Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Went to see Jimmy Carter tonight. The former president was signing his new book (about his mother) at a Books-A-Million in a strip mall in McLean, Virginia, alongside Total Wine, Countrywide Home Loan, and Advance Auto Parts, and about ten miles west of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. The signing was scheduled for 7:00 p.m. We showed up at 5:00 and about 50 people were already ahead of us in line.

Around 5:45 we were let into the store. The Secret Service searched our bags and checked us out with handheld metal detectors. Then we waited in line again. We were stuck in the Romance section. I’d never browsed that section before. I picked up a copy of Parallel Desire by Deidre Knight. Flipping through it I detected much heaving, blazing, burning, unspent emotion, and swarthy skin, particularly involving Jake and Shelby. (Spoiler alert: I think Jake might be a robot. Or a time traveler. Or both.) Suddenly, around 6:00, the line began moving. The former president, it seemed, was running early.

The middle of the store had been cleared out, and the bookshelves had been covered with black sheets. Mr. Carter was sitting behind a large faux mahogany desk with a red velvet rope in front of it. He was wearing a white dress shirt with blue stripes. It felt a little funereal. Secret Service agents stood sentry at each side of the desk. I handed the books to a Books-A-Million minion, who handed them to the former president. I stepped to the front of the big desk as he began to sign them. It was very quiet. The very arrangement discouraged interaction. I wasn't even sure we were allowed to talk to him. But I was determined to ask him… something. We’d only bought three books for him to sign. Time was running out. Finally, I blurted out, “Mr. President, did you ever meet Harry Truman?” He stopped signing for a moment and looked up at me. His expression was serious. He seemed to be rummaging through his mental filing cabinets. “No,” he said after a moment. “I wish I had.” He resumed signing but continued talking. “I never met another Democratic president until Bill Clinton. I did meet Richard Nixon when I was governor. But I was just a peanut farmer before that, so I never met Harry Truman.” With that our books were signed and it was time for us to move on. The whole thing lasted, what, 30 seconds. Which is more than most everybody else got. At his last book signing, I heard he’d signed 1,600 books in ninety minutes. That’s less than four seconds a book, less than 20 for the allowed maximum of five books.

Incidentally, this was the first time I’d seen Jimmy Carter in 30 years. Back in 1978, he spoke at my brother’s graduation from the Naval Academy in Annapolis. I don’t think he remembered me though.

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