Meeting the POTUS wasâ€¦
Surreal. Yesterday was one of those magical moments that defy words. I may be an author but Iâ€™m struggling to capture the magnitude of this experience.
Here I was, sitting at home, reading through health care insurance bills, trying to digest what they were telling me, and I reached a personal tipping point. I was so upset and frustrated that I was crying. The fat cats in the executive offices and the big wigs who make the monster salaries had moved the goal post on me again and were laughing at me. Yep, sitting at the table with a pile of household bills in front of me, my kidâ€™s tuition bills scaring me, while trying to compile FASFA informationâ€”student financial aid stuff, which meant I had to get my taxes done early to meet their March 1 deadlineâ€¦ and Independence Blue Cross was saying that my rate would go up from $301/mo to $659/mo and my kidâ€™s insurance coverage cost would also double, unless I wanted to purchase their really BAD policy that has a $5,000 deductible (versus the one I had with a $500 deductible.)
Slowly my outrage turned to rage when I realized that the insurer was holding me hostageâ€”and being from Philly (smile) the â€œfightâ€ in me rose up. I got up from the dining room table and said, â€œAw hell to the no!â€ I knew that since I had type 2 Diabetes, I probably wouldnâ€™t be able to get another insurer to take me. Iâ€™d be denied on the basis of a pre-existing condition, but my daughter was in the clear. So, my first move was to find her a policy. In my mind, at least the rat bastards at IBX wouldnâ€™t get my money for her. But I was still really, really, really angry. And the more I watched my favorite news showsâ€”yes, I admit it, Iâ€™m a news junkyâ€”and I watch Hardball with Chris Matthews, The Ed Show, then Keith Olberman, and Rachel Maddow to stay up on current eventsâ€”the angrier I got when I realized that the issues in Washington werenâ€™t about policy disagreements; this was all about power and not allowing our current President to appear to have â€œa win.â€
That realization translated into a flaming email supporting health care reform and supporting their drive to get it done sent to the White House â€“ through their websiteâ€¦ then to the websites of my Senator, then my Congressman, then my Governorâ€¦ then to MSNBC. It was a morning of email venting, LOL. When I was done I felt slightly better albeit my life was still the same. So, I went about my daily business, trying to figure out what this self-employed, divorced single mom was gonna do.
Unfortunately, I didnâ€™t have the luxury to go into a deep funk. I had to keep it moving. As an entrepreneur the first thing you learn is that, there are no â€œsick days,â€ no paid vacation days, no disability, or other benefits of being employed by someone else. If you donâ€™t go to work, you donâ€™t get paidâ€”and I had book deadlines looming. Iâ€™m not complaining, just stating this as my reality. Itâ€™s a blessing to be able to work for yourself. But itâ€™s a blessing that cuts both ways. The good news is you work for yourself. The bad news is that you work for yourself. All employer benefits are paid by youâ€”because YOU are the employer of yourself. I know, I know, it sounds a bit Alice In Wonderland-esque. But you get my point.
Anyway, the fateful day when I had my meltdown was February 11th. Weeks went by and I had truly forgotten all about it. The moment I pushed send on the electronic White House form, I had already accepted that I was one of MILLIONS of people with the same problem, one of countless others who had a long story, and one of an unfathomable number that probably vent on their elected officialsâ€™ emailâ€”that I assumed never got read by anyone anyway.
But one day I happened to get a call from a lady claiming to be from the White House. Initially I laughed, thinking Iâ€™d been pranked. Then when she remained serious, I thoughtâ€”Uh, oh, Homeland Security maybe didnâ€™t appreciate the tone of my email outburstâ€¦ am I in trouble (?) However, Ann assured me that they found my letter interesting and compellingâ€¦ and, explained — with many caveats about not being able to promise anything â€“ that â€œifâ€ I passed vetting, then â€œmaybeâ€ I could introduce the President of the United States at his rally.
