>Collecting presidentsPosted: May 13, 2008
>I’ve now seen my second president. The first was President Gerald Ford, and the circumstances were very different. Fourteen years ago, the former president was stumping for Republican candidates at a mansion in Saratoga, CA, and I was the editor of the Saratoga News. Photographer Ed Lee and I had access to everything and everyone. I took notes like crazy. Ed Lee ran around snapping photos, so excited it’s a wonder he didn’t faint. When the speeches were over, we were invited into the living room, where we shook the former president’s hand and sipped champagne from commemorative glasses. Of course we were two of many, but, as cynical as reporters are supposed to be, I was thrilled. I know, Ford wasn’t in office that long, he wasn’t one of the greats, he wasn’t even my party, but who cares. He was a president.
Back at the office, I cranked out my front page story while Ed developed his photos the old fashioned way in the darkroom. We were stoked.
I’d seen lots of politicians. I’d interviewed state legislators, countless mayors and city council members. I even photographed Gov. Jerry Brown in his office in Sacramento. But Ford had been president of the United States.
This week I saw former president Bill Clinton. I was just part of the crowd, standing at the Newport marina looking through gaps between the shoulders of tall teens in gray hoodies. I recognized the media running around with their badges and the black-suited politicians and secret service members clustered around the back of the stage, but this time there would be no hand-shaking, no introductions. I was just one more anonymous, middle-aged Oregon coast voter.
Cheers erupted when an SUV pulled up from a service road at 4:30. As the black-suited men walked toward the stage, Clinton was taller than the rest, his hair shiny white. I was close enough to see his face clearly, and I was as star-struck as anyone else.
I was also jealous of the reporters, missing my newspaper days, although I’m not sure what I would have written. Probably just a caption. He gave the same speech at every stop. The glory would go to those taking photos of Clinton standing against the picturesque backdrop of the Yaquina Bay bridge.
A lot of teenagers came, saw, snapped pictures with their cell phone cameras and left, enabling to me to move closer and closer. They didn’t know the history. They didn’t vote for Clinton when he became our first baby boomer president. George Bush has been president so long he’s probably the only president they remember.
I didn’t even have a camera with me because I hadn’t expected to attend. I didn’t know until the night before that Clinton was coming to our little coastal town. And I didn’t find out until that morning where and what time he would be speaking. If he had not been an hour late, I would have missed it because I was getting my hair cut.
What does one write about a former president seeking votes for his wife to become the next president, insisting she can still win when the numbers favor her opponent? I doubt that anybody really cared much what Clinton said. His basic message–the country needs fixing and Hillary can do it—was no surprise. Folks just wanted to see a former president. As did I. I’m thinking of collecting them, like commemorative quarters.
It was freezing out at the marina. Even in mid-May, bundled up in our heavy coats and stocking caps, it felt awfully cold, and after a while, I wanted so badly just to bend my knees, but I had gotten up to the fence and didn’t want to lose my place.
I was supposed to be somewhere else, but I couldn’t leave; this was history.
Clinton spoke for an hour, his white hair blowing in the breeze. I saw that familiar squinched-up face and heard that scratchy voice with the southern accent.
As soon as he finished, he disappeared. I suppose he shook a few hands and headed for his car while the rest of us walked in the other direction, hurrying toward warmth and dinner.
So what can a freelancer do with such a story? Odds of covering it as news are slim. You’d need a good connection with an editor who could get you advance information, credentials and a reserved space in the paper. You could write an opinion piece, e-mailing it as quickly as possible. Or you could look for a unique angle. How about interviewing the locals who were out there selling tee shirts or the kids attending as homework for their poly sci classes?
If you could obtain an assignment and permission from the campaign folks, it would be terrific to ride along with someone like Clinton all day, catching the in-between bits of life that the public doesn’t see. After all, he traveled from the desert to Portland to the coast to two college towns all in one day. He’s been doing the same thing all over the country. Did he eat? Did he sleep? Did he pop throat lozenges? Did he call Hillary to compare notes? What did he say about Newport as he cruised onto Highway 20? Did he or anyone else worry that he was behind schedule?
Narrative journalism is the thing these days. Capture the experience, not just the speech, not just the numbers of people who came.
I saw this president as a civilian and it felt strange. I’m writing this, I suppose, because I feel as if I must write something about such an event in our small town. Clinton’s visit will be front page news Wednesday, when the next issue of the News-Times comes out.
As freelancers, we need creativity and connections to come out of the crowd and join the media. Who knows? Maybe you could even shake hands with a former president.