A few days ago, a friend mentioned that an organization she belongs to was going to have Leon Panetta as a speaker. She was planning to go, to hear the former White House Chief of Staff under Bill Clinton, and former CIA director appointed by Barack Obama, among other positions he's held. I asked if I had ever told her about the time I had crossed paths with Panetta, and she said I hadn't. I realized that I hadn't told the story here either -- so with a Democratic Convention, which plays a part in the tale, just a few months away -- it seems as good a time as any.
In 2000, when the Democratic Convention was held in Los Angeles, I had a press pass and covered the event for the Writers Guild of America's magazine, Written By. I spent most of my time on the convention floor, which was wonderful (and from where I saw an absolutely wonderful documentary on the nominee, Al Gore, which alas because of network constraints never got shown on national television), but occasionally, I wandered out into the concourse and strolled around. It was there among the ocean of unrecognizable faces that, at one point, I saw Leon Panetta and, pleased by the unexpected opportunity in front of me, thought it would be nice to ask such an established political figure some questions for my article. I figured that having a quote from someone who was that prominent would add more than a bit of substance to my low-key wanderings and personal observations, and might even impress the editor who no doubt wasn't expecting such a thing, given what I had proposed. But Panetta was occupied by a group who was talking with him in what appeared to be intense conversation, and so I waited.
And waited. And waited. And then waited some more. I knew he was important in American politics, so I was patient, it was worth the wait -- but eventually, I was starting to get tired of waiting, there are limits when a day only has 24 hours and a convention has far fewer, so I moved a little closer. And as I neared, it became clear to me that Panetta wasn’t really talking with them at all, but rather it was a group of women who had converged on him, had his ear and were barraging him with their opinions. His part of the communication process was as The Listener. He seemed very polite, sort of nodding with a somewhat glazed look, but it seemed like he was almost being held hostage because he didn’t know how to get away. (Which is pretty hilarious, given that he was the White House Chief of Staff, and soon to be Secretary of Defense and later the CIA Director.) Clearly, he’s no shrinking violet. But he was just stuck there. Trapped, unable to know how to politely leave.
I had been watching this for almost 10 minutes, but that was after coming across it mid-stream. There was no way to know how long this had fully been going on. Given the polite, but frozen and silent smile on his face, accompanied by those empty head-nods we're all familiar with using in the midst of soul-sucking conversations when we realize we have No Way Out, it could have been hours.
I suddenly had an idea. Praying that I was right about this and wasn't about to cause an international incident (but unless the history of human body language had changed in the last 24-hours, I was pretty near-certain I was right...) I took another couple steps closer, interrupted and excused myself, and held up my press badge. “Excuse me, Mr. Panetta,” I said, “but we have…” – and instantly he knew exactly what I was doing (since he was well-aware that he didn’t know who I was and knew we did not have a scheduled appointment), and he suddenly spun and said to the women SO apologetically, so graciously, “Oh, I’m so sorry, but I have to get to this,” and they excused him as they quickly cut through the group.
He and I went walking off, not saying a word to each other yet, until we got far enough away. But while we quickly walked, as he looked straight ahead, he said out of the corner of his mouth, in an almost-whisper, “Thank you.”
To this day, I still laugh at memories of the "Thank you." and the look of controlled relief on his face, not quite far enough away from the Danger Zone to yet fully relax. Eventually, I did ask him a few questions and got to use the quotes in my article for the WGA magazine, which made my wanderings and observations far more substantive, and which the editor was indeed impressed with…
For which I gained immense admiration for the power of a group of women who had corralled the man who would soon be the Director of the Central Intelligence Agency in order to simply get across their opinions.
Politicians getting on the wrong side of women, take care.
Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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