When the call ended, I set down the phone very slowly and very carefully. I told my daughter, but wouldnâ€™t allow her to get all excited or to tell anyone in the family, because I thought, â€œYeah, right, me vetted. I write vampire novels and about werewolves in the US Militaryâ€”FAT CHANCE!â€ Then I laughed out loud at the absurdity of my writing genre and that â€œIâ€ would get a call from the White House. I figured, no way. I put the â€œincidentâ€ of the call out of my mind and went to my stepmotherâ€™s party that she was having in Trenton for her 90 year old motherâ€™s birthday.
Thoroughly enjoying myself, Iâ€™m sitting at a lovely banquet with friends and family all around. My sister and daughter are cutting up with my aunt and cousins and my cousinâ€™s husband, and then my cell phone goes off. Initially I was annoyed at myself, having forgotten to put my phone on vibrate. But when I pulled it out of my purse and I saw the number with a 202 area code, instinct kicked in and I answered it.
Yâ€™allâ€¦ to hear the words, â€œThis is so & so from THE WHITE HOUSEâ€ is deep. It creates a moment of cognitive dissonance, a surreal otherworldly feeling like youâ€™ve been zapped into a TV or movie script, or an episode from The West Wing.
The ebullient young woman who Iâ€™d spoken to the first time was on the line with a very cheery voice. She said, â€œWell Ms. Banks, youâ€™ve passed vetting and weâ€™d like you to introduce the President.â€ Mind you, the whole time, my family is telling me to get off the phone so we can take pictures, and Iâ€™m trying to shoo them and shush them while mouthing the words, ITâ€™S THE WHITE HOUSE! And they think Iâ€™m playing, LOL!
The moment the call ended, I started squealing (low timbre, just for the tableâ€”because a whole program was going on and the outburst would have caused a big disruption.) But after several tries, the word ripped around the huge banquet table and all ten of us seated were on the same page. Then the outburst began in earnest. A gazillion questions hit me, and I had no answers. My daughter and I floated on the ride home with my cousin and her husband, who drove. All I could think wasâ€¦ this is really happening. But then I braced myself thinkingâ€”plans change at the last minute. Some big wig with a lot more juice than me might get picked to ultimately do this. Iâ€™m just honored that somebody up the food chain heard my little cry in the wilderness.
I got home and sat down and took a deep breath. My daughter was already on Face Book telling her friends. Then the phone began ringing with instructions from the White House â€“ Ms. Banks weâ€™ll need to see your remarks via email by 2PM. Ms. Banks weâ€™ll need you to come up to do a walk through and security check. Ms. Banks youâ€™ll need to pick up your tickets from your Congressmanâ€™s office. THATâ€™S when I knew it was real. Thatâ€™s also when I started lobbying to get my daughter, my sister, and my stepmom in, LOL. I shamelessly begged for more than the one ticket they had set aside for my child. Yes, groveled, BIG GRINâ€”ainâ€™t too proud to beg. This was HISTORY. And the angels above must have heard me because I was able to get them, much to the screaming delight of my family members.
It was a day of days. Butterflies consumed my stomach. The night before I couldnâ€™t sleep. I pressed my suit twice. I put too much hairspray in my hair. I kept hard candy in my mouth, because I kept feeling like I was having a hypoglycemic crash. I couldnâ€™t tell if it was nerves or if I was really going to do a diabetic pass out thing and mess up really badly.
On the ride up to the event Monday morning, my family was chatting excitedly but I was trying to memorize my short speech, the whole time thinkingâ€¦ my binder will touch a podium that has the Presidential seal on it. I will be standing where President Obama will be standing. Even if Secret Service doesnâ€™t allow me to actually meet him, Iâ€™ll have stood there where heâ€™ll stand, right in front of the American flag. Wow.
When we arrived at Arcadia University it was organized chaos. My family got to park in the VIP area, which had us screaming again in the car. Weâ€™d be cool, pass a security checkpoint. Iâ€™d give my name and IDâ€”the Secret Service guy would say, â€œAll right, Ms. Banks, right this way,â€ AND WEâ€™D SCREAMâ€¦ after we drove away, of course.
However, my sister, stepmom, and daughter had to go get in a line that was two blocks longâ€”and with trepidation we separated. I told them not to worry and that I didnâ€™t even know if I was going to meet him, but since they had â€œblueâ€ VIP tickets that guaranteed them a chance to be in the front section, it would be okay. The rest was up to God and prayer.
