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AN INVITATION FROM THE WHITE HOUSE
A Journey Worthy of the Destination

By Courtney Caldwell

Having just returned to Santa Monica and still on eastern standard time from spending 10 cold days in Detroit, I found myself up and ready to go at 5 a.m. on the morning of Feb. 17. I performed the usual morning rituals while listening to a morning TV news show in the background. A psychic, who looked more like somebody's grandfather, was a guest on one of the segments. He looked so friendly and believable. He began going through each sign and when he got to "Scorpio," I stopped spreading my peanut butter to listen.

"Scorpio's are entering an excellent period now and will continue for the next 30 days, especially in business." True or not, it's what I wanted to hear after a week of rejection and attitude from Detroit ad agencies. I sometimes think ad agency employees take a mandatory prerequisite on "How To Talk Down To, Insult, Demoralize and Offend Publishers." So the psychic's words were music to my ears. Something to look forward to. Little did I  know how much truth was about to be in those words.

 THE CALL
As I entered the office, the answering machine light caught my attention. In my creature-of-habit form, I pushed the retrieve button and went about doing business as usual like unloading my arms of packages, turning on lights and computers, and getting the coffee started. The first voice on the machine identified herself as Ellen from the women's white house. At first, I thought it was the White House store at the mall that sells all white women's clothing making some kind of sales pitch. But when she left the return number with a 202 area code, I realized the call was from the White House.

I wish I could tell you how cool I was continuing to listen to the 23 more messages awaiting me from the day before and getting the day started but no, I dropped all the packages, used the palm of my hand to push my jaw back up, and drank a full glass of water to get my voice back to a normal octave. What did they want?

After regaining my cool and composure, I returned the call to Ellen. She told me about a conference coming up on the 19th at the White House with Vice President Gore regarding the women's automotive market and asked me to fax her my bio. Honored, I complied. She asked if I'd be available to attend. Sure, I get invitations like this all the time. Gee, let me think about it. I'll check my calendar and get back to you. These are all the things I didn't say. Instead, in my most humble voice, I squeaked, "Of course, I'd love to, thank you." She said she'd be in touch (or not) after reviewing all the bios. As soon as I hung up I began to wonder if someone was playing a cruel joke on me. I can just see me getting on a plane, flying across the country on a phone call, and arriving to nothing. But nah, the details were too clear and, believe me, I looked for signs of trickery.

My calendar was intentionally kept clear for March to play catch-up from all the recent travel, but even if it hadn't, I would have dropped everything in a New York minute for this incredible opportunity. Still, it was comforting to know that I wouldn't have to cancel or reschedule any trips or appointments and inconvenience anyone who may have been counting on me. I hate it when that happens.

Mentally and physically exhausted from the 10 intense days in Detroit and still jetlagged, I felt  somewhat manic and overwhelmed. I flopped in my chair and just stared at the pile of mail, manuscripts, contracts, proposals, and dust sitting on my desk. Even the excitement of  the call hadn't quite kicked in yet. All I could think about was how relieved I felt that I didn't have to travel again for a month. I decided to give myself a break and relax, something that's a rare commodity in my life. This day would be spent just getting organized for the week. Tomorrow would be reserved for diving in with both feet.

The next morning I felt refreshed and dove into the piles of work covering the top of my desk, credenza, and most of the carpet, for that matter. The phone rang at 10 a.m. to which I answered "American Woman" in my annoying sing-song voice for the millionth time. "Hi, this is Ellen again from the White House women's office. I'm calling to invite you, as one of several women business owners in the automotive industry, to attend the conference at the White House with Vice President Gore on the 19th." Naturally, I was thrilled and honored but surprised at the speedy response. Nothing ever happens that quickly, I thought.

When asked exactly what it was I'd be attending, Ellen said she was merely the messenger and knew few details.

Elated nonetheless, I inquired, "Well then, what do you want us to do next?" Ellen replied, "Can you be out here at the White House for the conference by 1:50 p.m. on the 19th, tomorrow?" "Tomorrow?" I shrieked. "You're kidding, right?"  No she wasn't and no, Air Force One was not coming to get me. We were on our own. When I inquired why it was such short notice, she apologized and said, "That's just how they do things around here."

This meant I had to be on a nonstop flight within the next three hours if I were to get to Washington by late evening. It's a five- to six-hour flight with a three-hour time difference. Amply supplied with an enormous adrenaline rush, I began calling airlines immediately, as well as rescheduling and canceling appointments for the week, exactly what I wanted to avoid. The jetlag had somehow dissipated and became replaced with pure energy. 

