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. T. Fitzgerald

    The photos are reversed.

    February 4, 2008 01:32 pm at 1:32 pm |
  2. jennifer

    This is the most ridiculous article i have ever read.

    February 4, 2008 01:32 pm at 1:32 pm |
  3. ED

    that is the lords payback for all those lies , promises not kept. doesn't even begin to pay for all the lost GIs and wounded military. The unknown hasn't figured out the punishment for all the other men ,women and children that have been anihalated.

    February 4, 2008 01:33 pm at 1:33 pm |
  4. Stig

    Actually Mr. Bush looks quite good, almost like someone who has taken a lot of holidays.

    February 4, 2008 01:36 pm at 1:36 pm |
  5. yaya

    I think dubya looks better after all the stress of 8 years. He looked too cocky before.

    February 4, 2008 01:36 pm at 1:36 pm |
  6. Texan

    No facial change was more drastic than President Carter's before-and-after. He seemed to have aged 20 years during his 4 years in office – with the Iran hostage crisis, the tanking economy, and a fast changing society caught between the 60s and 80s.

    February 4, 2008 01:37 pm at 1:37 pm |
  7. Jeff

    Wow, George Bush looks about eight YEARS older!

    February 4, 2008 01:37 pm at 1:37 pm |
  8. Tyler in Raleigh

    Other than a little more gray hair.... he looks the same. Wow, I guess Chuck Norris is wrong, who would have thought.

    February 4, 2008 01:41 pm at 1:41 pm |
  9. newz4i

    Eight years from now I wonder which American this CNN reporter, Bob Greene, thinks will look younger than today.

    February 4, 2008 01:41 pm at 1:41 pm |
  10. Bonnie, Troy, MO

    Wrinkles and gray hair indicates wisdom in some cases – or not.

    February 4, 2008 01:42 pm at 1:42 pm |
  11. john halverson

    what is John McCain going to look like?

    February 4, 2008 01:42 pm at 1:42 pm |
  12. Claudia

    Brad: Obama is 46. He'll be 47 soon. That's not that young. All this talk about change. If you want real change in 2008 then elect the first female president in the 220-year history of the nation's highest office. I'm sorry, but putting in the 44th male in succession into the Oval Office would just be more of the same old stuff.

    February 4, 2008 01:43 pm at 1:43 pm |
  13. Matt

    I'll Bite,

    Huckabee is the youngest on the Republican side!

    age: 52 ... + 8 years = 60...GOOD RETIREMENT AGE 🙂

    February 4, 2008 01:43 pm at 1:43 pm |
  14. Al in Wpg

    The G Bush now picture looks like he's dreaming of his retirment taking Oil baths paid for by the Saudis and Halliburton.

    February 4, 2008 01:46 pm at 1:46 pm |
  15. Annie

    He looks at lease as stupid now as he did 8 yrs ago; time has only served to cement that idiotic look on his face

    February 4, 2008 01:46 pm at 1:46 pm |
  16. Hiram

    Ever wonder why Bush seems to be the only President ever
    to not have aged any after 8 years of service. Seems like
    the guy hasn't a worry in the world despite everything
    his administration has done has gone to heck.

    February 4, 2008 01:47 pm at 1:47 pm |
  17. michael

    Oh, poor Bush got some wrinkles and greys. It must be soooo much more stressful to be President than say I don't know, an infantry man on his 5th tour.

    February 4, 2008 01:49 pm at 1:49 pm |
  18. mike

    wow, pick a candidate based on their looks... i guess we get what we deserve. PLEASE AMERICA: pick someone with experience...we can't survive another president that was picked merely because he was the guy we'd most want to drink a beer with.

    February 4, 2008 01:51 pm at 1:51 pm |
  19. Amber

    The only real difference I see in the two pictures of Bush is that he's now Fatter, more red in the face, and has a much wider grin.

    So are you trying to say the presidency makes one fat and happy, or is this just what I'm seeing in my 'less enlightened' point of view? Oh, and I also see that he's 8 years older, I bet you could do that with any person on the street and see similar things.

    February 4, 2008 01:52 pm at 1:52 pm |
  20. SJ, Quincy MA

    Which is I why I shall be voting for Ron Paul.

    February 4, 2008 01:52 pm at 1:52 pm |
  21. Gary E

    Well, that's quite prosaic Bob.

    But I suggest that you look at photos at any one of us – say before we became parents. Or before we sent those babes off to college. Or when they got married.

    You'll see a heck of a lot of personal change, and a deep wistful look in all our eyes.

    As for Bush, well I still say – look deeply into those eyes, and you'll see the unconscious stare of a goat.

    February 4, 2008 01:53 pm at 1:53 pm |
  22. Kenwp

    And the difference is???? The older picture shows an 8 year older, none-the-wiser George Bush whose face shows none of the signs of understanding what he's done for (to) our country.

    It reminds me of Alfred E. Neuman: "What, me worry?"

    February 4, 2008 01:57 pm at 1:57 pm |
  23. keith Franklin, Tn

    Too bad Bush hasn't aged enough for all the damage that he has done. After all, he had the first $2 trillion budget and now wants the first $3 trillion budget. All of this damage during just two terms.

    Bush may have aged because of guilt....after all...nah!!... he has no sould for that.

    What a legacy W has left...

    February 4, 2008 01:59 pm at 1:59 pm |
  24. Jerod

    I am not sure that is really the office, or just moving on in years. I mean those pictures where taken nearly a decade a part. How much younger did YOU look 10 years ago?

    February 4, 2008 02:00 pm at 2:00 pm |
  25. Brett, Tucson AZ

    The aging theme seems mostly metaphorical. Bush 1, the octogenarian skydiver, shows a robustness that now seems at odds with his taxed persona in the oval office. And the Bill Clinton of today offers the same accessible blend of easy-going charm and unflappable intellect, minus the Big Mac paunch.

    A president, like the rest of us in 4 or 8 years, will age. What sets a president apart isn't his or her genes, but a willingness to take on a job of inordinate responsibility. And the unique capability, by some miracle, to survive at all.

    February 4, 2008 02:01 pm at 2:01 pm |
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