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. Corky

    What? He still looks like a chimp.

    February 4, 2008 12:47 pm at 12:47 pm |
  2. Ed, Santa Fe, NM

    Who cares what the presidency did to bush's mug? More to the point: look what he did to this country! I hope he rots in hell for his arrogance and belligerent stupidity.....

    February 4, 2008 12:47 pm at 12:47 pm |
  3. Brad, Omaha NE

    are you trying to say, "pick the young guy"

    if so, you are now my favorite non-fiction author.

    Obama 08

    February 4, 2008 12:50 pm at 12:50 pm |
  4. HK

    Not much difference for Puddin'head is there?

    Further evidence that he's been clueless all these years!

    February 4, 2008 12:52 pm at 12:52 pm |
  5. Liam

    What is your point? People look older as they grow older. His mother, Barbara has always looked much older than her years. George W. looks like her. Compare some pictures of Ronald Reagan and you will see that his face did not change much after the eight years in the White House. If being President was as hard as you are implying, why do so many of them live to be very old!

    February 4, 2008 12:52 pm at 12:52 pm |
  6. xjen

    He should look a lot worse after what he's done to this country !

    February 4, 2008 12:52 pm at 12:52 pm |
  7. Newton, Chicago, IL

    Not what a presidency does to a face – what a FAILED presidency does to a face.

    February 4, 2008 12:55 pm at 12:55 pm |
  8. Kristy Sanborn, Buckhorn, Mo.

    I do look at the face of President George W. Bush, everytime he is shown in the news. I especially like the pictures in this article, the comparison of 8 years ago, and now, of President Bush.
    I for one think that he doesn't look much different than he did 8 years ago. Anyone at his age and 8 years later is going to have a few more wrinkles (its called natural aging process) and maybe their hair becomes a little thinner. But I have to say today, that President George W. Bush looks as good as he did 8 years ago.

    February 4, 2008 12:56 pm at 12:56 pm |
  9. Anonymous

    I don't see a difference between the two pictures aside from the hue of the respective faces.

    February 4, 2008 12:57 pm at 12:57 pm |
  10. Jeff


    Great article, and good points are made all around.

    We would have loved to see a computer-generated "age progression" of the front-runners, to get an idea of which one would be the most ogre-ish four years from now.

    February 4, 2008 12:58 pm at 12:58 pm |
  11. Gary

    Compared to what George W. Bush's presidency has done to the world, I'd say his face got off easy.

    February 4, 2008 12:58 pm at 12:58 pm |
  12. Shirley Krogulski

    I think it is not too clever to compare pictures of then and now of president Bush. Don't we all change a lot in 8 years? NAtural growing old. I doubt very much if Bush did much worrying while running? the country.

    February 4, 2008 01:00 pm at 1:00 pm |
  13. Harry, Hughesville, Pa.

    Hey Pal, "Look in the Mirror".

    February 4, 2008 01:00 pm at 1:00 pm |
  14. JR

    Given what he has done to the country, he ought to look much, much worse.

    February 4, 2008 01:01 pm at 1:01 pm |
  15. Carlos R. Plaza

    I hesitated between ignoring this article or placing it in its proper context. Its timing and thinly, though skillfully, veiled suggestion regarding a political candidate speak volumes for the value of a "journalistic shield". God save us all.

    February 4, 2008 01:02 pm at 1:02 pm |
  16. Peter Bundy

    While I don't disagree with the article, the pictures needed some more consideration. I don't see any real difference between the first and second picture. You want me to consider the 'ravages' of the Presidency, but pick a picture with no apparent increase in worry lines, white hair or receding hairline, or bags under the eyes? Visually sell the pitch!

    February 4, 2008 01:03 pm at 1:03 pm |
  17. Mike, Richmond, VA

    This is so true. I think the looks in their eyes before they get elected is a look that comes from wanting to change things for the better. After they are elected they become frustrated because they do not really have the ability to change anything drastically. The next years are spent under total stress because of this and that stress really takes a toll on ones health. Especially when their public approval starts to drop as it always does.

    February 4, 2008 01:03 pm at 1:03 pm |
  18. Judith O'Callaghan

    The weirdest thing is that Bush looks like he has hardly been touched by the presidency. I think he might even look younger....like water off a duck's back.

    February 4, 2008 01:04 pm at 1:04 pm |
  19. Alicia, Birmingham Alabama

    Looks about the same to me.

    February 4, 2008 01:06 pm at 1:06 pm |
  20. Gringo in Peru

    Please give me a break....everyone ages no matter what their jobs are

    February 4, 2008 01:06 pm at 1:06 pm |
  21. Angie

    Is this what you call journalism? Lets see your ugly face eight years ago? What a waste this so called network is.

    February 4, 2008 01:07 pm at 1:07 pm |
  22. Blayze Kohime

    President's always look much older at the end of their term. Maybe that's why we have so few good presidents; most smart people would never take a job that stressful?

    February 4, 2008 01:07 pm at 1:07 pm |
  23. lets be serious

    Hey funny man from Nebraska. It means that the job is demanding. It milks you every day hour min and second. There is no alone time. There is hardly any fun family time.
    Are you getting it?

    February 4, 2008 01:07 pm at 1:07 pm |
  24. Janet

    Everyone ages in 8 years. Look at Al Gore in 2000, and Al Gore today, and he is not the president. I don't see much difference in these pictures of George Bush. He's not lost any sleep as President, and clearly, doesn't worry much about the outcome of his actions. "The ravages of the White House years"??? Not in this case.

    February 4, 2008 01:07 pm at 1:07 pm |
  25. Anonymous

    Journalist? This Bob Greene?
    The ultimate puff piece.

    February 4, 2008 01:09 pm at 1:09 pm |
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