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Thanks, but I'm Not Hurrying to Meet Mr. Clinton : Any chance meeting with the President in Van Nuys would have paled next to a close encounter of a strange kind years ago with Richard Nixon.

May 30, 1993|JOHN R. CARROLL | John Carroll is a free-lance journalist from Van Nuys

Since I live around the corner from Valley College, friends were amazed that I was not going to wander across campus to hear President Clinton during his visit this month.

I had decided one presidential encounter in a lifetime is enough.

My family lived in San Clemente in the '60s. It was a sleepy town boasting a movie theater, a couple of drug stores and nary a McDonald's or 7-Eleven in sight.

That is, until Richard Nixon decided to buy property there. The "Western White House" changed the face of San Clemente forever. It became hysterical at the mere mention of Dick, Pat, Tricia or Julie. Remember, this was pre-Watergate, pre-Cambodia, pre-Agnew scandal, in a galaxy far, far away.

It was his first visit after buying Casa Nixon. I was a high school senior. Townsfolk were expected to greet his presidential helicopter on the new presidential heliport adjacent to his presidential beach.

The morning of his arrival, I was out there. The high school band had practiced "Hail to the Chief" for weeks, business had closed down, local schools let out. We stood in the empty field for hours, gazing skyward for any sign of the helicopter that would bring the Chief Executive to our tiny town.

When it finally appeared, the town played its part as perfectly as if in a Frank Capra film. The band played, the people cheered, the demonstrators demonstrated. The helicopter door opened, and a swarm of Secret Service men emerged, followed by, yes, the President of the United States and his wife.

The crowd swarmed as he talked, but no one listened. Getting into a convertible, he waved his arms in the air like Rich Little doing a bad impersonation of Nixon. The car drove through the crowds toward the gates of his house, Tricky Dick standing on the back seat shaking hands. People lunged for a chance to touch the hand that had petted Checkers. I held out my hand and, sure enough, he leaned down to shake it.

At that moment, a large woman filled with patriotism pushed forward to scream, "We love you, Mr. President!" She bumped me, and my outstretched hand missed the President's palm. Instead, my fourth finger went up his jacket sleeve and my senior ring caught on his watchband.

The President's eyes and mine locked for an instant, as we both realized what was happening. My hand was caught up in the suit sleeve of the President of the United States, and the driver of the car, unaware of this, continued driving. Nixon realized what was wrong as I did. I started trotting alongside the car, him twisting his hand, me jiggling my ring.

The crowd, thinking I was just a hometown boy caught up in the excitement, cheered me as I was all but pulled along. The Secret Service men moved in to side-check. I heard the President's watchband snap as my ring was pulled free and I fell back into the crowd. Rubbing his wrist, he looked at me in disbelief as the car went up the driveway.

When, much later, Nixon resigned and moved away, all the presidential specials went back to being just plain old San Clemente souvenirs.

But even now, after getting through the Ford and Carter administrations, limping through Reagan and Bush, anticipating Clinton, I know that no President will ever mean more to me than the one with the silver watchband.

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