Bookselling has afforded me many opportunities to meet great writers and public figures. I've detailed my encounters with Philip Roth, Joyce Carol Oates and Thich Nhat Hanh during the past year in this blog. However, as I sat in an overheated middle school auditorium waiting to cast my vote for Barack Obama in Colorado's caucus on Tuesday, I realized that if Obama wins, I can add a United States President to my celebrity list.
It's not a pretty story, and if Obama were a hawkish right-wing Republican who might gleefully classify big-mouth booksellers as enemy combatants, I'd already be looking for property in Canada. Our encounter occurred at the 2006 Book Expo America in Washington, D.C. during a Crown Publishing dinner at the Occidental Restaurant on Pennsylvania Avenue. The restaurant--a very staid eatery with hundreds of portraits of formerly powerful white men on the walls--bills itself as the place "where statesman dine." You can see why that's true. No normal human being would subject themselves to a five-course meal while being stared at by the members of Richard Nixon's cabinet.
The Crown party, featuring not only Obama, but Juan Williams, Ina Garten, Michael Isikoff and Gillian Flynn, was the top event of that year's Book Expo and there was quite a bit of internal discussion about who on our staff would get to go. I was accompanied by our young marketing manager who was new to the book business and fairly naive about politics. We arrived early and headed straight to the bar. Obama, who was promoting Audacity of Hope, had not yet arrived and, in fact, the rumors were that he might not make it to the dinner at all.
At the bar, we fell into an entertaining conversation with Flynn about her debut novel Sharp Objects. It was the type of novel, a mystery, that I probably would never read. I feigned interest as I scanned the room searching for a luminary to pounce upon. Gradually, I was drawn in by the attractive Flynn and her tales of Hollywood's elites. She's the television critic for Entertainment Weekly. I asked her if she was ever intimidated by a star, at which she laughed and said that actually the only actor who ever made her nervous was Dennis Quaid. "Dennis Quaid?" I screamed out. Then Flynn quickly explained that she'd had a crush on him since she was a girl.
Eventually, our tight, fairly drunken circle was broken up when one of Crown's publicists introduced a few other booksellers to Flynn. I wandered off and, in my desire to snag another drink, basically ran over Ina Garten. I was busy apologizing when I suddenly realized who she was. "But you're wearing shoes!" I stammered. She gave me a look of mild reproach. "Is the whole 'barefoot' thing just a marketing ploy?" I asked with genuine shock in my voice. "My God," I thought, "does the Naked Chef wear clothes when he cooks?" Finally, she broke the tension by laughing. She told me about the dessert that she had created for that evening's meal. It involved strawberries and balsamic vinegar and sounded like something that would go horribly wrong if attempted at home.
By this time, the bar was mobbed and still there was no sign of Barack Obama. I was rehearsing what I might say to him if I got the chance when I caught a few words in Juan Williams' familiar voice booming across the room. Everything I imagined saying to Obama suddenly sounded like the slurred ravings of a groupie. My internal monologue was interrupted by Crown's attempt to get us to sit down at our assigned tables. It was then, as I was moving from the bar, that Obama entered the room.
He was taller than I imagined, but more slight--all elbows and shoulders and chin on first impression. A coterie of editors and publicists guided him through the bar. I stood at a safe distance observing how firmly he shook everyone's hand and how easily a smile came to his lips. It was a crazy scene, with dozens of people vying for his attention. I figured at most I'd get a quick handshake as the whisked him over to a more important bookseller or media member.
Ironically, I was missing a book group discussion about his first book, Dreams From My Father, back in Boulder. My wife had spent the previous two weeks reading his autobiography in preparation for the discussion and she had read a few passages out loud to me. The language was surprisingly lyrical and my wife, a tough reader, had been impressed by his writing style. Since I knew I was going to miss the group, I hadn't even cracked open the book. These thoughts were in my mind as I felt someone grasp my elbow. It was my Random House regional sales manager.
"Do you want to meet him?" she asked.
"Of course!" I answered back.
She guided me through the hordes of people and a moment later I was in front of the Illinois senator. He stuck out his hand and gripped mine as I told him who I was. It was like a cheesy movie scene: everyone seemed to fade away, the din of dozens of conversations slipped to a whisper as he focused on me. I had to fill that silence. I needed to hold his attention for a moment more.
"I just finished reading Dreams From My Father," I lied. He paused a beat and once again I rushed in to fill the void. "I expected a fascinating story, but I was surprised by how strong the writing is. It's really well written for a politician."
His face broke into a broad grin. "Well, Arsen, that's setting the bar pretty low."
"I didn't mean it like that. I just meant..." What the hell did I mean? I didn't even read his book and now I had insulted him.
Things took a down turn when he patted me on the shoulder and said, "I'm just honored that you read it." Now the guilt from my lying and insulting was in full force. I could feel the blood rushing to my bald head.
In desperation I changed the conversation to safer ground. "Are you going to tour for this new book?" I asked.
"We are going to try to do a few things, but I have a pretty busy schedule."
"You have to come to Boulder. It's a tailor-made town for you. We'd sell out a theater in a heartbeat if you came."
"I'd love to get to Boulder," he said. "We'll see if we can work something out."
I sensed the crowd pushing in on us. Our fleeting moment together was nearing it's end. I looked at the portraits on the walls of staid white men surrounding us and motioned to them. "It would be amazing, if you ended it up on the wall in here one day," I said.
He laughed again and as the smile left his lips his attention was already being pulled towards another bookseller. My moment was over and I slinked back into the crowd wondering why I spent our brief time together lying and insulting him.
The rest of the evening went by in a fog. I sat at a large round table with Isikoff, who bonded with a few women from a tiny bookstore in West Virginia, and completely ignored me. About midway through the meal, I began to think that perhaps the Hubris in the title of his new book referred to himself rather than the Bush administration.
Meanwhile, the bookstore's young marketing manager sat next to Juan Williams. She had no idea who he was and when he told her that he worked for both Fox News and National Public Radio she quizzed him on how that was possible. "Aren't they complete opposites?" Williams patted her on the forearm and assured her he was capable of being a good reporter for both.
Later, when she learned that his book Enough basically blamed the plight of many African Americans on their own leaders and themselves, she asked him about the huge amount of racism and white privilege in our society. Again, he condescended to her and told her that his was a realistic look at the situation.
The crowning glory of the evening for her came when the main course arrived. She looked at the crayfish with their heads attached and proclaimed that she wasn't interested in eating anything with eyes. Williams let out a laugh and said, "You're such a child."
When I met up with her at the end of the dinner, she recounted the conversations with Williams and said she couldn't leave fast enough. It turned out that, aside from her awkward exchanges with Williams, her dessert plate was significantly more vinegar than fruit. I told her that I wanted one last chance to speak to Obama and make amends for my fibbing. Unfortunately, as we made our way over to his table, it was apparent that he'd left long before dessert was even served. My chance to set the record straight was gone.
The other day as I sat in the caucus casting my vote for Obama, I thought of that dinner of nearly two years ago. My whole life I've been lied to by presidents from Nixon to Reagan to Clinton to both Bushes. If Obama gets elected, I'll have finally turned the tables and lied to a President.
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