THE PLAN
 Now if you know anything at all about traveling, under normal circumstances, it takes time to arrange flights and hotels, not to mention, advance reservations to save money. "Hello, this is Rita at American Airlines, how can I help you today?" said the friendly voice at the other end. Trying to contain my excitement, and fear of missing out on this extraordinary opportunity, I begged, "You're never going to believe this but I just had the most incredible opportunity come my way and I need your help," hoping to engage her curiosity and compassion to help. "What is it?" she responded with concern. I shared the tale from beginning to end to which she responded with genuine enthusiasm. Today was my lucky day because as we know, most attendants would not have responded so thoughtfully. "Let's see how quickly we can make this happen," she said in a take-charge manner.

The first flight out was at 12:30 p.m. which gave me only two hours to go home, repack and get to the airport. What does one wear to a White House Conference? Would I make it in time? Did I have any clean underwear left? Thank God I showered this morning. These were just a few of the thoughts that raced through my mind as I listened to Rita give the details of the flight.

Lost in thought, Rita's words snapped me right back to full attention. "$2,000!," I choked. "Yes," she said, "same day flights can be expensive." Pretty maxed out from the 10-day trip to Detroit, with obviously no time to regroup finances or mortgage my kids, my brain scrambled for other possible solutions. Then it hit me.

"Rita, I just became an AA Gold Advantage member. Does that offer any benefits that will help?" The fact is I had just become a preferred member on three airlines because of the extensive travel I did all of last year.

After searching her computer for my file, she came back to announce that I only had 17,000 miles left in my account. "You need 25,000 for a round trip ticket. However, as a gold card member, we can use 15,000 toward the trip and the balance will cost you only $225," she mused, clearly pleased with this find. Luck was with me again.

I flew out of the office, sped home, threw God knows what into a bag, hoped I hadn't forgotten anything, then raced to the airport. Much to my surprise, everything went quite smoothly, more so than most of my advanced plans.

THE COAT
Upon check-in I threw my winter coat over the counter while getting the ticket. No one was in line so I walked right up thinking how I lucked out again. The attendant behind the counter had never done a same-day ticket before and had to wait for the rep next to her to finish with a customer. With only 20 minutes left to board, I began to panic. They finally got it done and off I ran up the escalator, through security, down the hallway, into the jetway, and onto the plane, becoming the last one to board. Hey Hertz, need a new runner?

As soon as I sat down, I remembered leaving the coat over the counter with no time left to retrieve it. Damn, not only did I just lose an expensive winter coat but I'd freeze my ass off in D.C. in February. Having just had the flu twice, it wasn't a thought I relished but wasn't about to trade the White House for a coat. As the door started to close, I rang the attendant's bell who responded immediately. "I just left my coat over the ticket counter," hoping, at best, they'd find and hold it for my return. No questions asked, she commanded, "come with me." Just as we approached the cockpit, the door reopened and an attendant walked on board with my coat over her arm.  She looked right at me and said, "Miss Caldwell, I believe you left this at the front counter." Stunned and amazed, as was the flight attendant who was helping me, I took the coat and wondered how she knew me. We had never met. Was there really something in what that psychic said after all ? Or maybe it was just that total look of panic in my eyes, like a deer in headlights, when she opened the door.

THE FLIGHT
The flight left on time and sailed smoothly through the midday air into perfectly clear, beautiful blue skies. It was made to order. As I stared out the window on takeoff, I sighed with enormous relief that I made it. Still pumping with the adrenaline that kept me moving at the speed of light for the past two hours, everything began to feel surreal. I've never moved so quickly and got so much done in such a short time. I knew there would be a price to pay.

Within two hours it felt like a truck had hit me crashing and burning into a deep sleep, sitting up, something I rarely ever do on a plane. When I awoke, my throat was dry, which meant I slept with my mouth open (very attractive), and my spine and neck had locked into an S position from not moving. My breath would have killed an elephant. Between the contortions, the probable snoring, and reeking breath, it was surprising to see the guy next to me still sitting there. Waiting for my senses to return and my back to unlock, I realized it had gotten dark.

By the time I arrived at Hotel Washington it was 11 p.m. and I was tired, sore, and more jetlagged than ever, never a good combination for anyone. By the way, for you travelers or sightseers, this is a cozy, old-world hotel, right next door to the White House. The rooms were only $135 per night, which is inexpensive by today's standards. I highly recommend it.

