AllPolitics - TIME This Week

The Tossed Shorts Factor

By Calvin Trillin

TIME Magazine

(TIME, September 16) -- A few days ago, I landed an exclusive interview with John N. Cole of Brunswick, Maine, who is the same age as Bob Dole. This is not the first time I've gone one-on-one with Cole as part of an effort to understand high public officials. I once wrote that John Cole, speaking as someone who had regularly snuck looks at George Bush's blue book during French exams at Yale, was willing to assure the American people that Bush was a man of solid preparation, not to speak of exceedingly legible handwriting.

Like his contemporary from Kansas, John Cole, whom I've known for 25 years, seems vigorous and sharp. But he'd mentioned the age issue himself recently in a column that appeared in the Forecaster, a weekly in Falmouth, Maine. In that column he concluded that since 73-year-olds don't think quite as quickly as they once did, they compensate by spending more time thinking--including times when they seem to be doing something else.

"Which is how a pair of my boxer shorts ended up in the garbage pail instead of the laundry basket," he wrote. "See, I was so caught up in pondering whether the lawn should get another dose of Weed & Feed that I lifted the lid on the garbage pail thinking it was our laundry basket. It was only an hour or so later, when I went to discard some peach peelings, that I saw my boxers there on the top of the heap."

"If you're worried that Dole might toss his boxer shorts in the garbage instead of the laundry hamper," I said, right at the beginning of the interview, "I'm sure they have staff at the White House to sort out that sort of thing. Also, we don't even know if Dole wears boxer shorts. So far, Bill Clinton is the only presidential candidate who has made his preference in undergarments a matter of public record."

"True," John said. He's always been a man willing to see both sides of an issue. "Also, as it happens, our garbage pail looks quite a lot like the laundry hamper." He brought both into the living room, where we were conducting the interview. They didn't look at all alike.

"Did your commitment to catch-and-release fishing come with age?" I asked. John, who's written with great distinction about fishing, always releases what he catches, a custom I consider contrary to the laws of nature. ("If a striped bass caught you, John, he wouldn't even think about releasing you.")

"Absolutely," he said. He explained that young people don't truly accept the inevitability of mortality--even if, as in his case and the case of Bob Dole, they spend part of their youth being shot at by hostile forces. Once the years have done some persuading on that issue, he said, you tend to put more value on life of any kind.

"Does that mean that as President you'd hesitate to bomb Saddam Hussein every now and then?" I asked.

John said he'd probably be able to make an exception to catch-and-release in Saddam's case. But there was a risk, he said, that he'd nod off for a nap while the subject was being discussed. He told me that his wife Jean sometimes starts to say something to him and then quietly tiptoes away. If he got to the White House, he must have been thinking, someone like the Secretary of State might have to take Jean's role.

Maybe that wouldn't be so bad, I told John. After all, Presidents who are wide awake haven't done all that well dealing with Saddam. I also try to see both sides of the issue.

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