“I was fifteen years old, and I was the senior patrol leader of my Boy Scout troop” my father would always start this story. “We waited at the train station, my whole group of scouts, in our uniforms. We got there 4 hours early to get the best spot. We just knew that when he got off of that train, and saw a pack of scouts, all decked out with their sashes and berets, he would come over to us before he stopped to kiss any babies”.
My father was referring to a day that he would never forget, when he met then Republican-nominee for the office of the Presidency, Dwight D. Eisenhower. The proud five-star general did exactly what my father hoped for: he walked up to the pack of Boy Scouts and shook his hand. Eisenhower would go on to be the President of the United States, and my father would get to join the proud minority of people who can say that they have met the President.
I remember being in Elementary School, and one of the toughest bullies was a redheaded boy named Quincy. Quincy had a long resume of reasons for why he was the one doing the pounding and you were the one doing the fearing. He was tall for his age, far more athletic than I, he didn’t have a curfew, played with fireworks, and in the summer of 1992 he had met Bill Clinton. He waved this fact around like it gave him a free pass to do whatever he pleased. “I’ve met the president, have you met the president Nathan?” he would say, with a smirk before cornering me on the playground. I would mention that my father met Dwight Eisenhower, which apparently was not good enough to spare me from the name-calling, and worse yet, having my pants pulled down.
As years passed I accepted I may never get a chance to shake hands with the President of the United States, a realization that was soothed after I got to shake Jon Bon Jovi’s hand in the line of a Starbucks. “Who needs Presidents, I met Bon Jovi!” I would say, clearly lying to myself about how this run-in comes nowhere near meeting a president. I even came from the same state as the man to come after Bill Clinton, a one brilliant and cultured George W. Bush. I began assuming I didn’t run in the same circles as politicians, but perhaps I could bump into a few more 80s rock stars over the years.
Recent weeks of news watching have turned this fortune around, with a new addition to the race for the 2012 Presidential Campaign. A candidate has emerged that I have not only met, but have had a one-hour conversation with. A candidate I have not only shaken hands with, I’ve had a photo taken with. A candidate that filled me with so much misery I vomited in his presence. In the fall of 2004 I met the Governor of Texas, and now Presidential Candidate Rick Perry, in a manner that I feel contains an immense amount of symbolism to why our government is such a hot mess at the moment.
It was October in Texas; a month where the weather finally begins to cool and the sun goes down earlier. It is finally not a death sentence to go outside and have a barbeque, throw the football, or in my case, run a 10k. The 10k I chose to run was in a small town in North-Central Texas called Dublin, just like the city in Ireland. Dublin is famous in Texas lore because in the middle of downtown is the Dr. Pepper Dublin Brewery, the only place on earth where you can acquire a Texas delicacy called a “Dublin Dr. Pepper”. For all non-Texans reading let me quickly catch you up: A Dublin Dr. Pepper is a Dr. Pepper made to the formula specifications in the original late 19th century recipe. It has real cane sugar in it, along with a lot of other delicious things. It is served in 8 ounce bottles, because 12 ounces, 16 ounces, or a liter may give you instant diabetes. They are truly an experience, and to honor their deliciousness an annual 10k is held. It is about as quaint and small-town of a 10k as there is. As you prepare at the starting line, you are introduced to the “Pretty Peggy Peppers”, a dance-squad formed of high school girls to promote Dublin Dr. Pepper. After a 5-minute chat with Peggy #4 I found out it was actually a pretty big honor. Being a Pretty Peggy Pepper came with a long list of obligations, including parades, civic gatherings, and high school pep rallies. In return for these services Dr. Pepper gave her an immense amount of scholarship money. I was suddenly proud of Texas and Dr. Pepper, because I was sure Coke or Pepsi would never think of having such a thing. Before the race started I asked Peggy what Dr. Pepper’s PhD was actually in, a joke that went straight over her head. She must not have picked that college to use the scholarship at quite yet.
As I began running the 10k, I heard a mass of whoops and screams behind me in the pack, screams that intensified even louder as they seemed to be directly behind me. I was then quickly passed on my left by a tall man in his 40s, with bouncy, resilient hair and sunglasses on. Soon after he passed me a Green tractor whooshed around us, with 2 men dangling off the back in suits with earpieces in. It was the most confusing sight I had ever seen, I didn’t think anybody in Dublin, Texas even owned a suit, let alone would wear it while dangling off of the back of a tractor. A random woman in the crowd screamed “I love you Governor Perry!” and the man next to me with the flowing hair and sunglasses replied back “thank you, God Bless!” It all made sense now. I was in a neck and neck race with the Governor of Texas.
