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. bryan

    My god!! Most presidents looked markedly older after four, and especially eight years in office! Only Bush could look healthier and more robust after his disastrous tenure. Can you say "picture of Dorian Grey?"

    February 4, 2008 02:36 pm at 2:36 pm |
  2. Ba Gua

    Bush's face should be on a wanted poster: Wanted for Running the US into the Pits!

    February 4, 2008 02:37 pm at 2:37 pm |
  3. Nick

    Well I gotta say GWB doesn't look that different or "stressed" out. Maybe because he hasn't done anything as president since he took office, besides sitting back and punish Americans.

    February 4, 2008 02:38 pm at 2:38 pm |
  4. Tom, Houston

    Bush didn't seem to change much. Perhaps because he wasn't thinking much during those eight years.

    February 4, 2008 02:39 pm at 2:39 pm |
  5. SPQR753

    In the most recent photo there is a RED nose in evidence: either it was a very cold day or....."old habits" are here again!!

    February 4, 2008 02:43 pm at 2:43 pm |
  6. Rev. Rob

    Bush looks the same in both photos to me.

    February 4, 2008 02:46 pm at 2:46 pm |
  7. Bush Wacker

    Bush is the dumbest of them all. He royally screwed our country over.

    February 4, 2008 02:47 pm at 2:47 pm |
  8. Mike S., Nawlins

    He looked totally unaccountable eight years ago, and he looks completely unaccountable now.

    February 4, 2008 02:49 pm at 2:49 pm |
  9. demwit

    Errrrrr..., just image what Hillary is going to look like in 5 yrs. Oh well, at least she could scare our enemies to death...

    February 4, 2008 02:49 pm at 2:49 pm |
  10. derefg

    Man has not aged a year. Stupid people rarely do. No stress at all. Only death and destruction all around the.

    February 4, 2008 02:50 pm at 2:50 pm |
  11. dave

    The new photo looks better. I have seen comparison photos before and they usually compare a younger look with a presidential look. These photos indicate that Bush hasn't worked nearly as hard as he should have as he doesn't look anything but a little more inflammed and bloated. Bad example.

    February 4, 2008 02:56 pm at 2:56 pm |
  12. John, Kansas City, MO

    E. C., Houston, Texas

    "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..."

    You are absolutely wrong. There is a cause and it is protected by the First Amendment...you know, free speech and free press. There is a reason that was the first amendment in the Bill of Rights; because it's the most important! We can speak out against our government, and ridicule (political satire) has always been one of the most important forms of social and political commentary in democracies, dating all the way back to the height of the Athenian democracy. Oh, and you won't get any pity from me concerning Bush having to deal with the "war" (conflict) in Iraq – that's Bush's own fault, so why would I feel sorry for him?

    February 4, 2008 02:58 pm at 2:58 pm |
  13. Kyle V

    The photos aren't all that different. Middle-aged men age in eight years no matter what they do. Try working in a coal mine and see what it does to you.

    February 4, 2008 02:59 pm at 2:59 pm |
  14. Scott Lamb

    President Bush looks like he's been out in the sun a lot on his many, many vacations while in office. If you want to see a president who aged dramatically in office, you'll have to look to his predecessors. I can't seem to find such pictures of President Clinton, but I recall them as being a more stark contrast.

    February 4, 2008 02:59 pm at 2:59 pm |
  15. John, Kansas City, MO

    The reason Bush hasn't aged as much as Clinton did, is because he doesn't care and worry about our country as much as Clinton did. He just sits there being not smart, and lies right to our faces, and we can't do anything about it, or we'll end up being tortured in some secret prison in eastern Romania.

    February 4, 2008 03:00 pm at 3:00 pm |
  16. Blair

    Look at a picture of Obama taken in July then look at him now.

    February 4, 2008 03:00 pm at 3:00 pm |
  17. Gloria

    Considering what President Bush as dealt with in his presidency, he looks naturally aged. With the catastrophic events he has had to deal with, 911, Katrina,
    California Fires, Tornadoes, Financial Institutions corruption, it has not been an easy administration. Now with the stonewalling of the Democratics in Congress, give him credit where he deserves it. It is not a one man job, good or bad!!!!!

    February 4, 2008 03:05 pm at 3:05 pm |
  18. Karen Cantor

    How about a comparison with how ordinary citizens age over an eight year span? Time leaves its mark on all of us!

    February 4, 2008 03:13 pm at 3:13 pm |
  19. Pete

    I'm not a fan of Bush's, but he looks better today than he did when he 7 years ago. He does not worry about anything.

    February 4, 2008 03:34 pm at 3:34 pm |
  20. Oscar A., Alhambra, CA

    You ought to see how much I'VE aged since this clown's been in office!

    February 4, 2008 03:46 pm at 3:46 pm |
  21. Taylor

    I hate to defend George W. Bush, but who hasn't aged after 8 years, unless of course you have a good plastic surgeon.

    February 4, 2008 04:11 pm at 4:11 pm |
  22. gromansky

    To those who think this is a non-story – get over yourselves. If you don't get it, why feel the need to broadcast in public what an ignoramus you truly are? The point, which is entirely valid, is that the US presidency is very stressful. Even for a simpleton like Bush, who delegates all the intellectual stuff, it is a hard job. For presidents who actually put a little effort into it, the job is almost dangerous. If you truly think Bush looks better, that Bush doesn't show any signs of premature aging, or that he would look just the same if he wasn't president, well, you pretty much confirmed the traits of that 30% who still feel Bush is doing a bang-up job.

    February 4, 2008 04:41 pm at 4:41 pm |
  23. Lou

    George W Looks good After the 100,000 dead Iraqui and their Blood in his hands, the blood of our soldiers and the 1,000 lies he told to get there.

    Thank god he not Pinocchio or his nose will be a mile long.

    February 4, 2008 05:15 pm at 5:15 pm |
  24. Ken, Suitland MD

    Yes, John (3:00pm), isn't it a pleasure to have to hear from the high-minded hypocritical right-wing (E.C. 12:45pm) on the etiquette of showing respect to our president. You make an insightful constitutional point, which I'm afraid falls on deaf ears when its "their" boy in office.

    But given his high-handed rhetoric, I'm sure our buddy from Texas didn't partake in the political and personal attacks that his 'party' launched and sustained against president Clinton. And I'm sure he is currently showing due deference to the current, fine [D] candidates, as one of them will soon be his president. I hope, after Nov., he will remind all his right-wing-nut friends and that he will write in to his right-wing talk show hosts to admonish them that:
    "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."

    After all, these people on the "right" are soooooo principled, correct?

    February 4, 2008 05:16 pm at 5:16 pm |
  25. Dare to Say

    American is filled up with bias and propaganda organized secretly by the wealthiest people, mostly Republican and Conservative. When these people are under threat, they will manipulate the election secretly and calculately.

    I will see American continue its way downturn if Hillary Clinton loose the nomination. Wake up American, check candidate's policy and listen carefully what they stand for. Change is nothing without the skills to implement it. Good talking skill is not leadship, becuase it won't endure the test in conflict and in political game.

    Vote for Hillary as she is the best candidate for presidency.

    February 4, 2008 05:44 pm at 5:44 pm |
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