The other night, my husband and I cozied up on the couch. I poured myself a glass of wine, and we turned on “The Tonight Show” to watch Jimmy Fallon host for the first time. I’m not a huge Jimmy Fallon fan; he seems a little plastic to me. But all it took was the name Will Smith to catch my attention. With U2 as the musical guest, Thad and I were both excited. (When asked what celebrity we want to meet, he usually answers Bono, and I always say Will Smith. We’re not fancy.)
The evening rekindled a childhood memory for me.
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It must have been summertime, otherwise I should have been in my bed. I remember the lamp’s warm glow of light in my parents’ bedroom, feeling cozy between the sheets, under their ugly, polyester, quilt-printed bedspread, lounging in their king-sized bed that felt like an oversized raft. We snuggled, and they advised me I would be going to bed soon.
Their tiny television was on, and we watched the president of the United States telling jokes, talking to people, and occasionally getting peed upon by some exotic critter. It was back when Jimmy Carson was president. Oh, I mean, Johnny Carter. (You see what was going on.)
I was 6 or 7 years old, and as far as I could tell, the president had a late night talk show. With his glistening white hair and relaxed ways, he talked to all kinds of interesting people and made the whole audience laugh.
It must be great to be the president,
My parents were not actually fans of the president. He seemed likable enough to me, although occasionally his guests seemed a little nervous. My parents muttered his name at the gas station. My dad meticulously logged the car’s mileage in a little book he kept in the glove compartment. I watched him write out some math problems — subtraction, then long division to figure out what kind of mileage the car was getting. He’d look at the signs with the gas prices. I learned then that the president’s job wasn’t quite as easy as the talk show — he also had to go out every night and change all the gas station signs to increase the price of gas.
I don’t know how old I was when it clicked. When I realized that the president’s job was to manage messy affairs with lives at stake and there was no audience watching, smiling and laughing at his every move. In fact, much of his audience booed him.
It was many more years before I began to form my own opinions about Jimmy Carter. They, too, were based on his television appearances. Heartfelt appeals for Habitat for Humanity, his posture earnest in prayer at Richard Nixon’s funeral (next to other stiff, camera-ready presidents) and champing at the bit to get his hands on Paula Deen’s fried chicken while she tried to show him presidential-worthy respect. (He loved the chicken.) He seemed just as likable as Johnny Carson. And nicer.
Kids’ perceptions are so different than adults’. We (rightfully) shield little ones from adult topics, and they’re not particularly interested. They’d rather see an emu run across the stage than worry about taxes. (Really, so would I.) But someday they’ll see things with a perspective that only future eyes will have. I wonder how they’ll see things.