Sixty years ago, during the late summer of 1948, my father announced that he had a treat for his 7-year-old son. He sat me down in the front seat of his 1940 Mercury four-door sedan and we drove downtown to the D&R G.W. Depot (now Giuseppe’s) to see President Harry Truman.
The president wasn’t here to cut ribbons — he was locked in a fierce battle for the presidency with New York Gov. Tom Dewey.
My father was no Democrat, to put it mildly, but he thought it was important that his son see the president of the United States.
“Give ’em Hell” Harry, as his supporters liked to call him, was on a whistlestop tour of Colorado. This campaign device, old-fashioned even then, called for the president to board a train and ride down the line, making a quick speech at every stop.
The train pulled into the station, and there was the president, grinning at the crowd from a platform at the back of the caboose. Flanked by Colorado Gov. Lee Knous and Sen. “Big Ed” Johnson, he ripped off a standard stump speech to a small but delighted crowd.
Caught up in the moment, I was cheering for Harry, even though my father tried to hush me.
I thought about Harry Truman last week while covering Barack Obama’s appearance at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs.
Like Harry, Barack ripped off a standard stump speech. Like Harry, he aimed his remarks at a small, largely adoring crowd. And like Harry, he’s locked in a fierce battle against an able opponent.
But unlike Harry, he’s not really here — he lives, as does John McCain, in a strange and scary alternative reality called Presidentland.
Harry Truman wouldn’t recognize Presidentland — but it’s a lot like the make-believe world that Jim Carrey inhabited in “The Truman Show.”
When Dad drove me down to the depot, there was no security to speak of — just a couple of bored cops. We parked the car, walked down to the tracks and waited. The president spoke extemporaneously, riffing off a few notes on a makeshift podium.
There was no TV — the Springs wouldn’t have TV until 1952. Truman, a sitting president, was just a guy in a suit with other guys in suits.
But last week, the modest gym at UCCS became part of Presidentland. Security was ubiquitous — local cops, bomb-sniffing dogs and cold-eyed men and women from the Secret Service. Every room, every person and every object was swept, scanned and searched. A dozen media trucks were lined up outside the building and scores of cables snaked along the ground to trip the unwary.
The Obama campaign had deployed more than 100 volunteers to stage the event. Inside the gym, raised platforms accommodated multiple TV cameras, while national media were lined up with laptops at a row of tables close to the podium. Fluidly typing as Obama spoke, they could have been second-year law students taking notes in class.
Local print media were stuck in the back of the bus, granted a row of chairs behind one of the TV platforms. All members of the media were separated from invitees by steel fencing and confined to designated bathrooms. We were — it was clear — second-class citizens, to be tolerated, controlled and then discarded.
The invitees presented a suitably working class/middle class/hard working, down-to-earth, diverse image to the TV audience. With few exceptions, they appeared to be as carefully chosen as, say, the contestants on American Idol. No guys in Prada suits, no women in Carolina Herrera — just salt-of-the-earth Americans, whose grandparents no doubt voted for Harry Truman.
Obama appeared and gave a powerful, inspirational and apparently unscripted speech — but it wasn’t. Inconspicuous teleprompters allowed him to read smoothly and easily from a prepared text. Speech concluded, he worked a ropeline for a few minutes and departed, as did Presidentland.
It was, like a rock concert or an NFL game — strange, primitive, distant, bizarre and ordinary. Presidentland is more than the protective cocoon of security that surrounds each candidate — it’s a world.
Benjamin Bratt, who once dated Julia Roberts, described her celebrity as a continual, incessant, inescapable buzz.
But compared to Presidentland, Bratt was living on a ranch in the Dakotas.
The candidate is forever onstage, forever before worshipful crowds, forever fawned over and seldom reminded of his own fallibility or mortality. Presidentland confuses and deludes its occupants.
That explains, perhaps, Bill Clinton’s lechery and George W. Bush’s gradual exit from the “reality-based community.”
While president, Harry Truman played poker with his cronies, threatened to punch a theater critic in the snout and took evening walks from the White House. He lived in America — not Presidentland.
Truman left the White House as he had entered it — modest, feisty and sensible.
But whichever candidate is elected, Presidentland will leave him sadly transformed. If feisty, he’ll become arrogant. If modest, messianic. If sensible, demented.
It’d be nice if either candidate could exit Presidentland and become a person. But it won’t happen — except to the loser. Then he’ll be free to pitch Viagra, win the Nobel Prize and live like an actual human being.
And as for the winner … what did the old pirate say? “Aaar, Jim lad, them as died was the lucky ’uns!”
John Hazlehurst can be reached at John.Hazlehurst@csbj.com or 227-5861.