With my heart beating out of my chest, I waited to be collected at the side door by the designated staffer, Sally. Like Ann and Joelle, she was wonderfully nice. Before too long, the pleasant, smiling staffer came and got me. She beamed and said, â€œAre you ready, Ms. Banks?â€
Ready? Ready? OMG, who could be READY! But I smiled back at her, nodded, and then stepped into the building and waited as my purse was searched and my body was wand scanned. The staffer apologized, but said that it was a necessary formality for those in close proximity to the President. I was almost in tears with excitement and would have submitted to a strip search if theyâ€™d asked!
After that brief delay she ushered me through to where people would sit behind the velvet rope and I watched as other staffers began putting down name pages on seats for senators, congressmen, et al. My ears were ringing and my face was flushed as the gymnasium began to fill and elected officials started coming into the section where I sat very quietly, clutching my handbag and my binder, in shell shock. I was going to meet the President. I was going to speak before the President.
From the corner of my eye I saw my family and then that broke me out of the trance. I waved at them and blotted my nose, then grabbed my compactâ€”my face had oily t-zone and there was no glamour in that. Nerves made my voice stick in my throat. People began wondering who I was and a few elected officials came and shook my hand. But when the staffer came to collect me and I stood up, it was all I could do not to pass out.
It was a total out-of-body experience as Sally pressed back the blue curtain and led us behind the stage. Me, a young man giving the invocation, a professor leading the Pledge of Allegiance in sign language, and a choir that would sing the Star Spangled Banner all filed behind Sally nervous and excited. Once behind stage weâ€™d stepped into a frenetic scene with Secret Service guys, TV monitors, folks buzzing around with headsets, walkie talkies, and people murmuring into their watches. Everyone had a wire in their ear and every guy in a suit seemed like heâ€™d stepped out of the movie, Men in Black.
After the others went on stage I was told to stand alone in an alcove. The President was going to meet and greet the VIPs from the University and other dignitaries, and then Iâ€™d hear my cue to go on. But then a really kind staffer, Tim, said to the very nice woman that had been giving me instructions, Sally, â€œAfter that, bring Ms. Banks back in, sheâ€™ll have a private moment with The President, then cue her up for the stage.â€ I almost fainted.
The guys who surrounded the President must have seen that look of deer in the headlights before, because one of the â€œMen in Blackâ€ said in a completely deadpan expression, â€œMaâ€™am, when you meet the POTUS, there are two things you cannot do.â€ Eager and breathless, I said, â€œWhat?â€ He smiled and said, â€œDonâ€™t puke and donâ€™t faint.â€ It took me a moment to realize that he was just trying to loosen me up, and then I laughed. Thatâ€™s when six burly guys came forwardâ€”two in front of President Obama, two on his flank, two behind him, and a couple were behind me, I think.
I just stood there, mouth slightly agape, frozen, and the President walked forward with that big ole, dashing smile of his and said, â€œYou must be Leslie.â€ The warmth he exuded was authentic. Then he said, â€œI want to thank you for doing this,â€ as he shook my hand. But I shook my head and told him, â€œNo, Mr. President. Thank YOU for all youâ€™re doing for USâ€”for fighting for us and for being you.â€ Then he just hugged me and told me to â€œKnock â€˜em deadâ€ with my speech.
The handlers then hustled me to the curtain. But my speech had gone out of my head! Things Iâ€™d wanted to sayâ€”like telling the President how I took my fatherâ€™s tie and my motherâ€™s ring into the voting booth with me because they didnâ€™t live to see him get electedâ€¦ or how my daughter had just turned 18 years old and how she and I went together early in the morning to vote for her first time by pulling the lever for him. I didnâ€™t get to say any of that. It was an amazing, ephemeral moment that went by in a flash like a dream.
The only thing I had to hold onto to steady myself were the encouraging words the President said. Then I thought of my parents whoâ€™d gone on to Glory. I thought of my Dad and my Mom, and then my grandmothers and all my dear aunties as the announcer made the preamble introduction. I whispered a little prayer to themâ€”â€œPlease donâ€™t let me mess up. Please let me do you proud.â€ Then I asked God himself, â€œPlease let me say what You want me to say in a way that can help people.â€ Then I stepped through the curtain into the bright stage lights. Truthfully, it felt like a near death experience.
