Humble World Leaders I’ve Met: Barack Obama, Justin Trudeau, Jacinda Ardern, and Pope Francis
My personal experience covering, interviewing, and interacting with them
I barely write personal essays on my Medium account as I was trying to ensure that when someone visits my page, they would see coherent stories that live up to my branding, which is “Research and Storytelling.”
However, I have decided to at least provide my loyal readers a glimpse of myself every month. And for this pilot essay, I would like to share my personal experience as a former international affairs correspondent by sharing who were the humble world leaders I have met.
Just a caveat, I have mentioned this before, when I was still a television correspondent, I didn’t use my real name. I used Carla Lim. So, you might see some clip and images on this article with my screen name in it.
Former U.S. President Barack Obama
It was in 2014 when POTUS Barack Obama had his state visit in the Philippines. Our president then was Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III. His visit to the country was very controversial because of China’s growing aggression in the South China Sea. Wherein Beijing already building up several artificial islands in the contested international water and started to militarized the area.
Therefore, Obama’s visit sent a strong signal to Chinese President Xi Jinping that Washington monitors Beijing’s every move. It was also the time that the Philippine’s National Defense and the U.S. Defense Force signed the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), which was intended to bolster the U.S. and the Philippine alliance.
The signing also proved the years-long relationship between the two countries. Besides, the Philippines was a former commonwealth of the U.S. in Asia. And Obama reinforced Americans’ “ironclad” commitment to the Filipinos, protecting them at all costs.
Obama’s timing was perfect because the Philippines then sued China at the international arbitral tribunal at The Hague, Netherlands. Due to the latter’s 90% claim over the South China Sea, undermining other Southeast Asia nations’ maritime claims.
Obama’s arrival in the Philippines
After the tedious security check and long wait under the sun at the Villamor Air Base, the U.S. Marine One firstly arrived. But there were two of them. I called the other chopper as the Marine Two (little did I know that there is always a decoy). Then I started seeing the Osprey aircrafts. They astounded me so much, and I felt envious because we don’t have those kinds of combat aircrafts.
One photojournalist in the group said that those Ospreys carried, “The Beast,” Obama’s presidential limo.
It didn’t take long when the U.S. Air Force One arrived. Initially, the media, including myself, thought the Eagle has already landed. But it wasn’t moving. So, why it wasn’t moving?
Suddenly, the troops and security personnel started to position themselves. Minutes after, another Air Force One arrived. And that plane moved across from us and parked where the red carpet was positioned. It was incredibly awesome.
There were two presidential planes, two choppers, two Ospreys, and two Beasts. Like, I have said, there is always a decoy.
The Eagle has landed. Legit!
The door at the back opened first; then, several people went down; they were the members of the White House Press Pool, the authentic ones. That day, we were all given a White House Press Pool badge — temporary one.
Eventually, the front door finally opened. I was extremely excited to see Obama. And for the longest time of covering world leaders, I had a standard expectation that the arrival would take ample time for some photo opportunities. But no.
President Obama walks too fast, almost jogging. Very active. But he acknowledged our presence immediately. He didn’t act like he was the President of the United States of America.
After his state visit in 2014, he returned to the Philippines in 2015 to attend the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum. And I was there to cover his speech about climate change relating to the COP21.
The YSEALI Summit in Laos
The most memorable moment I had covering President Obama was in Luang Prabang, Laos. I was a member of the youth group that he established. That is the Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative (YSEALI). And two months before he finished his term in 2016, he gave his time to meet us and talk to us.
Another fun fact was, I was the sole Filipino reporter that the U.S. Embassy in Manila handpicked to cover him in Laos. Besides, I am also a YSEALI member since 2014. Two days before Obama’s arrival, I got a chance to explore Luang Prabang.
I was traveling solo, but I ended up with a group of American men because of the package tour my accommodation arranged for me. These men were giants and heavily built, like ready for combat. But they were extremely hilarious. They claimed they didn’t know each other as they came from different states in the U.S.
I gave them the benefit of the doubt because their group was diverse.
Then on the third day, when I was already at the venue, waiting for Obama’s arrival. One of the presidential security officers approached me. Then he introduced himself, he said: “hi, it’s Mike, remember? We were with you the other day.” Damn! So, the group I was with were all members of the White House’s Secret Service.
I looked around, then I saw them, some of them even waved at me. I didn’t recognize them at all. They looked all serious in their suits and earpieces. Far from those silly guys I was with.
Before he went back to his post near the stage, Mike gave me this Secret Service pin as a remembrance. He said it was from the team. I will never forget those sweet giants.
