In 1996, a gathering of well-known people came to celebrate my father’s 85th birthday. It was, however, a strange event for me because my father couldn’t be there. Two years into the long goodbye of Alzheimer’s, he was no longer attending public gatherings.
I’d flown from New York, where I was living, to L.A. for the party at Chasen’s restaurant, which had been shut down for a year but was re-opened for this one night. Larry King Live was there via satellite and my sister Maureen and I were to be interviewed live for his show at the start of the evening.
Sitting beside Maureen in a leather booth, microphones clipped to our collars, with Larry King on the monitor, I saw Newt Gingrich in the doorway getting miked up. I leaned over to Maureen and whispered, “Oh no, Newt Gingrich is going to sit by me. God is really testing me tonight.”
Of course the microphone at my throat picked up everything. The next day, my comment would be reported in The Washington Post and beyond. But right then, I had to deal with the fact that here was Newt, sliding into the booth beside me. When Larry asked me how I felt about the evening, I said it was bittersweet because my father was not able to come. Newt looked at me and said something like, “Yes, I’d imagine it’s difficult.” And I swear he seemed genuine and empathic.
After the interview, Maureen decided what I needed was a good stiff drink – stiffer than my usual glass of Chardonnay. You know how British people believe tea is a remedy for everything? Maureen felt that way about vodka. I can’t entirely blame Grey Goose for what happened next – I wasn’t drunk, just mildly impaired – but I do think it was partially to blame.
I decided it would be a generous and gracious act on my part to thank Newt for being sensitive to how hard the evening was for me. Maybe my gratitude would inspire him to be like that more often. I really believed I was embarking on a worthy mission when I later said to him, “I want to tell you that while I loathe your politics, I enjoyed spending a few minutes with you earlier, and I felt you were being quite sensitive to how difficult this evening is for my family.”
“I was just responding to you as a human being,” he said.
“I know. And that’s how this nation and this world are going to change – from people responding with their hearts. Politics isn’t going to change America.”
“On that we agree,” he replied.
I was quite proud of myself. I refilled my glass at the bar and reported my conversation to Maureen.
“You used the word ‘loathe’?” she asked.
“I think it’s important to be honest,” I told her.
After mingling with some other guests, I went back to her a bit later and told her again about my exchange with Newt, forgetting that I already had. She took away my vodka.
“Fine,” I said. “I still think I did a good thing for God and country.”
“Uh-huh. Have a cup of coffee and stay away from Newt.”
Now, 16 years later, with Newt’s recent surge in the polls, I’ve been thinking about that night and wondering what it was, aside from the Grey Goose, that made me want to have another exchange with him.
I think I might have figured it out.
People who brim over with arrogant self-confidence have a strange magnetic pull on us, even if our rational minds tell us they aren’t worth our time. It’s like the bully in school – you don’t like him, but secretly you kind of want him to like you. Or at least approve of you. The kind of arrogance that Newt has – that allows him to say “I have grandiose thoughts,” as he did in the South Carolina debate last week – is a mystery to most of us. In some corner of our brains, we wonder if maybe he knows things we don’t. It’s not a logical thought, but it’s in there.