Saturday, July 15, 2006

A Red Pants President

Ok, so there are two versions to this story. The cool version, which will go in my memoir, and the ohmygodicantbelieveijustmettheformerpresident story that I will squeal over the phone to my HMF, best friend, roommates, and general population of France, when I get the chance.

The Cool Version
After a tough half day at USAID, trying to cut through red tape to set my pending trip up north in order, I met some colleagues from UNHCR to discuss the state of Somalia over a bottle of cristal and smoked salmon at the British High Commission. We decided to reconvene after I wrapped up a few loose ends at work and to continue the discussion over fine Colombian coffee overlooking the wild game park in Lilongwe.

However, that was not to be. After arriving home for a quick wardrobe change (to trade my Mahnolo’s for Prada. Nothing says “wild game park” like Prada), I received a phone call from my colleague at the Embassy. President Clinton was waiting at the airport, would I like to meet him?

Delighted, I scooted back into my Mahnolo’s and shimmied off to the airport to take high tea with the former President. As expected, he was charming, witty and able to remember small details about everyone in the room, including myself. After several photo opp’s, I asked him about a small bracelet (we’d call them “friendship bracelets” in prep school). He launched into a quaint tail about an indigenous group in Colombia that he danced with under Hugo Chavez. How delightful!

Unfortunately, our time was too short and the President was due in Rwanda. Soon, he took his leave, but not before I discretely slipped my business card into his hand and told him to call me anytime he was in Africa.

The Absolutely Random Version
Still being sick, I didn’t get up until I heard the car pull up into our drive way at 7:11am. Like a fish resurfacing after the long winter, I bobbed into consciousness with a start – and the sense I’d just had a very restful sleep. However, I had t-minus 19 minutes to get to work. This left me with time to throw my hair up into a pony tail, throw on some pants, brush my teeth and go to the bathroom. Then, work.

Apparently there’s a diesel shortage in the entire country, so unless I can come up with a good reason why I need to go north next week, my trip is definitely cut. I spent all morning trying to come up with a good reason.

To make matters worse, there are some errands I need to run and am unable to, because all of our motorcade had been usurped by the Embassy. Bill Clinton is in town for six hours, to sign a memorandum of understanding with President Bingu wa Mutharaika in regards to his new foundation/collaboration, the Clinton-Hunter Development Initiative. Apparently, he needs all twenty-four of our drivers to be at his beck and call, leaving me not only unable to complete half of my work for the day, but also without a ride home. Sigh.

I met some friends of friends for lunch at the British consulate garden, which sells cheap beer and nsima for 150 mk. We almost miss each other because I’ve left my cell phone at home, but they finally show up forty-five minutes later. By this time, I’ve REALLY got to get back to work, so we agree to meet after work (in thirty minutes) to go for coffee. (Remember, readers, diplomats rarely work after 1:30 on Fridays…). This effectively solves my transportation problem and I’m excited to get out on the town on a beautiful Friday afternoon.

True to their word, Belinda and Alisa pick me up after work and we agree to go to my house so I can change out of my awful outfit (note to self: don’t dress before you put your contacts in). Unfortunately, traffic is all tied up because of Clinton’s visit (he takes all our drivers AND our roads? How fair is that?).

I get home just in time to change into jeans and to answer my phone. It’s Alex, the Embassy information officer. Apparently my roommate, Alissa, called him to say that Clinton wanted to meet as many Embassy employees in the VIP room as possible – in forty-five minutes. Belinda just about flips out – she’s Zambian and would give her painful incoming wisdom teeth without novocaine to meet Clinton. I, however, hem and haw. I look at Belinda and am reminded gain of the priviledge I have in even making the decision to go.

I hem and haw because, as my experience in Geneva - and indeed with the Malawian officials - has taught me, these diplomatic visits rarely go as planned. I could be passing up a lovely afternoon of coffee and raucous conversation to sit in a dusty, gold-painted VIP room at the Kamuzu airport for an indeterminate amount of time (probably three hours or more). I wasn’t really excited by the prospect.