The tractor was carrying the Governor’s two bodyguards, and a photographer as well who I couldn’t see before. The two men sat on the back of the tractor, emotionless, looking over the Governor’s shoulders and occasionally checking up on me. I will go to the grave when I tell this story to remind everyone that I was not trying to hang with the governor just to get in the newspaper, but that we were running at the exact same pace. We then commenced the most awkward conversation you will ever have with a moderately significant politician. I would imagine it was worse for him than it was for me. Politicians are used to getting in and out, they want to get to know you in 14.2 seconds and move on to the next person to shake hands with and ask for their vote. Governor Perry was stuck with my sweaty ass for the next 45 minutes, a small-town Texas purgatory of discussion. He asked me where I went to college, and when I replied “LSU” he asked why I didn’t want to be a Longhorn, Aggie or Mustang. When he asked if I planned on returning to Texas after college, and I promptly said “no”, he looked at his watch, frustrated and dejected that he hadn’t chosen to run next to a gun-shooting, flag-waving, steak-consuming Texan. Every time I gave a response that alluded to having a lack of loyalty to Texas, the two bodyguards squinted at me even harder. I imagined they had already sent my photos to the Texas Rangers, and that Chuck Norris was in an office somewhere in Austin making sure I wasn’t a terrorist. I wasn’t loud or disrespectful, but I also wasn’t going to kiss his ass, and by sitting right between these two extremes I drove him absolutely nuts.
The conversation was getting harder for me to have for an entirely different reason. While the governor had a perfectly clear path before him, I was running straight into the back of his tractor-detail, complete with all of the exhaust and fumes going straight into my mouth and nose. I huffed and puffed, pleading in my head for the tractor to move. I thought about falling back in the pack to get some fresh air, but how often do you get to say you are running alongside the Governor of Texas? I couldn’t give up now, because in so many ways Rick Perry would win if I did. He would win because the Texas-defector is a wimp. He would win because the annoying 20-year-old democrat running alongside him couldn’t handle some fumes. He would win in the sense that we were indeed running a 10k, something my competitive instincts couldn’t think about.
A mile later the tractor fumes were beginning to turn me all kinds of unnatural colors. My exhausted body craved air, and all of it got were the same emissions that I’m sure he didn’t give two shits about as a Republican governor. Finally, with only 2 more miles to go, I stumbled off of the course and puked my brains out into a cow pasture. The governor didn’t even notice, but his two bodyguards did, as they looked relieved that I was no longer running alongside their prized possession.
I ended up finishing the Dublin Dr. Pepper 10k in last place. After commencing vomiting I tried to run again and stepped in a pothole, twisting my ankle. I limped across the finish line, still feeling queasy and truly despising Governor Perry. “If the governor of Texas has to have bodyguards, why can’t they just run the race too?” I thought to myself. As I was stumbling into the car, I heard my father yelling for me from across the parking lot. “Nate, come here, the Governor of Texas is here, you can get your picture with him!” I looked at the ground, again nauseated. I painfully winced instead of smiling with the Governor, trying not to say anything I may regret if I ever choose to run for office. My dad put his arm around me, as we walked back to the car: “He could be president one day, think of what this photo would mean then!”
As I think back on that day, I can’t help but see many parallels between my run with the Governor and the relationship that regular Americans have with their politicians. Rick Perry did not want for me to ingest lethal doses of vehicle exhaust, it was just the collateral damage of running alongside a politician. When politicians actually show their faces in public, it is such an event that they don’t even resemble human beings anymore. They are just pawns, being forced into mascot roles for the ideologies of those around them. Rick Perry is not an evil person, all of the conservative ya-hoos that pay for his advertising are. As we ran that day, Rick Perry didn’t know how to discuss things with me because I was deliberately not playing the role of “obnoxious Liberal” or “stone-cold Conservative”. This is because sanity lives in the middle ground. Our government has become about as efficient as a turtle running a delivery service, and the reason why is that our government is being run by the most polarized, over the top representations of left and right you could find. Of course you will have deadlock and fighting when you put a Bible thumping square in the same room with a Lesbian, drug-using, Union representative. Regular Americans aren’t this polarized, so why should our politics be? If this were the case maybe we could actually fix the real issues, not waste time arguing about abortion and gay marriage.
So it turns out I may have what I lacked as a child, my very own “when I met the president story”. I frankly hope it doesn’t come down to that, because that would mean Rick Perry became president, and I would have to relocate to an island somewhere in the Pacific to remain sane. I guess if it came down to him and Michelle Bachmann, I’d have to send my best hopes to Governor Perry. Michelle Bachmann may actually be a demon sent to kill us all.