We got to leave school early, the vice president was coming to Roselle Park. He was not coming to stay or make a speech, he was driving through. We were allowed to join the crowd at the head of Chestnut and Westfield Avenue to see his motorcade pass by.
Businesses emptied, schools closed, the crowd was huge. That I got to stand on a car bumper, a hundred or so feet back, had me a head above the crowd. Filled with a sea of parents, teachers, shop owners, store clerks and kids, Chestnut Street was packed almost its entire length of three blocks. It was one of the most exciting moments of my life.
Like a sound wave rolling over the crowd, “He’s coming, he’s coming” flowed to the back. And there, where the roads came together, flashing lights and a convertible with the top down. Sitting on the trunk, feet on the back seat, Richard and Pat Nixon. Mr. Nixon looked energized, Pat looked terrified.
They were only to drive by but by the grace of a traffic jam and more people up on the avenue, the convertible stopped. Mr. Nixon stood, steadied himself on the backseat, and spoke. With no microphone his voice was lost beyond the first few rows but we didn’t care, it was the vice president and his wife. It was the man running for president.
After a few minutes, Mr. Nixon sat, the motorcade moved on and we dispersed. That was the year a sweaty lip and gleaming forehead lost to a cool candidate with a face covered in make-up.
Years later when my youngest daughter was a little older than I was when Nixon came to town, Sen. Bill Bradley of New Jersey was running against Al Gore for the democratic presidential primary. He was coming to the Diner in Old Saybrook. Because I remembered the importance of my little-girl encounter with politics years before, my little girl and I had to go.
We were early, I picked my daughter up from school. He was late.
Among the few hundred who showed up we got a spot in front by the entrance stairs. Not an overly popular candidate at the time, I was surprised by how many people showed up.
Sen. Bradley stepped off his bus. Basketball Hall of Famer, he was easy to spot, a head above the crowd. As he approached us, I reached out my hand, we shook and then he reached for my daughter’s hand. They shook
“Hi honey,” he said as he climbed stairs and disappeared into the diner.
“He shook my hand, he called me honey,” she said beaming with pride.
For the rest of the day she said that phrase over and over again.
Bill Bradley lost the primary that year. Richard Nixon lost the year I saw him. But winning or losing or getting caught up in a hail of dirty tricks isn’t my point. Regardless of one’s opinions, and whether our perceptions of them were correct, it was a time when our leaders were either good or bad.
Back then “tricky” was a pretty awful way to describe a president or candidate, but now, evasive, divisive, heartless and clueless seem to be the new political adjectives. I’m not touting the value of the “good old days”, (there was a lot not good then too), and I’m not proselytizing any candidate, I’m pushing for common sense in a climate of political madness.