Coupled with that trepidation is the fact that I am simply not a celebrity-hound. The closest thing I’ve ever come to celebrity was Sam Donaldson in a parking garage (he wears a lot of makeup). Many of you will remember how I made a fool of myself in front of the New Zealand Ambassador by asking him if he’d ever been to New Zealand before. If anything, I should be shunning celebrity, not chasing it.

However, I knew that in the future - long dusty wait or not - I would've hated myself for not even trying. I decided to change out of my jeans and into my sassy red pants and black suitcoat. Now, for those of you who have seen these pants, you’ll know why I chose to wear them (thanks for sending them, M.!). They are Marilyn Monroe lipstick red, fit me like a glove and are instant confidence boosters. I suspect they are a little magic as well, as I have done things in these pants I would never have the guts to do otherwise.

After racing out to the airport with Alex and flashing our diplomatic cards at all the roadblocks (Alex is so good at this!), we were escorted into the VIP parking lot, past crowds and crowds of curious Malawians and into the VIP waiting area.

It was not at all what I expected. The Ambassador was there, of course. But so was the general service officer, in jeans, and one of our Embassy nurses with her two kids. Apparently, by the time the entourage decided it would be ok to meet Embassy staff, they had no time to get the word out. I was the only one from USAID there.

Furthermore, I was extremely lucky to have gotten the word while I was at home and could change (although, no shower). Our poor nurse had been stuck at the airport all day, trying to pick up some friends visiting from the US. But because of Clinton’s visit, they were delayed in arriving until he left. So, she decided, while I’m here…and pulled out her badge and dragged her kids along to the VIP room.

After waiting and waiting, and playing with the Peace Corps officer’s wet baby Caroline, he arrived. He is more slender than I imagined, younger and with grey-blue eyes. He seemed extraordinarily at ease, and I felt myself relax and kind of let go, as you do when you're first learning how to swim.

Strangely, I didn’t feel nervous as he moved down the line. I was more pissed that my camera had jammed and I missed getting a photo of Alex shaking his hand. His confidence inspired my confidence (or maybe it was the pants). I didn't even think of what I was going to say; I just relaxed and enjoyed the fact that I was in the presence of one Mr. Willam Jefferson Clinton.

Suddenly, he was playing with Caroline next to me. She handed him my keys, which I had used to distract her from pounding on the glass coffee table. He made small talk her parents, picked up Caroline before we could warn him she was wet – but he figured that out in short order and handed her back quickly without saying anything. He still had my keys in his hand, so I tactfully reached over and said quietly, “I am sorry but those are mine, Mr. President.”

Which led him to move on to me. The conversation went smoothly, I clasped his hand in my two (it’s an affectation I’ve picked up in Africa) I introduced myself. I told him I was working with USAID for the summer. We chatted a bit as two strangers meeting through a mixture of mutual acquaintances and happenstance at a wedding buffet line would do. I thanked him for coming, and that was about it. It all felt very smooth and relaxed - it was just as I'd introduced myself a million times before.

He moved onto the Embassy nurse, who was next to me with her two kids (note to self: if you want lots of face time with a politician, stand between a baby and young children). He loved our nurse, as she was from Louisiana and talked to her quite a bit, even after our group photo. Standing next to her, I was naturally drawn into the conversation.

That’s when I noticed the small, dirty friendship bracelet that he had on his right hand. It had even dirtied his cuff (although, with our dust, it could have happened here). Without thinking, in fact, as naturally as you exchange pleasantries at a cocktail party I touched it and said “What’s this?”

That launched him into a story about an indigenous children’s group in Colombia. I didn’t listen much to it, because at that point I’d found my business cards in my left hand pocket and was wondering if I could slip it into his pocket. I decided that there were too many flashbulbs and, given history, it would look a bit strange (um, and illegal?).