WAAI
 Lorraine Schultz, founder of the Women's Automotive Association International, and I were the first to arrive at the security gate of the White House. The weather was damp and drizzly and the guard house, not big enough to hold many people, was the only shelter. The secret service man behind a desk checked us in, then informed me that we wouldn't be allowed in until 2:00. Special guests were attending a bill signing at 1:50 p.m. first and then the rest of us would be herded in later. A bill signing? Finally, our first real clue.

We got the distinct impression that nobody really knew what was going on, except the special guests, although everyone seemed honored and excited at being invited. Before long, the guard house filled and everyone was sharing how they were called and dropped everything to get there, a feat no one seemed to mind.

THE WHITE HOUSE
Finally the "special guests for the signing" had all arrived and were asked to follow a secret service man who led them out the back door of the guard house and onto the White House lawn. Lorraine and I tagged along since we were already inside the guard house. When in Rome! As we approached the White House, the lawn to the right was scattered with television cameras and equipment, dozens of pieces. Cameramen sat around clenching their coats and coffees to keep warm for what looked like a marathon waiting contest.

I asked a White House employee who was walking in our pack what they were waiting for, to which he replied, "Nothing, that's their job. They just sit there all day long waiting for a press conference to happen. They're the White House press corps that cover conferences held on the White House lawn that you see on TV all the time." Amazed, I replied, "You mean to tell me that people sit there in the rain or snow, seven days a week, all day long just in case there's an announcement?" Picking up the pace and briskly walking past me, he looked over his shoulder, contorted his lips to one side to ensure I would hear his answer and said in a tone that implied he was happy it wasn't his job, "Yep, that's right."

As we passed the press corps, the special group was escorted off to the right of the White House and down a set of stairs toward the street. Lorraine and I were near the tail end of the group just following along until I opened my big mouth and asked another tagged employee where we were going. She asked, "aren't you here for the bill signing?" Trying to appear knowledgeable and not wanting to get sent back to the guard house, I replied cooly, "Oh yes, we're here for the whole thing including the press conference with Vice President Gore." With a skilled eye and ear for bull, she coyly grinned at us and said, "Oh, you two need to go this way," pointing toward the White House and in the opposite direction of the special group. Well, it was worth a try. At least we didn't get sent back to the guard house.

THE ROOSEVELT ROOM
 We entered a set of double doors and found ourselves inside a Victorian-style sitting room with high ceilings. It was quite lovely, very Rooseveltish-like. It gave you a sense of waiting in an upscale doctor's office on the east coast 200 years ago. A large man sitting behind a large desk greeted us with a large smile and said, "How can I help you ladies?" There was no one else in the room. We explained who we were and why we were there, or at least what we knew of why we were there. He instructed us sign in then told us to wait.

Before long, the room began to fill with guests and White House staff, most of whom were personal assistants to Vice President and Mrs. Gore, President and Mrs. Clinton, or members of the White House women's initiatives office. They seemed as pleased to meet us as we were to meet them and were genuinely friendly. We exchanged cards and shared what each of us did in the women's market.

Soon the special guests emerged from the bill-signing and all were asked to be seated in the Roosevelt press room. No wonder the waiting room felt so Rooseveltish. The press room was small with a large group of media sardined together on a raised platform in the back of the room. The camera lights were extremely bright, not the kind of lighting most women like to have shining in their face, especially in such small quarters.

Seven seats were reserved up front for the seven women business owners. Sitting in front was nice but it forced us to crane our necks to see the who's who in the room. The faces were unfamiliar. In fact, the majority of the room was filled with African-American and Hispanic men. Bells went off in my head. This is about all minority markets in the automotive industry, not just the women's market, I thought to myself. This concept pleased me because it's a well-known fact that minority and women-owned businesses in most industry's have to work twice as hard to get half the recognition. As the mystery began to unfold, my journalism hat replaced my guest hat, filling notepad pages quickly with observations, speculations, and pure gut feelings.

THE PHOTO OP
I pulled Audrey Haynes aside, Deputy Assistant to the President and Director of Women's Initiatives and Outreach, who seemed to be our main contact there, to ask if we could get a photo with the Veep for my story.  "No" she said, "there just isn't enough time and he has to go to another meeting straight from here, sorry." "Can we take pictures while he's speaking," I inquired with hope. "No, I'm sorry, camera's aren't allowed."

Undaunted, and not one to take no for an answer, I pursued another angle. "Well, since he's so pressed for time afterward, then perhaps we could get a quick group shot right before he walks into the room which would take just a minute or two. It would be great for the story, as well as give these women something to take back, especially since they worked so hard to get here on such short notice." My Catholic mother used guilt to get me to do things when I was a kid and it usually worked. Hoping Audrey would someday forgive my tactics, she paused and let out a deep sigh (not wanting to banter with me) replying, "Well, okay, but we'll have to make it quick." I thanked her profusely as she maneuvered the seven of us out of the crowded room.

