October 6th, 2008
12:30 PM ET
13 years ago

Greene: The next president's most human role


NASHVILLE, Tennessee (CNN)– It’s the one thing the presidential candidates probably don’t think about.

Which is understandable– they’re stuck in the middle of their contest and in the middle of a global financial crisis, with the days until November 4 quickly growing fewer, like calendar pages in an old-time movie flying one-by-one into the wind.

The candidates are thinking about, and running for, history.

While what they’re also running for, in a seldom-mentioned but curiously moving sense, is to become permanent signposts in the lives of millions of people they will never meet . Something, years from now, those people will use to recall where they were at different junctures in their own lives. Remember that trip we took to the football game, and you lost all your luggage? Oh, I haven’t thought about that in a long time– wasn’t that the year Obama and McCain were running for president?

On the campus of Vanderbilt University over the weekend, with October temperatures in the eighties, the autumn air teased with a false promise that the world will always be warm and beautiful. Songs were blasting out of the fraternity and sorority houses along Kensington Place: songs by the Allman Brothers, songs by Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, songs that would have been heard on college campuses 35 years ago, perhaps blasting from these very same fraternity houses.

It was the weekend of Vanderbilt’s football game against Auburn. In each city where we arrive for the debates, including tomorrow night’s debate in Nashville, we have become accustomed to the sight of television satellite trucks lined up on the streets. It provides the illusion that there is nothing more important in the country than that which we have come to cover.

But the satellite trucks the people at Vanderbilt cared about over the weekend were the ones in town to broadcast the football game. On residences all over campus, signs welcomed the wildly popular ESPN College GameDay show to Vanderbilt, the first time it had ever come here. (It is said that in this country any child can grow up to be president, but over the weekend, at least here, it seemed that what every child would really like to grow up to be is Kirk Herbstreit.)

These were glorious days in Nashville– parents’ weekend at Vanderbilt, the Celebration of Cultures Festival in Centennial Park, with music and food and crafts exhibits near the full-sized replica of the Parthenon. Afternoons to remember.

And one day the candidates– especially the one who becomes president– will serve as reminders of where these people were during these early-autumn days and nights. It’s one of the functions our presidents passively perform.

Marriages, the birth of children, divorces, jobs attained, jobs lost:

Oh, right. Carter was in the White House.

Wasn’t that the fall the first Bush got elected?

Remember? Clinton was president the year we did that.

The candidates– the ones who win, the ones who lose– undoubtedly don’t ruminate much about this role, because it is one they can’t control. A president may (or may not) be the most powerful person in the world– but in hundreds of millions of individual lives, a president is like an old song: something that, when it comes on the radio, reminds you of happy times or sorrowful moments in your own life.

It’s not a presidential duty specified in the Constitution– but in many ways it’s the most emotional presidential duty of all: to be a road sign in all those lives, something that helps us keep our sense of where we are on the twisting highway.

At Hawkins Field, the Vanderbilt baseball stadium, the team was going through fall practice in front of empty seats. A ball flew over the fence; one of the players, wearing black uniform jersey and white uniform pants, left the ballpark to go search for it in some hedges in front of a building across Jess Neely Drive.

In the college baseball stadium, the recorded voice of country singer Mark Wills was playing loudly through the public address speakers to keep the players company. Wills sang of days of thunder and magic summers, and some day these young men practicing baseball in the sun, when they are no longer young and no longer lucky enough to be playing baseball, will think back to where they were in October of 2008.

Oh. Of course.

Great times. Great weather. Great friendships.

Wasn’t that the autumn when Barack Obama and John McCain came to town?

There is history, and then there is history. Obama and McCain, even in the middle of all this, must on occasion look back upon certain days in their own younger lives.

And, remembering, think about who was president then.

Filed under: Bob Greene • Election Express
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