After he finished, his entourage signaled that it was time to go. As he disengaged from our conversation, he clasped my hand again. At that point, I had my card in my left hand and I hesitated for a second. Then I actually think the pants took over, as literally the words “What have I got to lose?” fell into my head. I thanked him again for coming and said “I wonder, Mr. President, if it would be possible to give you my card?”

What was he going to say, no? I mean, if he really didn’t want it, he’d throw it away later. I’m sure the Ambassador and everyone else in the room was shocked by my audacity. I mean, who was I, the intern to give my card to the former President? What did I think he was going to do with it, call me? (Or perhaps they were secretly impressed by my chutzpah. Who knows? However, I grew up in the Midwest, I’m genetically trained to think they were shocked I didn’t stick to status quo).

Anyway, I was mostly thinking that he could get me a job with the Clinton-Hunter Development Initiative. That he would be so taken aback by my red pants that he’d call me up and offer me a job. I was not thinking of becoming the next intern scandal, I swear. I am still vacillating on whether or not this was a good idea. I’ve probably embarrassed all my colleagues, but who cares? I’m out of here in four weeks –I’ve got nothing to lose. “Nothing ventured, nothing gained” is my motto.

This from the woman who wasn’t even going to go.

M is for Mr. (former) President.


P.S. This TOTALLY beats the time I kissed the third undersecretary from the Turkish Mission. I'm moving up! :)


emira said...

I can't believe you met Bill. How fun? I think you handeled it all very maturely and with grace. I hope he does call back and asks you to work for this organization of his, then you will have to say to my face just how right I was about everything. Damn, damn, damn. I'm good. Anyway, hope you're well and enjoying the post-president meeting and having a glass of classy alcoholic beverage. Miss you lots. I'm leaving for North Carolina this evening and I'll be there until the 5th of August. But I'll write and will certainly tell you all about bosnia.

k8 said...

Wow, as a democrat you must have felt like you were meeting Jesus! He gives me the "the-kind-of-guy-my-dad-would-be-friends-with" vibe now that he's out of office... besides the fact that my dad is nothing if not a republican.

My closest brush with fame is when Justin Timberlake and I made eye-contact for one beautiful moment at an NSYNC concert in 2002--or was he looking at the girl behind me? Somehow, I think yours is the better story.

lots of luv!

nate-nate-bo-bate said...

considering that the current president (and VP, although it's basically the same) won't even set foot in my city, I guess I won't have the chance to mee them. I'm not going to lose sleep over that fact, though.

That said, I thoroughly envy you for meeting Mr. Clinton.

Every time I think about him (I am currently reading My Life after all) I remember hearing him interviewed on NPR's Talk of the Nation while I was managing a restaurant. All of us working in the kitchen listening intently to his every work and were enthralled with what he had to say. It was refreshing to hear a major public figure that could answer questions off the cuff without handlers and a script.

I can only assume that it was the same or better when you met him.

I got to talk with Paul Wellstone when I was in DC during a journalism conference in high school. He was the only other public figure that I can think of that I could equate with Clinton in terms of seeming to honestly give two shits about you when you met him. He was cordial and kind and very giving of himself when I visited his office, even though there seemed to be quite a lot going on. In fact, once all thre delgegates from MN were in his office, he leaned out the door and asked that no one bother him for the next 15 minutes or so. Then he shut the door and focused on three 18 year old kids that he had no reason to put above other much more important business.

I cried when I heard about his death, because it seems that people that genuinely care about serving the public are so few and far between these days.

Bill Clinton always struck me as the same. I remember during the flood of '97, he flew over Forks in a helicopter and met with many many displaced people at the Air Force Base before he spoke publicly. He showed genuine concern for us, both by coming and witnessing the disaster first hand, and by actually speaking with individuals that were affected. I remembered that when seeing the picture of Bush glacing nonchalantly out of his window as Air Force One flew over New Orleans three days after the disaster, as he was on his way home from vacation....

Again, I totally envy you.