All the former President's men - and me

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I WAS eating a slice of cheesecake in a restaurant in Los Angeles, reading a newspaper, quite bored, when everybody's head turned round all at the same time. So I looked up. I wondered what had happened. It couldn't have been a movie star walking past, because a movie star just had walked past, and nobody had been bothered at all. I was the only person craning my neck to get a better view of Sean Penn as he walked along, looking at the ground. So maybe this was a huge star. 'Like who?' I thought. Like, say, Jack Nicholson.

It turned out it wasn't such a big movie star. It was a group of men - five of them, all but one in dark suits. The one had on a light suit. They were all quite big men; when two of them moved forward to the table, I saw who it was. It was Ronald Reagan. He was not President any more - he'd been writing his memoirs. He was the one in the light suit. Everybody was still looking at him. He didn't acknowledge this at all; it must have been his typical experience of life.

The men sat down at a table near me. I made up my mind at once: I would meet Ronald Reagan, walk up to the table and shake his hand, have a chat. I would think of one question to ask him. What I really wanted to know was: was he stupid? He didn't look stupid. He kept rolling his eyes and making jokes; his gestures were fast for a man in his eighties.

When would be a good moment? I thought: I'll let him settle down. Maybe I'll just breeze past and say something like: 'Hello, Mr Reagan]' Or stick my hand out and say: 'Nice meeting you, Mr Reagan.' Anyway, I'd made up my mind. His security, I thought, didn't look too good.

And the restaurant. It was the Carnegie Deli in Rodeo Drive - an upmarket burger and sandwich bar, a flash diner. Lunch cost about pounds 7. You could get stuff like pastrami sandwiches with coleslaw; people came in for a piece of cake and a soft drink. This must be where Reagan comes when he wants to feel laddish, unofficial. I looked over at him. He was only a few feet away. I caught his eye, but he feigned ignorance of this fact, staring straight ahead blankly. I tried to catch his eye again. He cannot not have noticed that I was looking at him. I wanted to soften him up a bit, for when I moved in. For when I introduced myself.

He really was talking a lot, and quite fast. He was making people laugh - all these guys were hiccuping and chortling - they were making jokes, too. Reagan's face muscles were being used in a totally unfamiliar way - he was conveying his understanding of what was being said. He was not pretending to be stupid, which he did whenever a television camera was around.

He was eating meat and salad. A burger? I couldn't quite see. But the time was drawing close when I would fulfil my promise to myself. I felt: if I wait any longer, perhaps I won't do it at all. Why wait beyond this point? I still had a little corner of my cheesecake on the plate. I didn't want another slice. I looked over at Reagan. He turned to the man next to him, a balding man, much younger than he.

I stood up. I sat down. I had not, I realised, prepared anything. I thought: Reagan doesn't look stupid. He is not stupid. Somehow, if Reagan had looked stupid, I would have felt better about introducing myself to him. What do you say to somebody you thought for years was thick, but turned out not to be?

I stood up again. There were only a few paces between Reagan's table and mine. I looked at Reagan again. He was saying something in the balding man's ear again. Was Reagan talking about me? Did he think, perhaps, that I was going to assassinate him? Was I going to assassinate him? Sometimes assassins worked like this, keeping their hatred for and desire to kill someone deeply buried, and suddenly letting it all out. What would I do it with? A knife was all I had. Pointless.

I took a pace towards Reagan's table. I would walk past, and lean in towards him. I took another pace. Now I could see what was on his plate: steak and salad. He had been eating it carefully, not fast, talking a lot between mouthfuls. Two more paces to go. I was sweating, unshaven. I looked Reagan right in the eye. This was it. Ronald Reagan's face was pleasant, lined, quite young-looking for his age. When I was a student he was one of the people you had to hate. I could have reached out and touched him on the nose. He looked right through me. I took a pace, slowing down.

Then the man next to Reagan looked up at me with a glare so hostile I changed my mind completely. I would go to the gents, would have been going to the gents all along. I walked past Reagan and into the gents; I splashed cold water on my face. Some of it went on my shirt, staining the light blue. Then I went back to my table.

One more try, I thought. I would approach him from the other side. And try to kill him? Of course not. I had no urge to kill him; seeing him looking so natural, so unstupid, made me like him. The thing that was hateful about him was all that acting, all that pretending to be an idiot. I got up again. The moment I moved, I got a glare from the balding man. It was as if I wasn't allowed to move, by law. I took a pace. Now two or three of the Reagan men were glaring at me. They must have been going for their guns. I walked over to the other side of Reagan's table. The guys were really looking ugly. As I passed Reagan, I moved my hand in a half-hearted way towards him. Just six inches. The physical composition of these men changed totally; they bristled. Reagan had not eaten all of his steak.

So, I chickened out. I went to the gents again. I stood there wondering if they had a gun trained on the door. When I came out, the balding man was looking at me. I walked to my table and finished my cheesecake. I thought: I must promise myself not to go across again. This could all go wrong. So I paid my bill and walked out. I looked back at Reagan as I went through the door. He looked back blankly. He never even smiled at me.-