But the only thing that I could focus on was, I had said a prayer and I was gonna tell the truth. Millions of people were suffering because some politicians were playing games, and the man backstage who I metâ€”the honorable man of good character who was also a husband and father, whoâ€™d watched his own mother die while insurance companies made her last days a living hell, was behind the curtain waiting for me to say something real that would warm up the crowd. I was being given the honor to warm up the crowd for the most important individual in the free worldâ€”a global leader.
Outright panic set in as I put my binder gently on top of his. Iâ€™d been instructed to be sure not to move his and to take mine away when I was done. My family would either witness my success or my humiliation, if people booed me or if I made a terrible gaff. Then I took another deep breath and from somewhere Divine calm fell over me. I realized in the back of my mind that someone really bigâ€”like up in Heaven kinda bigâ€”had to make so many dominoes fall â€œjust the right wayâ€ in order for someone on the Presidentâ€™s staff to pluck me from obscurity, then to put me on that stage. Thatâ€™s when I knew the Most High was not going to allow me to mess up. Couldnâ€™t happen. I had work to do.
And as I said the words, and as feeling started to build in my speech rhythm, and folks started nodding, then clapping, and shouting, â€œYeah!â€ — I knew it was going to be okay. I was almost there; all I had to do was say what an honor and a privilege it was to introduce President Barack Obamaâ€¦ and it was! THAT was the TRUTH!
When I said it, I felt the tips of my toes tingle. I felt my fingers tingle. I felt like light was shooting out of the top of my head. Then they played the Presidential anthem as the crowd roared and I was frozen where I stood. Theyâ€™d told me to wait for him to get to the podium before I took my leave. Andâ€¦ when he finally reached me, after shaking hands with as many people as he could along the way, I was expecting maybe a formal handshake, but he opened his arms and gave me a big hug and said â€œThank you, Leslie.â€
I collected my binder and tried to walk away with as much dignity as I could muster, but tears blurred my vision. I couldnâ€™t see the first step down off the platform and said another prayerâ€”â€œGod, please donâ€™t let me misstep and mess this up for the President. Just get me down and into a chair without passing out or hyperventilating.â€
I made it to my seat, I canâ€™t even tell you howâ€”and then promptly put a piece of hard candy in my mouth because â€œthat feelingâ€ of wooziness was back. I think I shook several hands in my section on the way to my seat. People were congratulating me after the event for seeming calm and poised, and I was asked if I had I done lots of rallies before.
No. There is NOTHING that can prepare you for an experience like this. Nothing.
Once the Presidentâ€™s FABULOUS speech was over and the crowd thinned, and the POTUS had cleared the building, I found my family. Reunited, they were squealing and hugging, and heâ€™d shaken their hands too! THAT really made my day! My daughter was waving her hand around saying, â€œMommy, he shook my hand!â€ LOL! Then somehow along the way and in the midst of the personal pandemonium I managed to answer the questions of a wonderful reporter from The Philadelphia Inquirer (Annette Hall) â€“ she saw the tears, she saw the excitementâ€”she understood what I was saying.
Now on a mission to find lunch and celebrate, in the parking lot I turned on my cell phone. My phone had BLOWN UP with messages, BIG SMILE. My daughter, who has one of those sexy new gadgets, she went on Face Book and just burst out laughing.
In a huge booth in TGI Fridays we toasted and celebrated until we all realized just how emotionally exhausted we wereâ€”and went home. I took off my shoes and suit and sat down heavily on the side of the bed, and then began going through the messages on both my home and office phones. One particularly urgent one, however, made me stand up. The call was simple: â€œMs. Banks, this is The Ed Show on MSNBC. We need to have you in the studio at the top of the six oâ€™clock hour. Please call us back.â€ Then came a second call. â€œMs. Banks, this is The Ed Show againâ€”â€
I didnâ€™t even listen to the rest of it, but called the number that had shown up on my caller ID. Meanwhile I was yelling to my daughter, â€œDonâ€™t get undressed, theyâ€™re sending a car!â€ She screamed in the background as the call connected and I got the details, all the while hopping into my suit one leg at a time.
