Friday, October 14, 2005

I've been watching a lot of old Dick Van Dyke shows, as you might have guessed, and thinking, Darnit, I wish I was living Rob Petrie's life.

That, by the way, includes wishing that it was 1961, I'm 32 years old, commuting into New York City every day to write for a television show, and wearing a white shirt with a skinny black tie everywhere, even when I'm home at night watching television with my beautiful well-coiffed ex-dancer wife or playing bridge with the kooky but loveable neighbors from next door.

It also means I wish that we had parties like the Petries, with lots of our attractive friends, all of whom can sing or dance or tell jokes or hypnotize the host's wife at the drop of a hat and make her deliver the Gettysburg Address.

Up until the other day I thought I was fantasizing about living a fantasy. You know it's a fantasy of suburban life circa 1960, because none of those attractive guests at the Petries' parties is holding a highball glass.

But maybe it's not. It dawned on me recently that it's not Rob Petrie's fantasy life I'm envying. It's Carl Reiner's real life. Reiner, the creator, producer, and chief writer of the Dick Van Dyke Show, based the premise and many of the stories on his own experience as a second banana for Sid Caesar. He didn't write for Your Show of Shows and its successors---whenever he tried to contribute a joke or an idea for a sketch, the show's head writer, who was nothing like Rob Petrie, would remind him, kindly, "What the fuck do you know? You're just a fucking actor." But Reiner wrote in his spare time at home and his best friend on the show's staff was a young writer named Mel somebody or other. Mel Streams. Mel Rivers. Mel something to do with running water. Did an act with Reiner at parties, like the parties at Rob and Laura's, in which he pretended to be a man 2000 years old and Reiner interviewed him about famous events from history like the time Murray discovered "ladies."

Mel Creeks?

What ever became of that guy?

At any rate, I'm reading one of Reiner's books of memoirs, My Anecdotal Life, and it turns out that he's led something of a charmed life. A very talented guy who's been very lucky, who also worked very hard and earned his luck, and through it all managed to remain a decent guy.

You got to hate him.

One of Reiner's writer heroes is Mark Twain, so one of the proudest moments in his life was when President Clinton presented him with the Mark Twain Prize.

There was a big awards ceremony for television, but Clinton asked Reiner to come to the White House the next day so he could pin the medal on him personally.

The whole Reiner family was invited and showed up. Reiner's wife, children, grandchildren, nieces, nephews, grandnieces and grandnephews, and Reiner's brother Charlie, who was losing a long battle with cancer but was going down swinging. Charlie insisted on showing up even though he had to come in a wheelchair.

Some friends of Reiner's were there too. Dick Van Dyke, Mary Tyler Moore, Jerry Seinfeld, Steve Martin, all of them gathered around a table in a meeting room off the Oval Office.

Clinton comes in, presents Reiner with his medal, and then shakes hands with everybody there.

Clinton never just shakes hands. Shaking hands with Bill Clinton means you talk with Bill Clinton. Secret Service hates this, of course. So do his advance people. He's late for everything because of it. Clinton once came to Syracuse. Took him two hours to get out of the airport. So Clinton has little chats with all of Reiner's family and friends. Last person he comes to is Reiner's brother Charlie.

Reiner makes the introductions, and then, because Clinton had recently been to Normandy for the 50th Anniversary of D-Day, Reiner tells the President that Charlie had been in 11 major battles in World War II, including the invasion of Normandy.

"D-Day, Omaha Beach?" Clinton asks.

"No," says Charlie, "Utah Beach, D-Day plus four." And tells the President he was with the 27th Infantry, Ninth Division, First Army.

Clinton says, "Your outfit took Ste Marie l'Eglise and St Malo?"

Charlie's amazed. "How did you know that?"

Clinton grins. "I read a lot."

For the next 15 minutes the two of them talk. Charlie's in his wheelchair, of course, so Clinton sits down on the edge of the table to get closer to his level. They talk about the war and about the ceremony at Normandy and some of the things Clinton heard from the veterans that day. Fifteen minutes. At one point an aide comes in to tell the President his helicopter's waiting to take him somewhere. Clinton waves him off. "Tell 'em I'll be there in a minute." And he and Charlie talk some more.

Keep in mind who else is in that room. Besides Carl Reiner, there's Rob Reiner, Jerry Seinfeld, Steve Martin, Dick Van Dyke, and Mary Tyler Moore. Mary Tyler Moore's right there. Sure, she's older, but you've seen her, she looks great, and, come on, it's Bill Clinton. But he's not talking to her. He's not talking to the celebrities.

All of his attention is focused on a dying old man in a wheelchair.

Where it ought to be.

I don't want anybody putting in the comments any comparisons between Bill and George Bush, because it just wouldn't be fair. It would be like putting Abraham Lincoln next to John Adams and complimenting Lincoln on being a foot taller. In fact, it would be like standing all the Presidents in a line and deciding Lincoln's the greatest because he's the tallest. (Or does Lyndon Johnson have him by a fraction of an inch?) We're talking about a gift here. This is Clinton's gift, the way he was favored by the gods. No President was as good at this as he is.

Lincoln could come close. LBJ, but there was always an element of bullying in Johnson's good old boy friendliness.

Other Presidents who are supposed to have had a special rapport with people, Reagan, FDR, JFK, George Washington---really, everybody who met him fell in love with Washington---were really more the beneficiaries of people's projected emotions. They accepted adulation with a special grace that looked like understanding.

But Bill's out there all alone, far ahead of them. His special grace is that he does understand. He's an empath, which makes him practically a Martian. Like I said, it's a gift. But gifts aren't admirable unless they are put to use in the right ways.

I hate the book Primary Colors and I only don't hate the movie version because of John Travolta's remarkable Clinton impersonation. Both the book and the movie are cartoons. But there's one scene that strikes me as true, so true that I think it must have been taken from life. In fact, I know that there have been plenty of moments like it in Clinton's life.

It's the scene in which the aide who is the protagonist of the story comes looking for his candidate, Governor Jack Stanton, in his hotel room late at night and discovers Stanton's snuck out. The aide's baffled and a bit anxious, worried Stanton's out tomcatting around, but he happens to look out the hotel room window and he sees across the parking lot a diner. The diner's lit up but there are only two nighthawks in it. The counterman and the candidate.

The counterman is talking, yakking away, a long, long story that probably has no point, no punchline, and no importance to anybody but him. But Stanton's attention is riveted on him. He's hanging on every word. And he's smiling. A great big smile of pure joy. He's where he wants to be, doing what he wants to do, putting his gift to work.

I know that if that didn't happen exactly like that it happened in a hundred variations.

It happened that day in the White House, when Charlie met Bill and they talked.


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