During the summit, I was still in awe with Barack Obama’s eloquence. He’s such a cool dude, very approachable and relatable. He doesn’t act cocky, and he’s very witty. An excellent model for young leaders.
I will never ever forget his words that day:
“You should never be discouraged because you have more opportunities today to make a difference in the world than any generation before.”
So, whenever times get rough, I always remember that I am fortunate because I still have a chance.
I am not an American, but I miss him. I wish Americans this November 4, make a right choice. So, please, vote wisely. Do vote! The world is watching.
Canadian Prime Minister Justine Trudeau
We started with a good looking man. Therefore, I will follow it up with another handsome world leader. I kept telling my partner that Justin Trudeau is my crush. And when I saw him in person, he’s a Rockstar!
It was in 2015, during the APEC Summit when I was assigned to cover his arrival. I was also handpicked by the Canadian Embassy to attend his mini-press conference. But before I went to the nitty-gritty of it. I want to give you first a brief trivia of the Philippines’ relationship with Canada.
The Philippines and Canada bilateral cooperation
The Philippines and Canada’s official relationship started in 1949 when Canada established a trade mission to Manila. The Canadian trade mission was formally upgraded into a diplomatic mission in 1972.
According to the Philippine Embassy in Ottawa, nearly one million Filipinos are residing in Canada.
The Canadian trash
Unfortunately, from 2013 to 2014, the relationship between Canada and the Philippines had a dent. Due to the discovery of 103 shipping containers from Vancouver that arrived in the Philippines’ port.
The containers were labeled as “recyclable plastics,” but it was all household waste. Seriously, yuck! Those were not merely kitchen waste, there were adult diapers in there, and some toxic materials. Even though the internal intricacies of why it was shipped to the Philippines was not during Justin Trudeau’s leadership, he shouldered the burden when he won the Prime Minister seat in 2015.
The Filipino people then were furious with Canada for making the country their dumping site. But, the good thing is we like beautiful people. Therefore, when he attended the APEC Summit in Manila last 2015, the Canadian trash issue seemed gone with the wind.
From trash to APEC hottie
When Justine arrived at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport, he was like a celebrity. He was not treated as a prime minister but as a Rockstar. He got fans! He was even surprised why he was getting such an extreme warm welcome.
Other leaders then did not get much hype; it was all about Trudeau and former Mexico’s President Enrique Nieto. If Justin is a Rockstar, then Enrique was like a Telenovela leading man. In the 90s, Mexican Telenovela was a big hit in the Philippines. So, no wonder, Nieto also captured our attention.
The Philippine media during the summit dubbed these two dashing debonair as “The APEC Hotties.” They were trending on Twitter nationwide.
The millennials were more into Justin. Apart from the fact that he is young, he doesn’t act like a world leader. He exudes a fun aura. He approached people, shook their hands, took selfies with them, and order his meal at a fast-food chain. He had little entourage and security.
I was even interviewed by a Canadian television reporter back then on why Justin Trudeau had a massive following in the Philippines. Crazy, right?
I asked a member of Justin Trudeau’s press pool, if he was also given the same treatment in Canada? He answered, “No. He is like a brother to us. He grew up in our eyes.” Make sense. Trudeau’s father was a former prime minister anyway.
My Q and A with PM Trudeau
During the press conference with Prime Minister Trudeau, we were told that one reporter could only ask one question. There were four of us that were handpicked by the embassy to ask Justin.
The first question was about the Canadian trash and what he is trying to do about it because, like it or not, that is his burden. At that time, poor Justin, he had no concrete answers. He simply gave a standard one, wherein they would check their legislation to prevent future circumstances from happening. But the question of would they be getting their waste back? We didn’t get an answer on that.
When it was my turn to ask him a question, I went more serious (see the video below). But no one picked up my story then. So, it became an exclusive news for my station. That time, everyone was focusing on the trash and Justin’s “hotness.”
Unfortunately, the next year, the two Canadian hostages died in the hands of the terrorist group. When they died, other media suddenly noticed the story.
In 2018, I had a chance to see him again, but in Singapore during the East Asia Summit. He was still the same Justin, less entourage, and loved to roam around the city like he’s on a vacation and not as a prime minister. I am saying that as a compliment.
New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern
Just to put it out there, I am a New Zealand Aid (NZAid) Scholar. The New Zealand government, through their Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT), provide heaps of scholarships for developing nations’ potential young leaders. I was fortunate enough to be selected to take a Master of International Development at Massey University.
When I lived in Palmerston North in 2017, it was New Zealand’s campaign season. The competing faces for the country’s prime minister position were Bill English of the National Party and Jacinda Ardern of the Labour Party. Jacinda was 37-years old then, young, beautiful, eloquent, and graceful.
