The Day I Met Hillary Clinton
A Cold Afternoon In 1994
The author relates his experiences meeting Hillary Rodham Clinton.
It was a cold and wet afternoon on February 14, 1994, as a bus full of political students from a little high school in Maine pulled up to the airport. On the tarmac, a passenger jet with “United States of America” scrawled across its side as a badge of honor. It had been arranged that this class would get the opportunity to meet the First Lady, Hillary Rodham Clinton.
As the bus emptied, the students were hustled into a waiting area. Hillary Clinton was in Maine to promote her husband’s healthcare initiative in an important midterm election season. The hope was for the students to get a few minutes with Hillary to discuss the importance of trips like this one. George Mitchell, the powerful Democratic Majority Leader in the Senate, William Cohen, a Republican veteran of the Senate floor, Tom Andrews, a disabled representative, as well as Olympia Snowe, who would eventually go on to replace Cohen in the Senate, all were travelling with Hillary as well. For these high school students, it was an ideal way for them to hear first-hand what it was like down in D.C.
And so, they waited. And waited. And waited some more. What was to be the meeting time passed and disappeared as the clock continued. Hillary’s aides at the airport were confused as well, and did not expect this delay. Some phone calls were made (this was in the days before cell phones, after all), and eventually it was discovered that at her stop immediately before the class, a nursing home, there had been a medical emergency of one of the residents.
Hillary Clinton had decided to stay until she was certain that the resident was going to be fine.
Three hours late, the call came in for the students to, rather than meet and talk, go to the plane and say a few words before she had to depart. One student, a large, shy kid sporting rather large glasses, got to the end of the line, in the hopes he would be generally overlooked. He was already nervous at being there, but to be put into a handshaking line, rather than hiding at the back of the room, that was a bit much for him. But then, the line formed up at the plane, and the end of the line was now the beginning, with the 17-year-old now agape as the limos pulled up, and out game the politicians.
when the cameras were off and it was just her, and some kids on an airport tarmac, the image of Hillary as larger-than-life melted away.
And in front of the group, the First Lady, strode forward with an outstretched hand. Rather than the usual political pleasantries, the first thing Hillary Clinton said was:
“I hope you were not kept out here in the rain. I am sorry for being late.”
An awkward assurance that all was fine, a smile, and so did Hillary meet each of the students, not as a politician, not as a spokesperson, but as someone who genuinely was worried about having made them all wait on that wet late afternoon into evening. She even saw how one student had made homemade pins of her husband, using photographs taken at a rally two years prior, and offered to bring them to him to autograph.
No matter what else was said or done, there, when the cameras were off and it was just her, and some kids on an airport tarmac, the image of Hillary as larger than life melted away. She was one just as they were, a student, wanting to meet and speak with the leaders of state, and learn how the system worked. Hillary marked each of them, not as a leader, but as a genuine and warm person. When the cameras were off, when the world was not watching, she showed concern, empathy, joviality, and most of all a genuine spirit of camaraderie. These were not leaders, heads of state, powerful people, most were not even able to vote. Yet she greeted them genuinely, with her heart on her sleeve.
Some weeks later, an envelope arrived, with photographs of each student with Hillary shaking their hand. The package even included the homemade pins, each one autographed by President Clinton. And within, a handwritten note to the students, thanking them for meeting Hillary and her hope that they all would meet again.
That line of students grew up, and became something. From local television to working in D.C., the distance of the class did not change how, when they did meet, they discussed that cold and wet evening in the middle of February. No matter where life took them, or her, that moment was shared and forever would be. The comments were that Hillary was warm, concerned over their own well being, That she delayed meeting them not for some fundraiser or rally, but to make sure a senior at the nursing home she was visiting was going to be alright.
As for that awkward kid who wound up at the front of the line – I became a writer for Reverb Press. And I do remember that firm handshake on that cold evening, and the warm person asking to my own well being.
Cover Photograph: Hillary Clinton and Nathaniel Downes, taken by White House photographer.
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