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Dreams of My Carwash

by James Lileks

In a recent issue of Vogue, actress Reese Witherspoon says she sits in her car and cries sometimes, because she misses her privacy. In a recent interview with Hearst Newspapers, politician Barack Obama says he misses grocery shopping, taking walks, and other humble diversions private citizens take for granted. But he doesn’t tell everyone to deplane Air Force One ahead of him, he’ll be right along, so he can have a good cathartic sob into his hanky — so he’s not exactly like the star of Legally Blonde. Still, you have to feel for the guy. Stardom is lonely:

The president said he loves his life in the White House but doesn’t enjoy some of the ways of Washington, such as the “kabuki dance” among political partisans before serious policy discussions begin.

It’s difficult to imagine perma-tanned Boehner in Japanese whiteface, but we’ll take his word for it.

He also regrets his loss of personal privacy.

“I just miss — I miss being anonymous,” he said at the meeting in the White House. “I miss Saturday morning, rolling out of bed, not shaving, getting into my car with my girls, driving to the supermarket, squeezing the fruit, getting my car washed, taking walks. I can’t take a walk.”

You can sympathize. When you become Leader of the Free World you give up normal life forever; your existence becomes a cruise ship that never docks. On the other hand:

1. He did, if memory serves, volunteer for the job. Presumably with full knowledge. To many observers, he seemed keenly interested in the position, too. (At the time.)

2. According to the White House website, the number of items on the president’s agenda for Saturday and Sunday was, at press time, zero. It’s possible he could roll out of bed and not shave. The kitchen could deliver a fine selection of fruit to be palpated. Driving to the supermarket is possible, but it would require a motorcade, a six-block frozen zone, careful pre-event vetting of the produce staff to ensure “Joe the Organic Mango Restocker” can’t ask him about food inflation, so forget about that. If there’s one plaintive note that shows you how the job wears on a fellow, it’s nostalgia for sitting in line on Saturday afternoon waiting for a car wash. Back to the interview. To keep his spirits high, he golfs. But

he says he enjoys golf but is not the fanatic that some have portrayed. “It’s the only excuse I have to get outside for four hours at a stretch,” he said.

His impossible dream: “I just want to go through Central Park (in New York) and watch folks passing by . . . spend the day watching people. I miss that.”

In the Nineties this would have been a romantic comedy called “Bench Memo,” written by Nora Ephron. A man-of-the-people prez, tired of D.C.’s cesspool of ambition and perfidy, longs to dissolve in the zesty gumbo of honest common folk. He contrives a way to slip the surly bonds of office and sit on a bench incognito, where he meets a spunky but difficult young woman (Helen Hunt) who teaches him about the need for federally subsidized day care. Oh, it seems mean to hoot at such a simple, understandable desire of a man who finds himself dogged by dull duty, but it’s hard to imagine him ever sitting on a park bench doing nothing, except figuring out how to run for office as the Mayor of That Other, Larger Park Bench Over There.

Once upon a time presidents could walk around without fear that some anarchist would perforate their innards. Citizens knew their leaders only from somber illustrations in which the president has a sour expression, as if smelling burnt kraut. Eventually the president’s world constricted, and even post–White House life was conducted in the bubble. Some presidents went home; Nixon spent two decades in an underwater lair off the California coast; Bill Clinton ascended to the clouds and occasionally reappears to make speeches. Reagan and George W. Bush, though, had it figured out: They had a ranch.

If you have a ranch, you can forgo shaving for weeks, amble out to the garden to squeeze whatever looks ripe, wash the pickup with a hose and a bucket, take long walks, abjure kabuki similes. But Obama isn’t a ranch guy. He’s at home in the glorious scrum of urban life, where everyone recognizes you and likes you and wants to shake your hand and encourage you to keep fighting, or at least keep voting “present” with a resolute look on your face. Those days are gone.

Solution: He needs a fake city. A Chicago-style Potemkin ward. A place with narrow streets and brick buildings and coffee shops, a park with a special bench. A theme-park-style village populated by actors and government employees who don’t take pictures, don’t ask for autographs, give him a hearty wave as he power-walks, don’t point and laugh when he bikes around wearing mom-jeans and that helmet. A place where a guy can thump a cantaloupe without having to make a damned speech about it. Some say it’s not ripe, but I reject the false choice between unripe melons and bananas at their peak of freshness. But hey, these kiwis look good.

In the Oval Office Reagan probably daydreamed about striding to the woodpile with an axe to reduce trees into smaller, useful portions. Sweat and labor and grit and frontier traditions. Barack Obama, one suspects, just dreams of being in a restaurant, finishing his waffle. Another cup of coffee would be great, too. Fair-trade and shade-grown, and no cream or sugar. Wife’s orders.

– Mr. Lileks blogs at

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