A big black Lincoln Towne Car pulled up to my house and we were on our way to a studio uplink location. But then my cell rang in my purse and it was local news channel NBC 10. They wanted to know what it was like to introduce the President and wanted an interview that would air on the 11 oâ€™clock news. So we made arrangements for them to meet me back at my house when the car brought us back.
Quick in the chair at the studio for a hit of make up, then into the camera room to be wired for sound, and it was five, four, three, two, one, â€œYouâ€™re on after a four minute intro, Ms. Banks.â€ OMG!
Breathe, breathe, I kept telling myself. The questions came fast and crisply, then they told me through the ear wire that I was done. Whew!
Back in the car, my daughter was laughing as we sped our way homeâ€”and when we got there a huge NBC 10 News van was parked in front of my house! But, of course, someone had let their dog leave a pile right in front of my steps. On all days!!!! My daughter was mortified as the lovely news anchor, Claudia Rivera, stepped out of the news van with her camera man.
Being mom, I told my kid to run in the house and to get me a plastic bag and a paper towelâ€”and I talked to the anchor while I cleared dog poop from the path in my suit and designer handbag and heels, then tossed the refuse in the can in my side yard and welcomed her in. The anchor laughed as I explained that I needed to wash my hands firstâ€”and said, â€œHey, this is Philly, ya knowâ€¦ some things arenâ€™t glamorous and most things like this donâ€™t change.â€
One more interview down. I was too weary to worry about the fact that Iâ€™d been on book deadline and my house had dust bunnies. We laughed when I told them to make it a tight shot so folks wouldnâ€™t REALLY see how I kept house while writing. Miraculously, the phone didnâ€™t ring during the entire interview process, but the moment the van pulled away from the curb, again, my phone went crazy.
Until well past midnight and then beginning again at 5AM my phone has been ringing off the hook. Face Book is crazy. My deadline discipline is shotâ€”so sorry to say, this book Iâ€™m working on may be a little behind schedule, but with good cause. Itâ€™s not every day that oneâ€™s dreams come true.
Ironically, the news anchor made me realize that Iâ€™d had a collage on my wall for a couple of years â€“ one of Obama and his family that my cousinâ€™s friend Larry had made for me. You know how you have stuff in your house or on your walls that you see everyday but that are so part of the environment they no longer register in your mind? Yeahâ€¦ like that. The collage was just a part of the living room wall.
But that was the first thing the news anchor went to and asked, â€œDid you just put this up?â€ I told her, â€œNoâ€¦. wowâ€¦ Iâ€™d put it up when he was running for office and really itâ€™s just like a fixture on the living room wall. Iâ€™d forgotten about it.â€ Just like Iâ€™d forgotten about the little campaign flyer Iâ€™d taped to my front door window and the bumper sticker thatâ€™s on my car.
Hmmmmâ€¦. Very fortuitous. Maybe there are no coincidences after all?
I believe in this President, like no other before. I believe in what heâ€™s trying to do. I believe in health care reform and Iâ€™m willing to fight for it. I believe we ARE our brotherâ€™s and sisterâ€™s keeper. I believe that what happens to the least among us IS important. I believe that food, shelter, clothing, education, and access to health care is a fundamental human right. No person should go hungry or homeless or be left to die because they donâ€™t have the money to pay. To not make a way â€“ especially in the richest nation on the planet — for people not to die in the streets or be crippled by bankruptcy for the sake of their lives, is frankly barbaric to me. I never dreamed in my wildest imagination that Iâ€™d get a chance to stand up somewhere and say that on behalf of so many whose voices have not been heard. And to do so before the person we elected to make a differenceâ€¦ there are simply no words. I am humbled and grateful, and completely blown away. I say a prayer for President Obama and his entire family.
THANK YOU ALL for the wonderful words of encouragement, support, well wishes, and for allowing me to share this story and this fantastic journey with you!
Much love and a BIG PHILLY HUG, Leslie!
May we ALL stay in the Light!