The Man Who Scared the Hell Out of Me

by  

I was standing in the Rose Garden at the White House. The sun was shining and the weather was perfect. September 26, 1996, was the day and President Clinton signed a bill which gave funds to support various programs, including the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. I stood over his shoulder as he used a different pen for each letter plus one for dotting the I’s and crossing T’s. It was a real spooky political ritual.

Less than 24 hours prior, I was at home in Chicago having lunch with Harry McGraw. After lunch was over, I went home and checked my voice mail. Ron Carter, CHA’s director of economic development, had left me a message stating how imperative it was that I get back with him. It was 1:30 p.m. and I didn’t finish listening to the message because I thought it was pertaining to my photography business. I immediately disconnected and called him. Ron explained that I was to represent CHA in Washington plus meet the President. The catch was I had to leave within a couple of hours. I agreed to catch the 8:15 p.m. flight to Washington, D.C.

Amy Liu was my contact there. She REALLY helped me because when I got to O’Hare, my flight was canceled. I called Amy in Virginia and she worked magic from where she was. I went back up to the ticket agent and voila, my ticket was there.

While on the plane, I relaxed and became my dreamself….

I’m in the White House. I’m in a room where the ceiling is so high I can’t see it, sitting in a chair with a ten-foot back next to the President. Our chairs are directed toward each other, forming an arrowhead. I lean forward and begin telling him the solutions to crime, welfare, public housing and public schools. Then I explain to him that when laws are written, they are just that, WRITTEN. Let those who live it make the laws. Let me sit in on those legislative meetings when issues of the inner city are discussed. I can tell you what will be effective.

I was awakened by turbulence. When it comes to any disturbance of nature, I am the chicken of chickens. But tonight, I didn’t flinch. I wanted the dream back. But I smiled and thought, “Why mess up a good thing?”

I arrived at the Westin Hotel in D.C. but the reservations hadn’t kicked in. I called Amy and again, she twitched her nose and a room became available. Thank you, Amy Liu.

The next morning I got a call at 8:30am. “Hello Annie. Would you like breakfast?”

“No thank you,” I replied

“How about a cup of coffee?” he asked.

“I just had a cup,” I said. There was a miniature coffee machine right in the room with two pouches of the strongest coffee in the world, STARBUCK’S.

“Well , why don’t you come downstairs and talk to me,” he said.

“With whom am I talking?”

The voice on the phone replied, “Ed Eisendrath,” the chairman of the CHA Executive Advisory Board.

I was so happy I had someone with me. I shrieked over the phone and told him that I would be right down. Not to take anything away from meeting the President but right then was the highlight of my day. I told him later on that day “Today you are my family.”

Eisendrath filled me in on how I was chosen to represent CHA and all residents of public housing.

_________________________

When the signing was over, I watched and waited my turn to speak with the President. I was pulled over to the side and told to wait at a predesignated spot so that I could talk to the President.

What would you do if you had the opportunity to meet the President of the United States? Would you shake his hand and tell him how much of an honor it was, or tell him what a fine job he’s doing. What about how he’s the best president there is, was or ever will be.

Well I had just that opportunity. He walked up to me and shook my hand. All I could do was stare at him in awe. Why didn’t someone tell me that the man is 6’5” and weighs about 230lbs. He could become a wrestler if he wanted to because he has the height and the build. As I spoke, my nerves became twisted. My brain shut down and I froze. All that rehearsing I did was in vain.

Just before we spoke the President was about to take a photograph with a Vietnam vet and his companion, so I interjected. “Don’t leave me out. I want to take a picture with you, too.”

The President put his arm around my waist, pulled me into the shot and boy did I feel good. (The way he grabbed me must be a politician thing because Cook County Commissioner Jerry “The Iceman” Butler grabbed me with the same force at the convention). After the photo was taken, I introduced myself.

“Hello Mr. President. It’s an honor to meet you. My name is Annie Smith. I’m a resident of the Chicago Housing Authority. I received two letters from you and I thank you for responding. I’m part of the entrepreneurship program at CHA.”

He stared me directly in my eyes and I became immobilized. My brain stopped sending me those same messages that I had rehearsed just hours before our meeting.

If it wasn’t for the lady that was talking to the president before me, I would have ran out of things to say. I overheard a few lines that someone else said to the president. So dumbfoundedly, I repeated something to this effect:

“If there is anything you need from me as far as your campaign is concerned, you know that you can always depend on me.”

He never took his eyes off mine. It’s a good thing he didn’t have Superman powers because he could have either seen right through me with his x-ray vision or burned a hole in my head with his laser emitting powers. That’s how powerful his stare was.

After my speech, he told me how nice it was to meet me and he disappeared.

As he walked away, I silently called him back. I began to run off the whole speech that I had rehearsed. “Don’t forget my mother’s from Eudora, Arkansas,” I called with my silence. “Calgon, take me away.” I looked towards the sky, wondering if I was really awake.

This was nothing like the dream I had on the plane. Where’s the room with the high ceiling and the high back chairs. We are not alone and I’m not comfortable. If I click my heels three times…….

Someone came up to me and helped get over my feeling of wanting to vanish. They guided me by my arm like I was blind and there I stood right in front of Hillary Clinton.

Where the President’s personality was overwhelming, Hillary took up the slack. She was warm and sincere. I wasn’t intimidated by her. I felt comfortable around her. I talked with her and she let flow from her a feeling: “You are among friends, you don’t have to feel intimidated.” It was as if she knew how I felt after I talked with her husband.

So I understand why Bill married Hillary. She has all the qualities of a lady who cares about all people and a smile that radiates sincerity. It’s as if she wrote the book on diplomacy. Yes, Mrs. Hillary Clinton, you are truly a First Lady.

I will never forget the Chicago Housing Authority Police Department (CHAPD). They made sure that I was escorted to and from the airport. They stayed with me until all matters were taken care of. They waited for me to arrive in Chicago even though my flight was delayed because of inclement weather here. I regret that I froze when I was speaking to the President.

I regret that I didn’t get a chance to speak on their behalf but Mr. President, if you read this article, please keep funding the CHAPD. Without them in our community, we would live in a battleground filled with crime. It’s a relief to see their squad car pull up because I know whatever the problem is, they will solve it.

Yes, I met the President, The First Lady, Vice President and his wife. But the real joy came when I walked through my door and my five children jumped me and threw me down on the chair and smothered me with kisses and hugs.

My oldest daughter stopped her attack on me and said. “Mother, I didn’t get a chance to throw a party. When are you leaving again?”

I replied, “There’s no place like home.”

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