She led us down a hallway that looked like any-office-hallway, USA. We emerged next to what appeared to be the hallway to the Oval Office. The walls were rounded and the door to the office was closed but the surroundings had a familiar look, probably from TV. Audrey instructed us that the Vice President would come out of a door she pointed to, with the staff photographer. She asked us to stand in a semi-circle ready for the photo op upon his arrival. Three men were standing across from us who represented General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler. They were there for the signing of "the mystery bill."

WAITING FOR THE VICE PRESIDENT
We were standing in our half circle trying to loosen up the nervous tension with laughter. The men were standing across the room doing the same. It gave you the odd sense of being back in the seventh grade at a dance when the girls stood on one side of the room and the boys on the other, all too shy to make the first move. Finally, to break the awkwardness, Geralda Dodd, president of Integrated Steel in Detroit, and the only African-American woman in our group of magnificent seven, broke the circle and strutted her stuff right over to the boys with hand extended. "Hi," she said to the first man she reached, "I'm Geralda Dodd with Integrated Steel in Detroit." He shook her hand and introduced himself as one of the men from the Big Three, then said, "Thank you for coming." Geralda smiled and boldly returned, "Well thank you, but you didn't invite me here, the White House did."

Uncertain whether he had met his match or not he conceded with a nervous chuckle which somehow broke the ice that seemed to freeze the room. The rest of us swarmed in to meet the outnumbered men and warmly greeted them with introductions and handshakes. Moments later, it was announced that Al Gore was about to enter the room. The room fell silent as the men stood abreast with their hands crisscrossed in front like pallbearers or bodyguards do when waiting around. The women scurried back into their half circle ironically regrouping by size with the tallest women in the center and the pip-squeaks at the end.

THE ARRIVAL
An entourage emerged from a closed door but due to the curved wall you could hear, not see, who it was. The first body seen was the backside of a photographer who was walking backward taking shots of the Vice President as he walked into the room. Next was a PR guy who was walking and talking with the Veep, his arms loaded with papers and clipboards. As they rounded the corner, Al Gore appeared. A big man, pale, with bloodshot eyes, looking almost disheveled but not quite, dust in the crease of his shoes. He had just returned on a midnight flight from flood-ravaged California to assess the damage. We were told he was devastated at the loss of property and life he had seen. His experience seemed to reflect that in his lifeless face and wooden composure. It was as if he were on automatic pilot.

Mr. Gore was directed to the three men first who were closest to him. He graciously stopped at each one, shook his hand and allowed each one a moment to introduce themselves and say thank you for being here. When through, the Veep stood between the men for a photo. He then approached the women's circle. We were introduced as women business owners who represented the auto industry. Mr. Gore then started at the beginning of the half circle shaking each hand and sparing a moment for introductions. When he got to Lyn St. James, he smiled and said, "Ah yes, the race car driver. I'm a big fan of yours." The smile on Lyn's face couldn't have been any broader had a vice been used. Well, I guess one was, a vice president.

As the last one in the greeting circle, I had a clear shot to observe the reactions of everyone who shook his hand and it was in deed, a sight to behold. What was of particular interest was the way Mr. Gore made such deep, penetrating eye contact with each person, in spite of how exhausted he was. The camera popped with every handshake. When it was over, I thanked Audrey for the wonderful photo op, hoping she didn't regret it.

THE GRAND ENTRANCE
Due to the now-tighter schedule, Audrey announced that we'd return to the conference room through a door to my right instead of the way we left. This entrance would lead us into the front of the press room where everyone was facing. The seven women entered the room first, with lights glaring and camera's rolling. We were followed by the three men, Aida Alvarez, Administrator for the U.S. Small Business Administration, and then the Vice President. Whether it was intended or not, it was an entrance that made a significant statement, truly a Kodak moment.

Ms. Alvarez and Mr. Gore stood a few feet behind the podium as a publicist introduced himself and a hint of what we had all come together for. It was beginning to make sense. First he introduced several senators and congressmen from Detroit and then welcomed Dr. Ray Jensen, Director of Minority Supplier Development for Ford Motor Company, to the podium. There, Dr. Jensen, a stately elder with graying sides, began to unravel the mystery. We were there to witness the unveiling of a history-making pilot program between the U. S. government and domestic automakers that would benefit minority-owned businesses in the automotive industry with a special emphasis on suppliers.

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