One of the problems with being a celebrity is having to deal with all the people who want to talk to you. Something as ordinary as dining out with a friend becomes a challenge when adoring fans keep interrupting the meal for a chance to speak to a famous person.
Few people understood that better than Henry Clay. He was one of the political superstars of the United States for most of the first half of the 19th century. He had served as Secretary of State under President John Quincy Adams. He had been a congressman from Kentucky, Speaker of the House, and one of the most influential senators to ever serve in the U.S. Senate.
It should be no surprise that everywhere Clay went, people wanted to talk to him. On this particular day, he just wasn’t in the mood. For one thing, he wasn’t in his home state, where he might have been more inclined to give attention to prospective voters. Instead, he was in Louisiana, and he was supposed to be off the clock. He was traveling by steamer from New Orleans back to Washington, D.C., and thought he could spend that time relaxing. The 1848 election was just a few weeks ago, and he looked forward to a rare moment to himself before having to gear up for the next election cycle.
It should also be noted that he wasn’t feeling particularly joyful. He had hoped to add “President of the United States” to his impressive resume. Despite his nationwide celebrity status, however, he failed to get the nomination of the Whigs. The party chose General Zachary Taylor, instead. Taylor had just won the presidency a few weeks earlier, and although this was good news for Clay’s party, the senator was still licking his wounds from a rare personal defeat.
As if that weren’t enough, Clay was still mourning the death of his son, who was killed in action during the Buena Vista campaign of the Mexican War. There’s no describing how much that sad fact continued to haunt him.
While the steamer made a routine stop in Baton Rouge, Clay and a companion sat in the steamer’s saloon, trying to enjoy a meal. As usual, he could hardly get in a bite without someone coming up and wanting to talk. Unwilling to feign niceties, Clay chose to ignore the well-wishers.
Things were even worse than they had been during the voyage because the steamer picked up additional travelers and temporary guests while docked. It seemed that everyone who spotted Clay wanted to speak with the famous senator.
If Clay had recognized any of the well-wishers as friends or people of influence, he certainly wouldn’t have turned a cold shoulder. In his defense, there was nothing about the older gentleman who approached him to suggest he was anyone other than another curious onlooker. The older man approached and bowed. Clay cast a quick glance at him before looking away and resuming his dinner conversation. Unflustered, the older man walked away without saying a word.
Clay’s dinner companion was aghast. He had seen his friend ignore many fans, but this time it was too much. He said a few words to the senator, whose demeanor immediately changed.
In his haste to judge the importance of a person by appearance, he overlooked a critical fact. The man whom he had ignored was probably the one person in the United States more famous than Henry Clay. He was a major general in the U.S. Army and hero of the recently-fought Mexican War. He also happened to be the President-elect of the United States: Zachary Taylor.
Horrified, the embarrassed senactor left his table and pursued Taylor. He offered his hand to the man and said, “General, you have grown out of my recollection.”
President-elect Taylor warmly took Clay’s hand and responded, “You can never grow out of mine.”
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