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. old guy

    Frankly, W is a little heavier in the face, and of course 8 years older, but otherwise, I don't see any strains and wear and tear of high office in his visage. Figures.

    February 4, 2008 01:10 pm at 1:10 pm |
  2. KEA, GA

    Bad news for Mccain...

    February 4, 2008 01:10 pm at 1:10 pm |
  3. Glenn Doty, Columbia, SC

    You should have chosen a different example.

    Bush, as one of the most detached and uncaring presidents in history – and certainly the worst president in history – hasn't been unnaturally aged by the pressures of the office.

    Looking at before and after pics for some presidents – Lincoln being the best example – can show the horrible pressure, as you say, in a way that doesn't need words.

    The two pictures of incurious George, on the other hand, show a person that has aged 8 years. Period... Hell, he doesn't really look like the 8 years touched him as much as it has the rest of us. The burden hasn't rested that heavily on him because he's been detached in his little cocoon. A fairy-land where every decision he reaches (based on less than a page summary) is the "right" one and everyone is happy except a few partisan newspeople...

    Bush simply doesn't show the age of office that you're trying to describe. You need to choose a different president – perhaps Carter or Clinton – as an example.

    February 4, 2008 01:10 pm at 1:10 pm |
  4. Karin

    You should see what motherhood does to your face in 4-8 years!

    February 4, 2008 01:11 pm at 1:11 pm |
  5. Ling Hu

    8 years ago Mr Bush looked like a lying and evil man. Now he looks like a lying and evil man.
    What difference?

    February 4, 2008 01:11 pm at 1:11 pm |
  6. Brad D

    I've always noticed this myself as well. As you said the job extracts its price from you which is fine – as long as that price is only a physical toll and not one on the soul....

    February 4, 2008 01:12 pm at 1:12 pm |
  7. christiw

    So, people who are eight years older look... older. Insightful.

    February 4, 2008 01:12 pm at 1:12 pm |
  8. Darlene, Cincinnati, OH

    Try taking a look at the faces of the American people starting eight years ago and compare it to now. It hasn't been an easy road for us either!

    February 4, 2008 01:14 pm at 1:14 pm |
  9. Liam Burke, Buffalo, NY

    Um....Bush looks healthier.....what battle scars do you refer to?

    February 4, 2008 01:15 pm at 1:15 pm |
  10. Tfranklin

    This is a lot of silly nonsense. Someone who is 53 will, inevitably, look older at 61.

    February 4, 2008 01:15 pm at 1:15 pm |
  11. Charlie

    That's a pretty dismal piece. That's in stark contrast to the very photos that are attached to it. Personally, I think GW actually looks happier and in better shape in the 'after' photo than in the 'before' photo. Though obviously younger, he doesn't particularly look any better.

    February 4, 2008 01:17 pm at 1:17 pm |
  12. Caren Goode

    I think he looks better in the latest picture.

    February 4, 2008 01:18 pm at 1:18 pm |
  13. Tim, Cincinnati, OH

    This is similar to the point that Rush Limbaugh made about a month ago. He said he didn't think the country had the stomache to watch a woman age under the stress of being President over four to eight years. He was blasted as a sexist pig. He was right.

    February 4, 2008 01:20 pm at 1:20 pm |
  14. JM

    A not-so-subtle jab at grandpa McCain...
    If he wins, I hope his running mate is well qualified. He may have a good shot at taking over the job of POTUS. I hope voters will keep this in mind.

    February 4, 2008 01:21 pm at 1:21 pm |
  15. Andrew

    "Ravages of the White House years" ?

    Do the same thing with anyone dealing with some responsibility over a period of eight years and see what happens.

    Frankly, if you're seeing that much of a difference in the two Bush pictures, you might want to try calibrating your perception first next time. They don't look that different. He's a few years older and maybe a little heavier. A little sunburned, maybe.

    This is a non-story.

    February 4, 2008 01:21 pm at 1:21 pm |
  16. Bukky

    Look like all his vacation time is showing on his face

    February 4, 2008 01:21 pm at 1:21 pm |
  17. Chris

    Other than the standard 8 years of aging, Bush doesnt look to have suffered much under the stress of the presidency. Not nearly the difference that other presidents have shown. Must be nice to not have a clue as to what is going on.

    February 4, 2008 01:22 pm at 1:22 pm |
  18. samuel

    in this presidency race in the usa what i find incredible –and almost hysteric is for amerericans to choose between "a woman" and "a black" man...that is what I retain in my mind....furthermore...the "name clinton" which has been in the news for the past 2 decades...
    moral of the story - how unique are those characteristics....not to give the opportunity for a real leader/diplomat/man/woman for all seasons to lead us...it simply beats me...voila....

    February 4, 2008 01:24 pm at 1:24 pm |
  19. bob

    As we look at those pursuing the presidency, it would do us well to re-read Macbeth, and see the inevitible result of an unbridled lust for power.

    February 4, 2008 01:27 pm at 1:27 pm |
  20. Nolan

    Get me a break!

    Those two pics of Bush look about the same. For the past eight years, Bush hasn't age that much more than the average man in his mid 50s.

    Use a better example....like Bill Clinton in 1992 vs 2000.

    February 4, 2008 01:27 pm at 1:27 pm |
  21. peter scalco

    The presidency of the United States is the postion of greatest power on earth. There is little doubt that the tremendous pressures of the responsibilty have to take a physical toll. In the case of George W. Bush however; the abdication of responsibility coupled with the deceit involved with the capricious death of thousands and diminishment of our great nation have not been harsh enough.

    February 4, 2008 01:29 pm at 1:29 pm |
  22. Jen

    It is amazing to see President face back then and now.

    I actually think Bush change wasn't as bad as Clinton. I mean that man aged during his 8 years.

    Wow, you gotta really be ambitious, love power, and believe in yourself and America to go through the burden of presidency.

    February 4, 2008 01:30 pm at 1:30 pm |
  23. Brian

    That's not the presidency that did that to his face... that's the weight of pure evil.

    February 4, 2008 01:30 pm at 1:30 pm |
  24. Anonymous

    8 years ago or today... bush still looks incompetent to me

    February 4, 2008 01:30 pm at 1:30 pm |
  25. Ling Hu

    Looking at the two faces I think that Mr Bush has aged very well. He looks young and fit. Considering the damage he has done to his country and its people as well as to the people of Iraq, he looks carefree and eager. Thank goodness for term limits.

    February 4, 2008 01:31 pm at 1:31 pm |
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