Here's a lineup you could have caught at the National Press Club Tuesday night but won't be likely to see again anytime soon: politico-cum-historian Alvin Felzenberg, blogger/U.S. Newser/pretend-historian Robert Schlesinger, and retired professional wrestler Bret "Hitman" Hart.
It was the press club's 31st annual book fair, and the three of us were among 90-some-odd writers flogging our volumes: Hitman (selling his eponymous Hitman: My Real Life in the Cartoon World of Wrestling) and I (White House Ghosts: Presidents and Their Speechwriters) sharing a table and my old friend Felzenberg next to us selling The Leaders We Deserved, his book on the presidential rating game.
In front of us stretched an impressive line encompassing all variety of Washingtonians: young and old; professionally dressed and, ahem, less so; male and female. All lined up to meet . . . Hitman. Felzenberg and I watched in wonderment.
Professional wrestling was never my bag (a point perhaps driven home by my bow tie and oval, wire-rimmed glasses), so I had no earthly idea who Hitman was when I got to our table. I saw a stack of books with the title Hitman and wondered if I hadn't been paired with a retired CIA assassin.
He arrived a bit after we did. Thick-limbed with long hair pulled back in a ponytail, he was more soft-spoken than I would necessarily have expected from a professional wrestler. We chatted during a lull in his signing (his fans came in waves, punctuated by the occasional lull; I had waves of lull, punctuated by the occasional book-buyer). He had retired in 2000 and had had a stroke in 2002. He had worked on the book for six years, writing it himself. He said that it had helped him with the stroke recovery. When I observed that he seemed fully recovered, he said he was about 90 percent—he is still weaker on his left side, and when he gets tired, the left side of his face and mouth will droop. But, he added, he had done a lot better than many stroke victims. I kept expecting them to say , " Don't worry; you'll recover fully," he told me, but no one ever did because you just don't know.
He was a pleasant, unassuming fellow who was obviously used to the dizzying array of fans who approached (and whom he invariably thanked for coming out). Here was an older black man in a three-piece suit; here a young Hill type in a conservative suit: You really were a role model for me at an important time of my life ; here a 20-something blond named Laura: You inspired me to become a lawyer ; a gentleman wearing a camouflage Redskins baseball cap couldn't say enough nice things to Hitman and then spent a good chunk of the next half an hour just floating around the table; a young fan brought up a replica wrestling belt with Hitman's name on it for a signature; a middle-aged woman got a book and then came back 20 minutes later for a photo; a reporter asked if Hitman had any advice for Barack Obama (he did, but I didn't catch it).
"This is complete culture shock," a bemused Felzenberg said to me as we watched the crowd. We made jokes about having the "readers we deserve."
A different Laura asked me to inscribe White House Ghosts and then slid over to get a copy of Hitman signed. I love speechwriters, she explained. My sister loves wrestling. This is perfect. She had her picture taken with both of us.
I couldn't quite figure out the book-fair etiquette. People would wander up to the table or give a hard glance while walking by a few feet away, examining the book. We would sit and wait. Were we supposed to make eye contact? Pretend we didn't see someone picking up, flipping through, and then putting back down the works into which we had poured so much? I tried to engage and later to ignore.
"Oh, speechwriters. I get it," one white-haired lady said after looking at the book. Apparently, she was hoping for things that would go bump in the night.
Most frustrating were those who would flip through the book, ask questions, engage in conversation ... and then wander away. I started to fantasize about dispatching Hitman to corral these book teases.
We were a small corner of the press club's main lounge, with luminaries like Helen Thomas and Antonin Scalia elsewhere in the room. I felt I could not abandon my post to check out the rest of the scene, though, lest I miss a sale (and regardless of how much the fullness of my bladder was asserting itself). Felzenberg made one circuit, coming back with a stack of books, including the brilliantly conceived Jewish Pirates of the Caribbean: How a Generation of Swashbuckling Jews Carved Out an Empire in the New World in Their Quest for Treasure, Religious Freedom—and Revenge. (I'm not making that up. Go ahead and click through—I can wait.)
Are you related to Dr. Laura? It was a young woman. No, I explained, different spelling of the last name. Nevertheless, I pitched the woman on White House Ghosts , and we chatted for five minutes. She loves insider books—this is perfect. She was going to take a turn around the room, she said, but would be back for a copy of the book.
She disappeared into the passing crowd. I didn't see her again.