It has been almost three years since I spoke with the president of the United States, and I still get mail about it.
It was July 4, 2001, and we were both at one of those things that the late historian Daniel Boorstin would have labeled a “pseudo event”: a church picnic in Philadelphia, designed to help promote George W. Bush’s faith-based policies. Because I had serious misgivings about the president’s performance to that point, my own involvement in the whole operation had left me feeling a bit like a pseudo person, so when I had the chance to shake Bush’s hand, I said, “Mr. President, I hope you only serve one term. I’m very disappointed in your work so far.”
His smiling response was swift: “Who cares what you think?”
In retrospect, it’s an excellent question. I made a list, and it’s pretty short: My family cares what I think. My friends care. My various employers have cared at various times, as have a generous handful of teachers and mentors. But that’s about it. In the big picture, I’m nobody from nowhere, and the marketplace for my ideas is pretty slim.
A president, of course, is in the opposite position. Everybody cares what he thinks. Huge numbers of people devote themselves to shaping his thoughts and putting them into action. Most of my thoughts evaporate in conversation. His change lives around the globe. So I can understand the pleasure that flashed in his eye when he spoke to me. Mine was an easy lob; his was a smashing return.
But it was an unexpected return, to say the least, and as soon as our handshake was done, I stepped away and pulled out my notebook to write it down. This he noticed, and I heard him call out. I turned to see him 10 or 12 feet farther down the handshake line, craning his neck above the crowd — he’s shorter than I had expected — and looking right at me, asking, “Who do you write for?”
Maybe he thought I was a renegade journalist; the press corps was expressly forbidden to interview people or mingle with the crowd. Or maybe he just wanted to know who was responsible for me, since nobody could get into the picnic unless they were with one of the organizing groups. But I wasn’t trying to speak for anybody, and I certainly wasn’t trying to goad a story out of him, so I stammered that I wasn’t with anybody. As people started to notice, he grinned again and drawled, “Make sure you get it right.”
The entire exchange probably took less than a minute. I slipped back into the crowd and he moved on, shaking hands and clapping backs, a powerful man at ease on a beautiful summer day.
And that would have been that, if it wasn’t for the Internet. The next day, I sent a casual e-mail to about 20 friends, telling the tale and suggesting that “Who Cares What You Think” would look great on T-shirts. Within days, the story had been forwarded all over the world. Hundreds of people wrote back to thank me, or call me names, or find out if the story was true. It leaked into the press in various guises, but at my (now former) employer’s request I never went on the record with it, and I never made T-shirts. Reporters asked the White House about it, but the best they got was what spokesman Scott McClellan told the New York Daily News: “I don’t think I’m going to dignify something so ridiculous with a response.”
But three years later, the e-mails are still coming in, and what they’ve always told me is that neither Bush’s supporters nor his detractors find the story ridiculous at all. Bush-lovers hear an unflinching, confident leader putting a rude whiner in his place. Bush-haters hear a blinkered aristocrat callously dismissing an aggrieved constituent. Both sides, though, have always tended to agree that this sounds like the real Bush. Three subsequent years of uncompromising politics can only have hardened their convictions.
And now, as November approaches, I have to thank the president for pointing me toward exactly the right question. The voters won’t go to the polls thinking only of war or taxes or moral clarity. They’ll be asking themselves, “Does Bush care what I think?”