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Five minutes with the president


Based on today's issues surrounding the 2004 presidential election, If You Had Five Minutes with the President features the well-known personalities and what they would say if given the rare opportunity.

Read Ron Reagan's excerpt, below:


Well, what do you have to say? You’ve got five minutes. Not five official minutes and then some hang time. Five minutes. The president of the United States is waiting— he’s a busy guy; he’s got a lot on his plate.

So there you are. All your solo rants in front of the TV, all your drive-time jeremiads, the sputtering rages or spirited defenses, not to mention the near certainty that your unique perspective, properly understood, will turn this whole intractable mess around, have unexpectedly paid off. You’ve got a shot at the title, a ticket to the ball. Now that you’ve been ushered into the very heart of the White House, this is your moment to seize.

You’ve settled into one of two couches arranged near the fireplace of this peculiarly shaped room, at the opposite end from the president’s desk. There are presidential portraits on the walls. You’re suddenly worried that you won’t be able to name the Founding Fathers. Sunk in the cushions, trying to regain some semblance of posture, you feel unusually short. The president gets his own armchair and looks taller than you thought. He seems to be scrutinizing you from nearly overhead. You can tell he’s wondering why, exactly, someone has seen fit to carve five whole minutes out of his day for this peckerwood. Who are you? What’s on your mind? The economy? War and peace? A factory closing in the Rust Belt? A hog-waste lagoon in Appalachia? Betraying just a hint of impatience—just a hint; he is a polite man and, despite the crushing burdens of world leadership, is striving heroically to be a gracious host—the president glances toward the gently curving Oval Office door. On the other side, peering through the spy hole, stands the president’s chief of staff. He gives his wristwatch an ominous tap and nods to the president’s secretary. A Secret Service agent leans into view. Inside, you find yourself wondering just what shade of white the White House is. Eggshell? Cream?

This is the daunting scenario The Creative Coalition presented to an array of smart, interested people from the worlds of entertainment and journalism and business— actors, comedians, writers, producers, etc.: You have five minutes with the president. What would you do with it?

Five minutes isn’t much time in the real world— though it can seem like an eternity— but in terms of a presidential audience, it is, trust me, significant. Bona fide government officials plot, strategize, and wheedle for months in order to secure a little face time with the POTUS. Think Richard Clarke. But crunch time is always daunting. Do you come on strong? Play it politely cool? You may think you have this down. How many years, after all, have most of us been giving a succession of presidents a piece of our minds through the TV screen or as we rustle through the morning paper? But actually being in the room is different. You can’t throw a balled-up sock at the real president. You can, however, insult the vice president’s wardrobe. I happened to be visiting on the day Senator Howard Baker took over as my father’s chief of staff and was in the Oval Office when George H.W. Bush brought him in for his official welcome aboard. After shaking hands, we took our places in straight-backed chairs at the corners of the president’s desk—I was to my father’s left; Senator Baker and the vice president were to the right. I soon noticed Mr. Bush eyeing my jacket, a charcoal tweed with a large windowpane check (this was the eighties). Keep in mind that male fashion in Washington, D.C., then and now, revolves around the twin interlocking concepts of Brooks Brothers and the color gray. Clearly, my unwitting breach of etiquette had awakened the VP’s inner frat boy. I watched as one corner of his mouth began to rise toward a grin. “Where’d ya get that sports coat—Hialeah?” he cracked, referring to a racetrack noteworthy as a tableau of WASPy sartorial excess. “Where’d you steal your suit?” I replied. “Off a dead banker?”

Generally speaking, though, a greater sense of decorum is maintained. This seems to apply to our contributors as well. Most have adopted a tone that, however strongly they may feel about a particular issue, is respectful and polite. Actor-director (and Creative Coalition co-president) Tony Goldwyn comes to mind with his earnest entreaty to forge a “sensible middle.” So does Patty Duke. I had the good fortune to accompany Ms. Duke on one of the Coalition’s forays to the Capitol to advocate for the arts and, having seen her in action, can attest to both her spirit and her decorousness. No surprise, her essay strikes a hopeful note. Some, as might be expected in such a diverse group, take a more pugnacious approach. Actor Matthew Modine seems to draw directly from professional experience, placing himself in the scene and in the moment and supplying dialogue of a sort—his own and the president’s—to imagine a brief lesson about money and public policy. It’s a verbal knuckle sandwich, and I’d bet even money that Matthew would leave the Oval Office in handcuffs, dangling between a couple of no-nonsense guys with extra-large necks.

