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. Lumberjack, Central Arkansas

    So what you're saying is that Bush was a loser then, and looks even worse now? Good call CNN. Yes, that's a lot of weight ot carry, the office of the President., even for the chimp.

    February 4, 2008 02:01 pm at 2:01 pm |
  2. John, Washington DC

    The only differences I see: George's hair is greyer and he is wearing less make-up.

    February 4, 2008 02:01 pm at 2:01 pm |
  3. Eddy Robinson

    Being president for 8 years doesn't seem to have altered Bush a whole lot. Perhaps you should do some comparisons with what people in regular jobs look like after an 8 year interval. This is pretty pointless filler article.

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

    No, he's not saying pick the young guy, but to be literal for a minute, eight years makes a difference in the faces of those who are over fifty, and a huge difference in the faces of those over sixty. It's not the office, it's called aging without plastic surgery.

    But to Bob Green's actual point. I doubt very much that any of these former presidents, no matter how much the demands of the job overwhelmed them, would return to the glory days before the general election and, with the ability to look ahead, would walk away. The lust for power is central to the life of a politician who runs for the presidency. And most of us know that. It's why Hilliary Clinton, as a woman, gets beaten up so often by men. They want their mothers, wives, daughters, and women in general and in particular, to cook, clean, and pick up their socks (as Michele does for Obama) for love. No glory for the girls! That’s not true, no matter how dearly men would like to believe it. I’m sure Hilliary Clinton will have no regrets when she looks in her mirror in eight years, and I know I won’t. Go Hilliary!

    February 4, 2008 02:02 pm at 2:02 pm |
  5. jennifer

    I'm not surprised this president has aged in office. With his horrendous record of lies and deception, a war that never should have been and the deaths it has caused, he has a lot troubling his conscience. And well he should have.

    February 4, 2008 02:04 pm at 2:04 pm |
  6. Sue, Greensboro, NC

    Yuck then, yuck now.

    February 4, 2008 02:07 pm at 2:07 pm |
  7. Well...

    Maybe the operative difference between the pictures is the 8 years between them, not necessarily the fact that those 8 years were spent as president...

    February 4, 2008 02:11 pm at 2:11 pm |
  8. coco

    i'm sorry, i don't buy it. the reason that the presidents change so much in office is because they are usually in their middle 50s. as a person in my own middle 50s, i can testify to the greatest changes to my face starting to happen right now! it's the age of the man, hon, not the stress of the office.

    also, the bush man on the right looks older than the alfred e. neumann (what me, worry) guy on the left.

    obama in 08

    February 4, 2008 02:11 pm at 2:11 pm |
  9. Krush

    Clinton looks even worse. Reagan would have, but he was advanced in years when he took office. Oh yeah, and Brad, from Omaha, one question. Would you hire the business intern with almost no experience to be the CEO of that company? I doubt that you would if you owned any of the company's shares. That is why I won't vote for Obama.

    February 4, 2008 02:11 pm at 2:11 pm |
  10. Sarah

    In the last republican debate, McCain was already looking really bad, it even looked like he was struggling to speak at times... If he wins and serves 8 years can you imagine what he will look like??? I think you can easily argue that the VP could be taking over during that term

    February 4, 2008 02:12 pm at 2:12 pm |
  11. Tom

    Bush has that look of someone who thinks "I am going to swindle and mislead this country into so many disastrous policies that they'll never recover and all my war profiteering and oil industry friends will make billions off of it" and in the second picture he thinks "I can't believe we got away with everything so easily".

    The two photos are equally revolting to anyone who truly cares about the fortunes of America.

    February 4, 2008 02:13 pm at 2:13 pm |
  12. Jeff, Huntington Beach, CA

    bush (not capitalized for lack of respect) looks a lot happier now because he has instituted many of his cronies agendas at cost to the American taxpayer. Now he is working on his and his cohorts retirements with his 400 billion plus deficit spending package (not counting the cost of the war) over the next 2 years. Has this man any shame? (NO)
    God Bless America... (jokingly said even though this is no joke)

    February 4, 2008 02:15 pm at 2:15 pm |
  13. mike

    So close to more than a puff piece...

    You looked into the former President's eyes and you don't relay some insight into each of their personality that many of us aren't aware of as average Americans???

    February 4, 2008 02:15 pm at 2:15 pm |
  14. Dennis

    Wow, I never realized how much Bush aged beyond the eight years he spent as President. I remember seeing two portraits of Clinton that clearly demonstrated the effect of the Presidency on him.

    February 4, 2008 02:16 pm at 2:16 pm |
  15. Tim, DC

    Newsflash: People look older after 8 years.

    February 4, 2008 02:17 pm at 2:17 pm |
  16. Alex, VA

    He's trying to say pick the person who understands exactly how hard the job of President is and who will be prepared to cope with those difficulties. The obvious choice is Hillary, someone who's been there, and seen up close the kind of burden a President has to bare. Vote for the person who has the experience to take action immediately, instead of making mistakes and being pounded by the job.

    February 4, 2008 02:17 pm at 2:17 pm |
  17. Don in CA.

    Hey Bob, let's see your picture from eight years ago.

    February 4, 2008 02:21 pm at 2:21 pm |
  18. Dave Wolinski

    I think it's called aging. My mailman, my parents, my dog...even me...don't look like we did 8 years ago. Give it a rest.

    February 4, 2008 02:21 pm at 2:21 pm |
  19. whatsitToyou

    Geez just thinking about how old McCain will look is alarming!

    February 4, 2008 02:22 pm at 2:22 pm |
  20. Murry

    I'm betting Obama will still look pretty good after 8 years.
    His sense of humor and milions of loyal fans will keep him young for sure.
    I'm a woman and I voted for Obama

    February 4, 2008 02:24 pm at 2:24 pm |
  21. Chaundra

    Funny, my husband and I were just discussing this the other night. Not that it matters one bit, but the presidency definitely ages a person. Time marches forward, of course, but the presidency seems to have its finger on the fast-forward button. Equally interesting is how much that rate slows as soon as they are out of office. I'm pretty sure Mr. Clinton doesn't look as old and bedraggled as he did near the end of his second term! I'm still voting Hilary, though I think time will wage the more desperate war on her!

    February 4, 2008 02:28 pm at 2:28 pm |
  22. Latina for HILLARY

    He looks bloated..did he fall off the wagon? LOL

    February 4, 2008 02:29 pm at 2:29 pm |
  23. Gracie

    Yes, the stress of the presidency does tell on the faces of past presidents. Yet, interestingly, it doesn't seem to apply to GW Bush and the photos you've chosen for this article. The "in-bed-by-9:30" war president looks as if the most important job on the planet has hardly left an impression, and why would it have? He is inarguably the least qualified, least concerned, most sheltered, coddled, and bubble-wrapped executive ever, unperturbed in the slightest by all of the mayhem he has caused in the United States and around the world. I only wish the world were as carefree and rosy as he looks.

    February 4, 2008 02:29 pm at 2:29 pm |
  24. Bubba

    Bush hasn't changed a bit, because he never made any decisions as president. That fell to Cheney, Rove, and Rumsfeld, the actual presidents of this bleeding and battered country.

    February 4, 2008 02:29 pm at 2:29 pm |
  25. donald fronheiser

    The photo's of Bush would seem to contradict your story, he looks relatively the same. On a side note, the level of stupidity of this article was so unimaginable that It drew me into comment. Glad I don't have to be faced with the perplexing task of signing your paycheck.

    February 4, 2008 02:35 pm at 2:35 pm |
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