Among the things I miss about David Letterman is the pre-guest segment when he would let audience members share what he called “brush with greatness,” an occasion on which they rubbed elbows with the famous and infamous. I have been fortunate throughout my lifetime to have had many such opportunities with the famous and infamous ranging from actor John Astin to President Bill Clinton. For long time readers, you may recall I often use a celebrity’s passing as a chance to take a trip down memory lane, as was the case with Cokie Roberts and Muhammad Ali.
However, my most consequential “brush with greatness” due to its timing was with Vice President Walter Mondale, who died this past Monday at the age of 93. It was November 4, 1979.
I had recently defended my doctoral dissertation after seven plus years as a graduate student (but that’s another story). My parents, who wondered if I would ever complete the degree requirements, sent me a note of congratulations accompanied with a $100 check. Use this to do something special to celebrate, they urged.
I scoured the leisure section of the Washington Post in search of a special event that fit the occasion when the choice became obvious. I had been a long time fan of Liza Minelli dating back to her performances in The Sterile Cuckoo, Tell Me That You Love Me Junie Moon and of course Cabaret. And now she was returning to the DC area where her nightclub career began 14 years earlier at the Shoreham Hotel. The eight performances of her one-woman show were already a near sell-out when I called the box office. The only remaining seats were on the box tier Kennedy Center opera house. I do not remember the exact price of the tickets, but the $100 familial subsidy put it well within my budget.
When my date and I entered our box, we realized we were just two boxes to the right of the presidential box which immediately raised the expectation we would enjoy the evening with Jimmy and Roslyn Carter. However, to our disappointment, our brush with greatness would be with Walter and Joan Mondale. Yet, the political junkie inside of me was determined to make the most of the opportunity. How could we possibly be this close to the vice-president and not say hello?
At intermission, we watched as the Mondales exited their box. We did the same, and there they were, standing alone, just the two of them. Perfect. We would not be interrupting their conversation with friends or more prominent individuals. We started to move toward the second couple, at which point we were immediately approached by two secret service agents. Did they really think I brought a date to an assassination and would leave her behind as I jumped into the orchestra seats (the stage was out of reach) proclaiming, “Sic semper tyrannis?”
Fortunately, the confrontation ended quickly when I showed them our tickets, explained we were honored to be here the same night as the Mondales and only wanted to say hello. The conversation lasted much longer than we expected and was quite congenial. Fritz, now my new best friend, asked how we were enjoying the show and wished us well as we said goodbye.
Even though we only got the B-Team, the experience was right up there. More so because the chances were probably higher the secret service would have been less accommodating if it had been the main man. You take what life gives you.
It was not until the next day we realized the significance of the previous evening. Just before the Sunday night performance, the White House learned the U.S. embassy in Tehran had been breached by Irani students and numerous Americans had been taken hostage. Mondale’s attendance at the Kennedy Center was designed to suggest a sense of calm and normalcy within the administration. And ever loyal to his president, Mondale did not disappoint. From our close-up vantage point, there was no omen of the impending 444 day drama which would bring down the Carter presidency.
FOOTNOTE: I only learned the final irony in this narrative on Tuesday when presidential historians recapped the Carter/Mondale years. The event that triggered the attack on the U.S. embassy was the decision by the Carter White House to give sanctuary to the ailing Shah who had been deposed by the Islamic revolution. Many in the administration opposed the idea. The strongest voice in the room turned out to be that of Walter Mondale, who refused to subject a U.S. ally, the Shah, to the mercy of Ayatollah Khomeini and his revolutionary guard.
For what it’s worth.