By Tamim Ansary
I met a POTUS once. For those of you who don’t know, that’s a President of the United States. My POTUS was Jimmy Carter, and let me be honest: he wasn’t a POTUS when I met him. It was 1976, and he was still just one of four men running for the Democratic Party nomination.
Another of those men was Jerry Brown. Another was Mo Udall, who called himself a “progressive” because that was the year “liberal” became a pejorative. Also, Maine senator Edmund Muskie was still a viable candidate, although a short time later, he gave a speech at which reporters detected tears in his eyes, which pretty much finished his presidential aspirations. No one wanted a POTUS who cried.
Jimmy Carter was the dark horse, which gave him a leg up. That year (like this year) the one thing no one wanted was the same old same old, and Jimmy Carter certainly had an eccentric narrative. He was, he said, a peanut farmer, the governor of Georgia, “a nuclear engineer”, and a born-again Christian pastor. Also, he insisted on calling himself, not James, but Jimmy.
I say I met him but let me be honest. I spent about seven seconds with him. You see, I was a journalist at the time. Well, to be honest, I wasn’t a real journalist. I was writing for a weekly newspaper called the Scribe. We called ourselves the “alternative newspaper” of Portland, but outside our counterculture community, few knew the Scribe even existed and of those who did, many would have called the Scribe an alternative to a newspaper.
At the Scribe no one was paid except the people who sold ads. All the rest of us wrote, edited, took photographs, drew pictures, set type, and did other production work purely for the love of it, Personally, I adored the Scribe. How could a would-be writer not appreciate an outlet where he could publish something every week and have five thousand people read it?
And some of them must have read it, because I had a bit of a following: I was building a reputation as a master of the classic Scribe story. The classic Scribe story was the reporter’s witty account of how he failed to get the story.
The Oregon primaries were coming up, so the candidates were swinging through the state, prowling for votes. Most of us at the Scribe figured the presidential elections weren’t important, given that civilization itself was about to collapse. To the extent that we gave a hoot, however, we tended to favor the mercurial governor of California, Jerry Brown, who had laid in some counterculture creds by driving a small, cheap car, doing Zen meditation, dating rock-chanteuse Linda Ronstadt, and pushing green policies.
In fact, I moseyed over to the Brown headquarters one day and chatted up a guy I met there. I forget his name, but since his name is important to this story, I’ll call him Lester Miles. Yeah. Lester Miles, I’ll go with that. Anyway, I told Lester I’d like to hang out at Brown headquarters some time, just to get the flavor of presidential campaigning and maybe write a slice-of-life you-are-there story. Lester Miles said sure, fine, whatever, whenever.
Meanwhile, Carter was about to hit town, and I decided to join the hordes of reporters from real newspapers meeting his plane. It wasn’t hard to find out when and where. His flight number was no secret. Like every presidential aspirant, he was eager to meet the press, the sooner the better. I assumed I’d end up at the back of the pack but figured the ridiculous antics of the mainstream reporters might make good fodder for a Classic Scribe Story.
On the day in question, therefore, I headed for the airport in my trusty VW bus. Somewhere along the way, however, I heard a quiet clunk behind me. I thought someone had rear ended me, but when I looked back, I saw no one. Must have been my imagination. Then—the damndest thing met my wondering eyes. A wheel went rolling past my car and on down the road. It wobbled sideways when it reached the flats, jumped the curb, hit a mailbox, and landed on its side, Holy crap, some idiot had lost the tire off his car. A moment later I heard a curious bumping noise from the back of my trusty VW. My steering went goofy and I realized the idiot in question was me.
A couple of weeks earlier, my right rear tire had gone flat. When I fixed it I had trouble getting the wheel off because the lug nuts were on so tight. I vowed not to make the same mistake when I put the wheel back on. Turns out, there is also such a thing as too loose.
My runaway wheel could have killed someone, I suppose, but it didn’t. In fact, nothing really terrible happened. I coasted safely to the side of the road, walked to an auto parts store, got some new lug nuts, and put my wheel back on. By the time I got back on the road, however, a lot of time had passed and I knew I might miss Jimmy Carter’s plane.
So I hit the gas hard, screeched into a parking spot at the airport, jumped out, hustled into the terminal, and made a dead run for the gate. But there was one thing I didn’t know. I had misread the gate number. I was racing lickety split to the wrong side of the airport.
As luck would have it, however, Carter’s plane was late, and it was late because something had gone wrong at his originally scheduled gate. His plane had therefore been rerouted. It was landing at the very gate toward which I was chugging.
