alternate history

Meeting the President

Because of my habit of saying awkward things to famous people, I was determined not to say anything to Al Gore last week. We were in the same room because he was getting an award at the Interfaith Center of New York’s annual dinner, where I was filling out the table of a friend and donor to the center where I work. Despite my determination, at the cocktail reception I found myself turning around and suddenly shaking hands with the most famous person in the room.

As he took my hand in his, he looked right into my eyes and greeted me with respect and openness. For a long moment, I felt as if I were the only person in the room with him. It was dazzling. This is remarkable when you consider how often he has had to greet strangers. Summoning the psychic energy to do so over and over again with genuine respect, or even its convincing simulacrum, must require monastic levels of strength and discipline. I once saw the performance artist Marina Abramovic make a moving piece out of honoring strangers one by one with her full attention in the atrium of the Museum of Modern Art. Gore’s presence was equally striking.

I had a front row seat to his remarks later in the evening. He was introduced and humanized for the crowd by his daughter Karenna Gore Schiff. She recounted her childhood admiration of her father’s ability to balance large objects on his nose for long periods of time. He had once, she said, explained the theory of nuclear disarmament by using salt and pepper shakers at the dinner table. As a girl, she had confronted him one morning with the front page of the Washington Post, showing the picture of a woman suffering in the Bosnian conflict, and asked why America wasn’t doing more to help. That same day Gore told this story to Clinton’s national security team, kicking off a conversation that eventually changed US policy. From the surprised reaction of James Parks Morton, a Gore family friend sharing the stage with her, I surmised that this wasn’t the usual patter trotted out to personalize her father’s public appearances.

Then Gore got up and cast his spell over the room. Because of my time in the Whiffenpoofs and my work in New York’s not-for-profit galaxy, I have been to my share of fancy dinners with the 1%, and one of their tribal quirks is to talk through events where basic politeness would require silence (as when the Whiffenpoofs are singing, for example). I can’t explain this behavior, but I have come to expect it, so the silence in the room during Gore’s remarks surprised me.

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