Yes, it’s a divergent group reflecting a variety of concerns and sailing off on various headings. Several have chosen a shotgun-blast approach, a laundry list of concerns—here are all the things that really piss me off; now get busy. Actor Peter Coyote tackles economic inequity, the environment, and public financing of elections. Actress-comedienne Janeane Garofalo manages to out-issue him, though, working in media consolidation, church-state issues, revamping the tax code, corporate tax fraud, public schools, and the Global Gag Rule, which denies funding to clinics worldwide that offer counseling about abortion. After all that, she still has the energy to go after prison privatization. Phew! That’s a lot to chew on in five minutes. Other contributors—savvy advocates and veterans of congressional committee hearings—have learned to appreciate the value of editing one’s presentation. Harry Shearer—actor, comedian, radio host, voice of Mr. Burns on The Simpsons—tackles campaign finance reform. Saturday Night Live alum Joe Piscopo weighs in on the state of our inner cities. The always acerbic Charles Grodin lashes out at sentencing guidelines and our burgeoning correctional system.

Of course, these essays tend to reveal their authors’ personalities as much as they illuminate issues. Fans of actor Joe Pantoliano (the Coalition’s other co-president) will recognize his mordant sense of humor, his aversion to taking himself too seriously. Young Hallie Eisenberg is a breath of sweet air as she laments the mistreatment of animals. Actor-activist Stephen Collins has some intriguing things to say about the power of meditation as a force for good in the world. And thinking-man’s actor Ron Silver ruminates brilliantly on the virtues of internationalism. Then, uniquely, there is Harry Hamlin. Adopting the persona of an ancient shoeshine man, he travels from Grand Central to the White House—kit and all—to give the president a verbal dressing-down... and a spit shine!

I’m not charged with imagining my own five minutes with the president but, I confess, I can’t resist. If we’re talking about a generic President X, I would want to know his/her thoughts about Charles Darwin and his theory of evolution through natural selection (extra points given for familiarity with the concept of punctuated equilibrium). I know this may sound willfully arcane, but it speaks directly to the sophistication of one’s worldview. Scientific illiteracy is troubling in those holding high office, as Margaret Carlson makes abundantly clear in her essay on the hypocrisy and general muddleheadedness surrounding our policy on stem-cell research. If you don’t know where we came from, how can you determine where to lead? In the case of our current president, I would want to know whether he believes that the thousands of innocent Iraqis and Afghans who have died as a result of our military campaigns will be welcome in heaven (as he imagines it). People who believe they are acting with the mandate of God, who see others who don’t share their beliefs as inferior in the eyes of God, make dangerous leaders. Just ask Osama bin Laden. How often does the president pray for the souls of these thousands? What would Jesus say about the necessity of killing children and babies in the name of a “noble cause”?

A word about partisanship: The Creative Coalition is a nonprofit, nonpartisan advocacy organization primarily concerned with supporting the arts in education and through funding to the National Endowment for the Arts. We frequently involve ourselves (I am a member of the board) in First Amendment issues. It comes with the territory. We presented our contributors with a generic version of our “five minutes with the next president” scenario—no particular president in mind. Perhaps inevitably, most have elected to address the current occupant of the Oval Office, George W. Bush. Had we performed this exercise five years ago, most writers would no doubt have found it easier to imagine themselves in the enveloping presence of William Jefferson Clinton. This is, of course, an election year, and an awfully contentious one at that. There is fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan and a divided citizenry at home. Passions run high. Many of our contributors take direct aim at President Bush. Others choose a more neutral path. But in no case was anyone coached, encouraged, or edited with an eye toward a particular ideological position. Nor did the Coalition make any assumptions about the opinions of the people we solicited. Potential contributors were contacted without regard for their political views; our only criterion was prominence in their respective fields. This volume reflects the thoughts and feelings of those individuals who responded and nothing else. As an organization concerned with issues of free speech, the Coalition is disinclined to take on the role of censor. Some people might complain that we are trying to advance a political agenda. Let them shout. The Creative Coalition will defend their right to do so till the last breath. Far from an ideological screed, this book is really just a snapshot, a thermometer dipped into a particular moment and unique slice of our American citizenry. Other times and different demographics would, of course, produce a very different collection. We make no great claims for this volume. It contains no grand thesis. One needn’t read it front to back. Take it to the beach, to bed. Carry it along on the subway or on a long flight. Think of it as an offbeat companion—sometimes astute, sometimes merely irascible—whom one might welcome during the upcoming season of withering heat and politics. And while you’re at it, imagine your own five minutes with the president.

May 15, 2004

The foregoing is excerpted from If You Had Five Minutes with the President  by Ron Reagan. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced without written permission from HarperCollins Publishers, 10 East 53rd Street, New York, NY 10022