Meanwhile, the press hordes had learned that they were in the wrong place, and they began streaming across the terminal. I was far ahead of the pack, however. I had at least a hundred yards on the fastest, bestest reporters mainstream money could buy. By then, Carter had learned that the press corps was waiting for him at a different gate. No way he was going to let a last minute gate-glitch spoil his first Portland campaign event. Carter took off, striding toward the originally scheduled gate, his aides and posse streaming behind him.
If someone had been looking at this scene from above, they’d have seen two flocks of folks in V-shaped formation like migrating pelicans flying toward each other. Jimmy Carter was the tip of one V, and Scribe reporter Tamim Ansary was the tip of the other. I remember a TV commercial for hair dye airing in those days, which featured two people racing toward each other across some vast empty landscape, their hair streaming behind them, and the closer they got, the more natural their hair looked. That was me and Jimmy.
As we raced toward each other, he reached out his hand. I reached out mine. He’d come close enough now that I could really make out his features, and what I saw was a kind, humorous, gentle, plain-spoken, honest, unpretentious man. From five feet away, I became a Jimmy Carter fan.
Then we were four feet apart. Then three. Then we met in a handshake, and at that moment, I was close enough to look right into his eyes and holy smokes: what I saw in those two little windows in the middle of that warm, gentle, humorous face was craft, calculation, experience, toughness, and savvy. I felt like I was looking into the eyes of an ancient eagle. And thinking back on it later, I realized that—of course I was: you don’t get to be a potential POTUS without those traits.
But wait, there’s more. Later that week, I decided to give Lester Miles a call about visiting the Jerry Brown headquarters. I dialed one of the numbers I had scribbled in my notebook. Someone answered, and I said, “Hi, is Lester Miles there?”
The guy on the line said, “Sure, he’s around somewhere, I saw him a minute ago, want me to go find him?”
Just then I realized I might have called the wrong number. “Is this the Brown campaign?”
“No, you’ve called the Carter campaign.”
“Oh. Really? Huh. I’m confused because—you say Lester is there? I met him at the Brown headquarters. I thought he was working for them. Did he switch sides? Or is he working for both campaigns? Is that allowed? I’m confused.”
There was a pause. Then the guy on the phone said, “Hey, Tamim, would you like to get a cup of coffee?”
A half hour later, I found myself at Mannings coffee shop, sitting across the table from a pudgy, glad-handing guy in his mid-thirties, who said he wanted to apologize for all the confusion, crazy things happen in campaigns, did I know what he meant? He could tell I did, savvy guy like me! this name, that name, today, tomorrow, the press these days, whoo! always looking for the phony scandal, one little thing doesn’t fit, ooh, dirty tricks, the next Watergate. Cheap sensationalism! Good thing I wasn’t one of those. Someone had to stem the tide of cheap rumor-mongering. World needed more guys like me, journalists who wouldn’t stoop to gossip and cheap scandal mongering…
And what did I feel as he emitted his stream of blather? Embarrased. That was all. I had accidentally stumbled onto something, and I didn’t know what, but I felt embarrassed for having uncovered it. And embarrassed for this guy, with his clumsy patter.
The thing is, I find that in every awkward social situation, I have a powerful impulse to smooth things over, steer around blunders, set others at ease. Gaffe, what gaffe? Nice weather we’ve been having. How ‘bout ‘them Yankees. That impulse kicked in now. The faster the pudge talk, the more I tried to assure him I would never write a scandal-mongering story such as he was worrying about.
The weird thing is, he didn’t believe me. He thought we were in some sort of negotiation. He leaned across the table. “What’s it going to take, Tamim? What do you want? Time with the candidate? I’ll see if I can arrange a sit-down, just you and him. Ten minutes, one-on-one? How would that be?”
That’s when the awkwardness peaked. His suggestion was so crass. As if I needed a bribe to do the responsible thing. Please! Poor guy didn’t even realize how tasteless he was being. Talk about a lack of social grace! It took incredible finesse, but I managed to convince him he didn’t need to arrange an opportunity for me to interview Jimmy Carter one-on-one. We finished our coffee, shook hands, and parted ways
I did write a piece about Carter, but not about our moment in the airport or his campaign worker’s gaffe. What I wrote was a sober think piece based on research, dissecting Carter’s career and examining what a Carter presidency might look like. It was published in the Scribe, but it could have been published anywhere: it was solid, cogent, articulate—and perfectly harmless. With that essay, I think, I began to leave the world of which the Scribe was a part. But with that essay, I also began to realize I would never really be a real journalist.