/Afghanistan Wars, and above all... fighting the Democrats' seige on his Administration and hateful, unkind, Personal Attacks of his Presidency, as well as his character, speech, and intelligence. There is NEVER any cause or any situation or personal conflict that allows the Media or Individuals the Right to ridicule the President of this Nation or attack personally a Great Leader's intelligence. The Late Night Shows, especially Letterman, has made a career of Ridicule of President Bush. Too Bad Letterman is SO STUPID and UNFUNNY that he must resort to such a pitiful end and methods. Also, President Bush is not smiling in the right photo, but then, that's typical of CNN Media in attempting to destroy our President.

    February 4, 2008 12:45 pm at 12:45 pm |
  23. sonny

    Bush doesn't even look all that "ravaged" 8 years later. Just goes to show how hard he was ummm... working?

    February 4, 2008 12:45 pm at 12:45 pm |
  24. Dan

    Interesting. Have you considered a before and after photo of the losing candidate? I hear nature is not so kind to them either. Let's see those before and after shots of John Kerry, Al Gore, Bob Dole, George Bush Sr, Ross Perot, Michael Dukakis, Walter Mondale, etc. If I had to vote, I'd say that the presidency had a worst toll on Jimmy Carter than anyone else, at least by his before and after pictures. What do you think?

    February 4, 2008 12:45 pm at 12:45 pm |
  25. Darth Vadik, CA

    He looked like a pig eight years ago, and he still looks like a pig.

    February 4, 2008 12:45 pm at 12:45 pm |
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