Meeting President Nixon – 1979

I have something else about America, this land of communists!

The United States, the newest and brightest nation, after breaking the rigid class bonds inherited from Europe, had set out on a fiercely ambitious democratic agenda, coupled with robust economic growth. The benchmark set by America pushed also the rest of the world into a new trajectory of competition. I met, by complete serendipity, the president of the United States who was one of the architects of the American foreign policy.

This incident happened in 1979.

Two years after the San Jose Police incident, I had straightened out my act and was doing great. I was now looking for a new adventure and a new town to explore. And in 1979, after having flown from San Francisco for an eleven o’clock job interview in San Clemente (Southern California), I was hungry like hell and stopped for a meal at the nearest McDonalds before the interview. I still had an hour to spare. There was a line at the restaurant, with two people ahead of me, three behind. I despised the two who were ahead of me, since my stomach was growling like a trumpet.

It was loud enough that the guy behind me could hear it. I turned around with a foolish smirk trying to tell him that my stomach was a stupid stomach. The guy smiled back at me knowing that he understood my dilemma. Then, it struck me like a thunder. The guy wasn’t an ordinary guy. The guy was the former president of the United States, Richard Nixon! The two guys behind him were the Secret Service Agents who were assigned to the former president’s protection.

I knew him instantly from all the pictures I had seen of him. I panicked. This was a typical response when an African meets authority figures. I didn’t know what to do. Suddenly I had this urge to pee. I started calling God in my native language.

“Tossento, Tossento, Tossento!” I said silently.

Then I mustered the courage to speak. “Mr. President, please go ahead of me,” I said trembling. He knew instantly I wasn’t American; I can tell. He smiled that famous Nixon smile, seemingly directed to all humanity.

He wasn’t condescending at all. In fact, he was respectful.

“It’s okay young man; I have time,” he said curtly.

“No, Mr. President. It’s not right for me to be ahead of you,” I argued.

From the back, the Secret Service Agent didn’t like the fact I was being persistent. His contorted face spoke to me to back off. The President wants to remain incognito and I was making a spectacle. I got the message.

Oh, how I wish to tell them that I was from Africa, though!

I mean my story.

Here was the former President of the United States, going about his business just as an ordinary man, unencumbered, casual, and nonplused.

Only in America! What a great communist country!

Where else can you find in this planet where a leader, former or current, deemed himself equal with the common man? That day, after having my breakfast, completely mesmerized by the event that took place, I cancelled going for my interview. Forget the job! For a Griot this was just a big job, too much to fathom and too much to digest.

I am going to tell my people someday about the communist president of the United States.

“America typifies capitalism. How could their leader be a communist?” they will ask.

Would they believe my story? He looked content for a man who had gone through the grueling process of the Watergate scandal. He was, without doubt, the president of the United States.

And yet, he was the epitome of any regular man on an American street, nothing more, nothing less. Actually, the behavior of retired American presidents reveals their immortality even more.

Theodore Roosevelt, who won the Nobel Prize for negotiating the end of Russo-Japanese War went on an expletory mission to South America to see the beginning and the end of the River of Doubt, later renamed Rio Roosevelt River.

Accompanied by a famous Brazilian explorer Candido Rondon, Roosevelt, entranced by the idea of adventure and challenge went into this interminable expedition along with his son, Kermit. From the beginning the expedition was fraught with myriad problems. They faced diseases such as malaria, tuberculosis, fatigue, fever, nausea and vomiting in the Amazon. To add insults to injuries, attacks from the natives made their journey impossible. As if all that weren’t enough, internal bickering among the crew members, resulting in one crew member killed by another made the president’s dream a nightmare. Before the expedition was over two more followers would die.  And still, the president was holding onto a doomed dream.

His son Kermit begged his father to abort the plan and go back home. Almost everyone knew that they would be dead before finding any thing tangible. The stubborn president would not relent. He was as adamant and persistent as the day when this idea was conceived. His son questioned his father’s state of mind, but he didn’t see capitulation.

By the time the expedition had reached only a quarter of the journey, Roosevelt himself was near death stricken from a leg wound infection that was spreading. The son begged again. The entire crew pleaded with the president to change course. The president was unflinching.

Even amid this tragedy and the infinite difficulties facing his crew, death hovering all over, anger mounting, Roosevelt insisted on completing his mission.

“It’s not in an American spirit to quit. I am never going to quit!” he announced.

At last, when they accomplished their mission, Roosevelt was almost gaunt, having lost over forty-five pounds and looking terribly emaciated.  A hero’s welcome accosted him in New York harbor when he returned home. Americans were grateful. They saw him as simply another person, but appreciated his determination.

At McDonald’s in San Clemente that day, when by serendipity I met former President Nixon, I had panicked. I thought if under the same circumstance I were standing in front of Idi Amin (Uganda), Mengistu Hailemariam (Ethiopia), Muammar Gaddafi (Libya), Sekou Toure (Guinea), Siad Barre (Somalia), what would be my fate?

I would be shot, that’s what!

I brought this story, because we actually learn something from retired ex-presidents of the United States. Take for example the indefatigable Jimmy Carter, and the indomitable Clinton. And the guy behind me, this former President of the United States, went on to write six

books after that incident: Leaders – 1982, Real Peace – 1984, No More Vietnam – 1985,  1999 – 1990, Seize the Moment – 1992, and Beyond Peace – 1994.

This is what Americans do.

They write books.

They explore.

They never die.

Thank you President Nixon for that brief moment of your presence in my life – you made me see the incredible spirit of Americans. I went back home that day, having acquired a lifetime story for my Griot assignment.

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