Standing at the windows, Clinton and I pointed to downtown buildings and lost ourselves in the ’80s: The Capitol dome, beneath which we both worked; the shuttered remains of a storied newspaper; the headquarters of one of Clinton’s first political benefactors. Bored by the nostalgia of two aging men, Tyler pointed to a picture on a bookshelf in the den and jolted us out of our reverie. “It’s hard to find a picture of two polar bears fighting.”
“You like that?” Clinton asked excitedly. “You interested in polar bears?”
“Yes,” Tyler replied, repeating himself at high speed: “It’shardtofindapictureoftwopolarbearsfighting.”
“Take it.” Clinton pulled the picture off the shelf and realized that it was actually the cover of a book called Polar Dance: Born of the North Wind.
“No, sir,” Tyler said, “I couldn’t possibly accept this.” He must have sounded overly formal and practiced to Clinton, but I was relieved to watch the training take hold. Tyler’s teachers were scripting his conversations. At home, Tyler had begun to greet us after work and school by saying stiffly, in his unusually deep voice, “And how was your day?” Caring about our day doesn’t come naturally to Tyler, because Asperger’s syndrome impedes empathy. But social graces can be taught. Clinton, of course, pooh-poohed Tyler’s objection, and my boy hugged the book to his chest.
Clinton led us to a sunlit corner with a small table and three overstuffed chairs. Tyler sat rigid at first—his white-knuckled hands gripping the brown leather arms. Ten minutes in, he relaxed a bit; his fingers drummed the arms. Twenty minutes later, his fingers carved slow, soft circles into the leather. After 45 minutes with one of the world’s most famous men, Tyler’s hands were folded calmly in his lap, finger intertwined, and his knees were crossed—mirroring Clinton’s posture—as my son and the former president excitedly shared a passion for Theodore Roosevelt.
“He had asthma and all that when he was a kid, but when he grew up he became famous for being really tough,” Tyler told Clinton. Roosevelt is a role model for bullied boys. “I actually heard once that a guy insulted him, so he punched him.”
“Have you guys been out to Sagamore Hill yet, Tyler?”
“Did you love it?”
“It was awesome,” Tyler said. “All those trophies everywhere.”
“Neat. I’m a hu-u-ge Theodore Roosevelt fan,” Clinton said, stretching out his vowel.
He pulled from his bookshelf a 1919 edition of Roosevelt’s letters to his children, signed it, and gave it to Tyler. “I read in the notes my staff gave me that you were a big Roosevelt fan, and the moment in history when he was president … was the moment in history that most closely approximates the period I served, in the sense that we were moving from a rural to urban economy under Teddy … ” And off he went. If you covered Clinton, worked for Clinton, or spent any time around Clinton, you’ve heard this riff: Roosevelt was the bridge to the 20th century, just as the Clinton presidency was the bridge to the 21st. Income inequality, new technology, land conservation, peace.
The monologue lasted 10 minutes, but Clinton didn’t notice that Tyler, already attention-challenged, had become bored. Suddenly, I saw Tyler in another light. If even Bill Clinton, the most talented people person in a generation, can miss obvious social cues, why worry so much about my son? There was even a certain kinship. “Nice guy,” Tyler whispered to me during a break in the tour. “He talked a lot about himself and his stuff.”
“Like you, son?”
GEORGE W. BUSH
When he’s not biking or golfing, George W. Bush spends time in his nondescript office in a suburban Dallas bank building. In the cozy reception area, orange leather chairs line the walls, upon which hang pictures of the 43rd president hosting assorted world leaders at Camp David. Tyler pointed to former Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and asked me, “Was he an Elvis fan?” How did he know?
“He ain’t nothing but a hound dog,” Tyler said, making us both laugh.
After a few minutes, Bush’s aide came for us. “I changed my mind,” Tyler said as we made our way to the office. “You do this.” But he relaxed as soon as he saw Bush. The ex-president was tilted back in his chair with his feet propped on a neat desk and a coffee cup marked “POTUS” in his hands. Tyler seemed to grasp that Bush was not taking himself—or us—too seriously. After quick handshakes and hellos, Bush got down to business.
“Going to school?” the former president asked my son.
“Yes,” Tyler replied.
“Do you like school?”
“Do you like to read?”