Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Power Lunches

I’ve had what one could call two power lunches, one real and one more in jest. I’d held off writing this entry but one of the participants has been in the news lately and another always is.

The first took place in the home of the Power Breakfast, The Loews Regency Hotel in New York City, in fall 1988. I was in the city for an awards ceremony and expected to spend time with the executives in our company’s New York office. They were all too busy upon my morning arrival, so I called my father’s 89-year-old cousin Rosalie to tell her I was in town. She was meeting a friend for lunch at the Regency, which her husband had owned before selling it to the Tisch family, and asked me to join them.

The 540 Park restaurant was elegant, to say the least (a turkey club sandwich will now set you back $22), with the tables well spaced for privacy and quiet conversation. Seated at the next table, over my left shoulder, were Mr. and Mrs. Armand Hammer. The 90-year-old chairman and CEO of Occidental Petroleum, which he joined in 1957 when it had three full-time employees, looked like a rather dour sea captain in his blue double-breasted blazer with gold buttons. His wife – the third Mrs. Hammer who would pass away the following year – needed assistance in cutting the meat on her plate, for which Mr. Hammer enlisted the aid of their waiter. I don’t remember them conversing much. Armand Hammer died in 1990, while still leading Oxy Pete.

We were finishing up lunch when the occupants at a table in the far corner stood up to leave. I was struck by a tall, attractive, impeccably dressed blond woman, who had been seated next to a gray-haired man with his back turned. He got up just after her, and I recognized the impeccably dressed Senator Barry Goldwater, the 1964 Republican candidate for U.S. President. Goldwater had retired from the Senate after declining to run for reelection in 1986 and spent a good part of his later life (he died in 1998) lamenting the rightward drift and increasing influence of Christian fundamentalists in the GOP. The companion most likely was the woman who would become his second wife (32 years his junior); he had become a widower in 1985.

The story wouldn’t be worth retelling except for the sequel. Upon returning to the office, the receptionist asked my about lunch. “It was very interesting,” I replied. “I had lunch with Armand Hammer and Barry Goldwater.” On my first day back in Chicago, one of the big office gossips said, “I hear you had a very interesting lunch in New York.” She thought I’d actually dined with them.

The second one – a real one – took place in 2006. After a Wednesday noon basketball game, my friend Jon asked if I were having lunch in the 2nd-floor Grill Room. We usually don’t check up on each other, but this time he wanted to fill a table because then-Sen. Jon Corzine was coming to meet with him. Corzine at the time was head of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC), and he was soliciting a contribution from Jon, whose brother Corzine knew in Washington.

Four of us joined Corzine, and the main discussion topic was basketball, not politics. Corzine had grown up outside downstate Taylorville and had been a 6’3” walk-on forward on the freshman basketball team at the University of Illinois in 1965 (freshmen weren’t eligible for varsity sports back then). He said he would have played with us but was nursing a knee injury. Corzine then told us another basketball player – who would be receiving big DSCC support – was on his way in to join us: State Sen. Barack Obama, who had won the Senate primary election less than a month before.

Obama breezed in – he was already on a hectic campaign schedule – and pulled up a chair, declining lunch because of his limited time allotment. The talk again turned to basketball, and we invited him to both our lunchtime games and Jon’s Saturday game in the suburbs during the summer. As a novice to the big-time political arena, he told us Michelle had him on the “No Basketball List,” worried that an injury would hobble him and his campaign. I met him once again right after he announced his Presidential run and reminded him of the standing invitations; Obama laughed and said he heard Saturdays were “a great game” (he has a friend who plays) but he still hasn’t joined us.

His stay lasted only about 15 minutes, and people asked me for my take on him. Just from that short time basically shooting the breeze, I believed I was in the presence of greatness, just by the way he related to everybody around the table. I told people I thought he could beat Hillary Clinton for the nomination and anybody the Republicans would slate against him and only lament not putting money on it.

Despite being in the ticketed section in Grant Park on November 4, 2008, we were far back and could barely see the podium. It didn’t matter; we were there when the historic announcement was broadcast on CNN and the new First Family strode out to greet the celebrants. Just two years earlier, the man shook my hand, clasped my left shoulder, looked me straight in the eye and thanked my for the time. I think he’ll fare much better next year than Corzine did this year.

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