During the 1996 presidential campaign, United States Senator Bob Dole, a leading candidate for the Republican nomination, stopped in Tallahassee for a day of politicking with lawmakers and the local party faithful. This was only my second legislative session but already I was getting used to seeing big names come through the Capitol. Former Tennessee Governor Lamar Alexander had already made his campaign stop in the capital city. President Bill Clinton, running for reelection that year, addressed a joint session of the Florida Legislature that spring. When it was announced that the soon-to-be standard bearer for the GOP, Senator Bob Dole, was coming to town, I was excited to see yet another political luminary in person.
The Moon is a local nightclub that is a popular venue for music groups and other mid-size events. Each year the Republican Party hosts an appreciation event for its party members and the guest of honor that session was the Senate Majority Leader. Then-Representative Mike Fasano and myself, as well as most of our Republican colleagues, made the short trek from the Capitol to The Moon to hear Senator Dole fire up the party faithful.
Anheuser-Busch, a sponsor of the event, had set up a NASCAR simulator onstage, which was open for attendees to tryout as they waited for the arrival of the presidential candidate. As the building began to fill up with people, I joined the throng of folks on stage waiting for my turn at the wheel. I recall watching with fascination as the people before me steered the car around a virtual racetrack. I don’t recall how much time passed but I came out of my reverie when I realized I was only one or two people away from taking my spot in the driver’s seat.
Without warning, the house lights went down. I turned to see that someone had the microphone at center stage and was greeting the crowd. I looked back and in that brief moment the simulator had been shut off and the people in front of me had disappeared. When I realized I was the only one onstage with the host I thought it best to scoot off as quickly as possible. Trying to slip inconspicuously offstage, I began to head stage left, thinking I was in the clear when I saw Senator Dole stepping out from behind a curtain.
There I was, in full view of the crowd, standing face-to-face with the Majority Leader of the U.S. Senate. I gave him an awkward smile and stepped aside so he could move center stage. I melted into the curtains, realizing that I had, for one brief moment, shared the stage with the possible future leader of the free world.
I tried to make my way backstage in hopes that perhaps I could hide back there or even slip out the rear door and hoped that nobody would ever think twice about the young staffer who had nearly collided with Senator Dole. Instead, I pushed my way through the curtains and to my horror found myself stepping back out onto the edge of the stage, exposed once again. I glanced back and by now Senator Dole was center stage at the microphone and for the second time he and I were onstage together. I put my head down and as quickly and as quietly as possible, zipped down the stage steps and tried to disappear into the crowd.
I am thankful the house lights were down, although I caught a few astonished faces looking at me as I made my way to the back of the building. Few people knew me back then, something for which I was very thankful. My face must have been bright red as I searched for a place to sit. I eventually slipped into an open chair as close to the door as possible and listened to Senator Dole give his stump speech.
In a business in which appearances mean so much, I worried that I had somehow committed some unpardonable gaffe. Thankfully nothing went wrong that night and nobody seemed to take notice of the wet-behind-the-ears staffer twice caught like a deer in the headlights on The Moon’s stage. Rather than dwelling on what could have been an embarrassing mistake I look back fondly on that night. Not many people can say they were alone on stage with someone of Senator Dole’s stature.
As we all know, Senator Dole did not win that election. However, over the years, whenever I see him on television, whether pitching a product or sharing a political analysis, I always remember the few fleeting moments that I and I alone shared the stage with Bob Dole. I doubt he remembers that night but I always will.
I also look forward to your comments and questions about presidential politics, the Florida Legislature, state government, or any related matters. Please feel free to leave your thoughts in the comment section and I will answer them in an upcoming post. If there is a specific topic you would like me to write about please let me know as well. I look forward to reading about what is important to you!