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The night a big shot came to dinner

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Posted: Tuesday, August 6, 2013 12:00 am

“Guess who’s coming to dinner?” my mother asked me. How would I know? At the time, I was just a goofy ninth-grade kid living with my folks in the suburbs of Washington, D.C.

“Herb Klein!” she proudly announced.

“Who’s Herb Klein?” I ignorantly inquired.

“He’s Vice President Nixon’s press secretary. He was also the publicity director for Dwight D. Eisenhower’s two presidential campaigns.”

Herb and Mom were friends and classmates at the University of Southern California’s School of Journalism. She had not seen him on a social basis since the early 1940s. It was now 1959.

I trotted off to my room thinking about this one. Yes, my parents were quite the party-goers, but they usually didn’t mingle with people in politics. Their friends were mostly doctors and dentists from my father’s place of business — the National Naval Medical Center, which happened to be less than a mile from our home in Bethesda.

The only other celebrity who had crossed our doorstep was my mom’s cousin, Johnny Wilcox. He had a popular morning show on Washington’s WMAL radio. He came to dinner once, but I don’t think it went that smoothly. I think he saw us as a bit nerdy — especially when I pulled out a reel-to-reel tape recorder and demonstrated my amateur radio commercials. Well, Mom thought they were cool, anyway.

I thought that maybe Herbert Klein would be our ticket to dining with the Washington elites. He might introduce us to the vice president. Maybe that would lead to President Eisenhower. Who knows? Perhaps we would be rubbing elbows with the world of big-wigs at Camp David!

The doorbell rang. Back then, it was my habit to look out an upstairs window and check our guests’ “rides.” But this time, there was nothing. Klein must have been brought by limousine. That was pretty impressive to a 14-year-old!

I wasn’t invited to the table, but I could overhear the conversations. It began with a lot of catch-up small talk and then progressed to “remember when?” Of course, politics of the day were discussed. Even as a teenager, I could tell that Klein did not have his heart or mind into it. He seemed silently focused on his work. This was the age before cellphones, and the press secretary made several calls from our landline — ranging from shortly after his arrival until the final call for his transportation.

Klein thanked my parents for a lovely evening and then departed. My folks didn’t say much about the event. But this wasn’t the typical backslapping, joking and joyful occasion that I was used to hearing whenever they entertained friends.

As far as I know, that was the end of their social contact with Herbert Klein. He had been making preparations for Nixon’s upcoming presidential campaign, and later would be involved in the vice president’s run for California governor in 1962.

I think I learned something about friendships that night. It seemed to me that people who are at the top of their game generally choose friends and social occasions for enhancement of their occupational goals. That might explain the lack of intimacy I felt. It appeared that my father had no shared interests with Mr. Klein.

My folks didn’t have a lot of close friends. But the ones they did have were genuine and cordial. Career advancement was not really a factor.

I guess you could say that I’ve followed in my parents’ footsteps when it comes to the same social objective.

With that in mind, whom do you suppose is coming to dinner at my house tonight? It’s my blue-collar buddy, Tony, who’s bringing a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken.

Steve Hansen is a Lodi writer.

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