First he ran for president, a thrilling adventure he chronicled in “My Campaign Diary” [September 1992]. Having lost by a mere forty-five million votes, Sparrow is, like other famous losers, now settling for the role of presidential adviser. Here, he sets Mr. Clinton on the path to greatness.
This Sparrow is not to be confused with the character named Sparrow in Eileen A. Joy’s “Stones: A Love Story” elsewhere in this issue.
— Cassandra Sitterly
You’re not aware of this, but you and I both ran for president last year — in fact, I ran longer than you did. When I entered the race, only Paul Tsongas was running. George Bush wasn’t even running.
I campaigned fifteen months, you campaigned thirteen months. You received forty-five million votes, I received none. Obviously, you were a more effective campaigner than I. You articulated a clear message to America: you would create jobs, fight crime, cut the military. The few promises I made were surreal: I would rename the months, take dead men off postage stamps, make subways quieter. Mostly I stood on street corners and shouted whatever came into my mind: “I refuse to be a lawn ornament!” for example.
And I set my own hours. While you spent fifteen-hour days stumping, I spent an hour every other week.
Also, I didn’t want to win. One morning I sat up suddenly in bed, struck with the terror that I might be elected.
Now that the campaign’s over, I have returned to more private concerns. I fixed my bookshelf, which had been sloping for the last year and a half, by placing an empty jar of Hellmann’s mayonnaise on the bottom shelf. I bought a new fixture for the bathroom, so I can pull the light on and off, instead of having to stand on the toilet to screw and unscrew the light bulb.
I must admit I get a twinge when I read an interview with Václav Havel, the avant-garde playwright who became president of Czechoslovakia. “A poet can be president,” I think.
I would have been a great prez. I would have baked donuts and handed them out on the street. I would have sung my entire State Of The Union message, dressed as a Viking. I would have visited morgues and shaken hands with the dead.
Lincoln, our one magnificent president, had an artist’s mind. He was also the funniest president:
“How long should a man’s legs be?”
“Long enough to touch the ground.”
It’s like a haiku.
George Bush, our most inartistic president, made the whole nation tone-deaf. Under his presidency, popular music got worse than it’s been for centuries.
At least you play the saxophone, which is a first. The problem is the way you play it.
Probably the greatest service you could do for America is to practice the saxophone.
You and I met once. Perhaps you don’t remember. You were walking down 86th Street, shaking hands with multitudes of people, on your way to buy a book at the Barnes & Noble bookstore. This was a photo opportunity, part of the New York primary.
I shook your hand, then watched you shake other people’s hands. I looked into your eyes, so close to mine, and tried to think of something to say.
I considered telling you, “I’m running for president, too!” but I imagined your condescending response — “Good luck!” — and couldn’t bear it.
Later, while you were inside the store, I gave two of your assistants my fliers. Perhaps you saw one. They contained this poem:
AIDSAIDS, AIDS, AIDS, AIDS, AIDS, AIDS, AIDS, Who shall cure thee? I shall cure thee. When I am president of the United States of America, I shall erect a laboratory in the basement of the White House, and, wearing a white coat, I shall raise Beakers to the light, filled with Blood, and expose them to gamma rays all night. As dawn climbs manfully over the City of Washington, I’ll throw myself on to a cot, My hair in disarray, and sleep. Each night I shall labor thus, and each day I shallReturn to the humdrum life of president. Then, In my third year, as I am Delivering my State Of The Union message, The answer will come. I Will thrust down my speech And run from the halls of Congress, in the middle Of a sentence. The next day, a stunned nation will see Me, on nationwide TV, unshaven, circles under my Eyes, holding a test tube. “Eureka!” I will shout, AIDS will end, and men and women that night Will have loud, groaning sex, all over America.
You seemed swamped and lost on 86th Street. The look on your face was almost one of addiction. You looked like you were asking yourself, “Why do I like this so much?”
The American system is intended to find the candidate who most wants to be president. The parliamentary system elects the most qualified candidate; the American system elects the most ambitious one.
Now that you have succeeded in your goal, you must feel awful. (Your public statements give a hint to this.) Instead of receiving a prize, you have won the most back-breaking job on earth.
It’s exactly like chasing a woman. Once you get her, you must live with her, which is more difficult than driving a taxi.
Last Wednesday I walked out of my building to see a crowd of people across the street, looking up. I asked a guy in a black leather jacket what was happening.
“There’s a man on the roof,” he said. “You can see him.” He pointed.
A man was standing on the edge of the roof in a green army jacket. His back was to us, and his shoulders were hunched. I couldn’t tell if he was black or white.
Only the tips of his toes were on the roof. The rest of his body was suspended in midair. He looked impossible, like a cartoon character.
It gave me a strange comfort that he was on my neighbor’s roof, not mine.
After a few minutes, the police pushed the crowd away. “If he sees a lot of people, he might jump,” they said.
I was struck by the look of concern on people’s faces. In one famous incident in the sixties, a crowd chanted for a man to jump. No one here wanted the man to jump.
The rest of the day, the picture of the man on the roof wouldn’t leave my mind.
America is on top of a roof, I began to think.
A nation can die, even if all its inhabitants don’t die. Babylon is gone; ancient Rome is no more.
A nation dies, then another nation pours into it, and people say it was conquered.
America may become like ancient Israel. Its inhabitants may wander the earth for centuries, wishing for a home.
Mr. Clinton, you are famous as a nonstop talker, but you actually prefer to listen. This is revealed in your choice of a wife and a vice-president. Even your saxophone-playing is more a tribute to the men you’ve listened to than to your own talents.
You are young (for a president), smart (for a president), and brave. It is a miracle you were elected — a miracle you largely engineered yourself. If reform can save American capitalism, you can do it.
I wish you luck, for the sake of myself, my baby, and the millions who are under the heel of this nation.
P.S. Last Wednesday night, I came home and a cop was in front of my house, flirting with a teenager.
“Did the man jump?” I asked.
“No, he didn’t,” the cop said.
“That’s good news,” I said.
“Yeah, it is,” the cop said, as if that hadn’t occurred to him.