A Human, Like Me.
What I learned from my eye-opening encounter with the king of charisma, President Bill Clinton.
SWAT from the local police stood in a small walled-off foyer inside a large hotel conference center. Their eyes surveilled behind large dark sunglasses as I and a select few dozen business technologists and solution providers were ushered through security.
“Empty your pockets here. No personal photos. No autographs.”
Palpable was the intrigue and mounting excitement of meeting a former President of the United States. (See how I wrote that so formally?) Everyone was chatting away like elementary school children in line for early dismissal on the last day of the school year. Instead of hearing bits and pieces of summer plans, I heard chatter about what to say to the President (may I suggest “hey”), what kind of handshake he has (are we supposed to care?), how tall he is (great, thanks for reminding me of my own stature guys), or how they ironed their clothes this morning (clothes? uhh. oh boy.).
Gulp. I was late for the airport the day before, and in my hurry to leave I tossed clothes in a suitcase and ran out the door. My mind was worried about a Boeing 737 flying off the Philadelphia runway without me. There wasn’t the slightest thought about Bill Clinton. So, that morning I threw on my chartreuse yellow shirt and thought, at least I’ll be memorable.
He was late. Very late. So I got to stand there like a yellow buoy in a sea of three-piece monotony for so long that I lost my sense of gauche. The chatter in the room grew silent and left wrists bent frequently.
Until we saw the Secret Service. Instinctively we all leaned in toward the black privacy curtain. Why did we do that? I don’t know.
The curtain moved and rustled. The anticipation in the air grew thick and the burgeoning enthusiasm was delightful. I felt the corners of my mouth curve into a slight smile. I looked around and everyone else wore that same smile. Why did I do that? Why did they? I don’t know.
None of us was looking at one another. All eyes were on the privacy curtain. Brewing inside of me was a strange urge. A stark command. My curiosity looked at what it was only seconds before I instinctively acted on the command: clap!
And with one loud singular sound, each person’s hand struck the other simultaneously. Any parent who’s tried taking a picture of a few young kids would tell you the impossible coordination of a feat like this. The room erupted into feral applause, a few hoots and maybe even a holler. I was beaming. I looked around. Everyone else was too. Why did I do that? Why did they? I don’t know.
He waved and one by one we each took turns to say something and have our photo-op with him. Personally, I wanted to see if what everyone says about Bill Clinton is true — that, to him in that moment, you are the only person in the world. I’m a lumbering student of charisma and this is like a young Tibetan Buddhist meeting the Dalai Lama.
My turn came. I looked at him and my first sense was sympathy. He looked tired. Worn down. Sick. That’s why he was late, I thought.
Then I looked to greet him but he had already arrived at that common place where two individuals meet. His eyes were there, locked on mine, and his “hello” felt like a personalized and sincere invitation. Not pleasantry or obligation. In that moment there was a shocking equality, a simple everyday human experience of a greeting as they all should be done.
With the shortened schedule there wasn’t much time to talk. And onward I went. I sat in my seat in the grand ballroom where he would speak to 1500 or so attendees, staff and personnel. His talk was engaging, relaxed and transparent. He was asked a question about his biggest regret. Another about the greatest person he’d ever known. I knew the answers to both already (I was a wide-eyed college student while he was the sitting President in the 90s). But I was unprepared to hear him express his experiences, hopes and motivations with Yasser Arafat and Nelson Mandela. I was astounded by the authenticity of his expression and the deft willingness to share an ache from within his heart. The entire experience was remarkable. He was a human, just like me.
I’m not a sociologist and I don’t know the group science behind what we experienced waiting for Bill Clinton. Many people have met him and can attest to his personal charisma. Many more have seen him speak and can describe his genuine captivating style.
For me, it thrust an experience of civil deference, brought awareness of collectivist social structures at play around me, and fractured the imperceptible wall of grandeur and status.
For you, if you were to meet him or another President, I can confidently say just this. You’d recognize that, quite like anyone else, he (or she) is a human. Just like you.