INVITATION FROM THE WHITE HOUSE
Journey Worthy of the Destination
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
asked exactly what it was I'd be attending, Ellen said she was
merely the messenger and knew few details.
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."
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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."
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.
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."
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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