Thanks to retired attorney Ray Berberian of Bluffton for sharing his story from the South Carolina GOP primary.
"Chatting with Mitt Romney"
By Raymond P. Berberian
Imagine my surprise at sharing the stage with Mitt Romney, Sen. John McCain, Gov. Nikki Haley and former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton. The chances for such an encounter are remote. Nevertheless, it did happen Jan. 13 at the Hilton Oceanfront Resort.
The race for the Republican nomination for president had just roared into South Carolina. National headlines were suddenly personal. Michele Bachmann had bowed out, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum had basically tied in Iowa, and Romney followed with a resounding victory in the New Hampshire primary days later.
The TV ads became more frequent and pointed. We received pollster inquiries, surveys and, finally, candidate-sponsored telephone calls.
My wife, Denise, had become an avid chronicler of the primary process since 2011.
At 1 p.m. Jan. 8, I received a recorded telephone message announcing Texas Gov. Rick Perry's appearance at noon Jan. 13 at Bluffton restaurant Squat & Gobble.
A day later she mentioned Newt Gingrich was in the state, along with Rick Santorum and Romney.
"When is he coming?" I asked, believing she wanted to see Romney.
"He'll be giving a speech at the Hilton Oceanfront Resort at 5 in the afternoon on Friday. I'd like to go."
"Is that one of the hotels in Palmetto Dunes?"
"That's right. Also, John McCain and Gov. Haley will be there."
Wow, three politicians at the same event, I said to myself.
"We can go to Palmetto Dunes, hear Romney's speech and then have dinner on the island."
The turn lane into the resort from U.S. 278 was packed with cars. By the time we got to the south gate, a line of automobiles stretched back to the Palmetto Dunes entrance.
"Look at that," I commented as my wife and I got out of the car. At least three huge white vans were positioned in the hotel lot by television and security details. When we arrived in the hotel lobby, a swirl of people swept us up staircases to the second floor.
Denise and I were ushered by campaign workers toward a conference room with a capacity for approximately 200 people. Observing a few unoccupied, cushioned chairs along the room's rectangular perimeter, we sat down. Within seconds the empty space behind those seated overflowed with standing attendees.
Suddenly, McCain entered the room and spoke from the small platform. To the crowd's delight he entertained with a few political stories and anecdotes about himself. He joked about how he and a fellow veteran (who was present) had the distinction of bringing down a North Vietnamese anti-aircraft missile by crashing their fighter aircraft into it, thus becoming prisoners of war. Before McCain departed, he mentioned the governor was due shortly.
Then a gray-haired, stocky man with a clipboard entered the room and repeatedly shouted, "Are there any veterans in the room?"
To a veteran, a man carrying a clipboard was always a tip-off to a requisition. I, along with 20 other veterans, raised a hand. I was surprised to be one of only two veterans selected. Quota filled, the campaign official gruffly directed us and our wives into the hallway.
We followed the man into a larger room packed with hundreds of seated guests, TV cameras, photographers, video recorders, Secret Service personnel, campaign workers and aides.
"What luck! This is the main room," I thought.
Using the clipboard, the man forced a pathway to the large stage facing the audience and media representatives. The stage platform had three rows of seats. The two elevated, rear rows each held approximately 15 men and women veterans. A front row of eight empty chairs was divided by a lectern. Four empty chairs were reserved for dignitaries and the other four seats for lesser functionaries.
The man escorted us, minus our wives, onto the large stage where my vet colleague was dispatched to the rear tier. I excitedly maneuvered to the vacant seat immediately behind the dignitary row.
Moments later, Romney took the stage along with Haley, McCain, and John Bolton. Each one made sure to shake hands and converse shortly with the veterans standing behind them. My own chair fortuitously was located between, but to the rear, of Romney and Haley.
As each dignitary finished an impassioned speech, he or she unconsciously took the next speaker's vacated seat. This rotation allowed my wife, standing off stage, to photograph me behind each speaker.
All politics aside, when luck favors you, sit back and enjoy it.
I did not anticipate how much one could get caught up in the exuberance of the political event. It brought to mind that we, almost uniquely, have the luxury to voice our opinions and criticisms to politicians, up close and personal.
During my life, I have voted for Democrats and Republicans. I have been privileged to serve as a councilman before relocating to the South. Freedom means choice. The featured speakers, like members of both political parties, espoused beliefs. However, it is a voter's responsibility to become informed and participate.