She was beating the status quo. You wouldn’t get to see a young unmarried woman competing against an old white man to be a nation’s leader. But Jacinda did. Of course, they mocked her countless times, but she always rises above the occasion gracefully. Since 2017, I idolized her.
My fangirling moment in Singapore
I accepted the position as the Editor-in-Chief of the Philippine President. Therefore, I handled all his press releases for the international media. Also, whenever the President had a state visit overseas, we were the advance party.
Thank God for that job because in 2018, during the East Asia Summit in Singapore, I had the opportunity to meet Jacinda Ardern. And she never failed to amaze me with her humility.
Out of all the world leaders in the building, only Jacinda had fewer entourage. She only had one bodyguard, and she carries her bag and stuff. She’s not a diva.
She bears her Kiwi culture with her all the time, wherein hierarchy and titles never matter. So, after her bilateral meeting with former Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, I made my move.
Me: “Kia Ora! Prime Minister Jacinda. Hi, I am Carla, and I’m one of your scholars. I mean, I am an NZAid scholar. I just recently finished my master’s at Massey, and I came back a couple of months ago. Can I have a selfie with you?” (yeah, I was that nervous)
To my surprise, she stopped and gave me time. So, this photo happened.
She could have left after that. But she stayed for a while, and we had a brief chat. She congratulated me for completing my studies in New Zealand. She was also happy that my New Zealand education landed me a prestigious job in the government. After that interaction, whenever she sees me in the building, she never failed to wave and say hi.
Jacinda is the face of good leadership
During that time in Singapore, no one knew much about Jacinda Ardern. The media’s focus was on Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping. By the way, Donald Trump was absent. So, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence represented him.
However, this global pandemic, Jacinda, put New Zealand back on the map. Her proactive response to COVID-19 made all the Kiwis safe. Making her an epitome of good leadership around the globe. Besides, she is the only head of state who led a nation amid a terrorist attack, volcanic eruption, and global pandemic while nursing a baby.
She’s a living legend.
It was not surprising as well that she won her second term last October 17, 2020, with a landslide vote. Congratulations, Jacinda. Well-deserved.
Jorge Mario Bergoglio aka Pope Francis
Last but not least, Pope Francis. I will limit my story about him as I plan to write an entire article about my experience as his close-in reporter. It was the time, when I became a Vatican Accredited Media Personnel (VAMP) of the Holy See. I got a chance to be on the papal plane and became part of his delegates for his apostolic journey from Italy to Sri Lanka to the Philippines, and back to Italy.
Newsroom in the sky
The papal plane is chaotic; it’s like a newsroom with limited space. Journalists, photographers, and camera people are all over the place. We only sit properly during take-off, but we move and never stop once the flight is stable in the air.
Pope Francis only holds press conferences on the papal plane. Those juicy soundbites the press reports about the Pope naturally occurred during flights.
No VIP treatment
Pope Francis is not only the head of the Catholic church but considered as the President of the Holy See/Vatican City. However, compared to other world leaders, he doesn’t have a presidential plane. The papal plane is a typical commercial jet. Usually, the only real perk enjoyed by the pontiff is that he sits in the first row of the business class by himself.
In our journey, we had three commercial planes that became papal planes. They were Alitalia, SriLankan Airlines, and Philippine Airlines.
Pope Francis mandated that there should not be a VIP treatment for him or the cardinals and the Swiss guards. Particularly in foodservice. Even though we, the VAMPs, were all sitting in the economy, the flight crew should serve us the same meals Pope Francis was having or the other way around.
Faith and Courage
I also remember our domestic flight from Tacloban, Leyte to Manila. We were experiencing massive turbulence as there was a typhoon in the Philippines. Due to bad weather, the Pope had to cut his trip short.
We are in a small jet then, and it was scarily shaking. All of us were praying, hoping we survived the journey. But in the midst of it all, albeit the safety sign said: “fasten your seatbelt.” Pope Francis got up, walked down the aisle, all by himself, no Swiss guards — he checked us one by one. Ensuring, we are all good.
His gesture provided us strength while holding on to our faith that we are all going to be okay. And we did. We landed in Manila, safe and sound.
Typically, covering world leaders, there’s always a red velvet rope separating us, the media, from them. That’s the protocol that needs to be followed.
However, there were those like Barack Obama, Justin Trudeau, Jacinda Ardern, and Pope Francis, who breaks some custom just to reach out. And make the people around them feel that just like us, they are normal too.
Whenever I meet people who act rudely and exalt themselves, I cannot help myself comparing them to these world leaders that I have met, covered, and interacted with.
If these heads of states stayed humble despite their power and status. Then, what is your excuse to be rude?