Do you ever think back to some of those Christmas presents that truly made an impression on you, the ones that even when you're 80, you know you'll remember vividly? Most of the presents we receive are appreciated at the moment, but quickly forgotten. But there was one Christmas present that I'll never forget, because it changed my life.
When I was seven, my parents gave me an Olivetti portable typewriter for Christmas. Kind of an odd gift for a seven-year-old, huh? Dad told me that I would have to support myself when I grew up and that I should know how to type. (Gee thanks, Mom and Dad...you couldn't have gotten me a stethoscope and a doctor's bag instead?)
Anyway, Dad also gave me a typing manual and a roll of first aid tape. The tape he cut into little squares and covered all the keys, then he'd spank me when he caught me peeking under the tape. I was supposed to use the manual to learn how to type "properly".
I guess it worked. Now I type about 120 words per minute. It's no great surprise that I didn't become a doctor or lawyer when I grew up; I became a secretary. But I did get to type in some pretty exciting places, like the White House.
Back in 1995, I was a political appointee during the Clinton administration. The annual State of the Union address was being drafted and a fast typist was needed to keep up with the speech-writing team as they hammered through draft after draft.
My boss offered my services and I found myself thrust for a few days into a whirlwind with some of the brightest minds in Washington, with me in front of the computer trying to document their brainstorms. It was heady and exciting, and one of my best memories of my time in D.C.
I particularly remember trying to concentrate on my typing while George Stephanopoulos perched on the corner of my desk dictating to me. He couldn't understand why I suddenly started making mistakes... (For those of you younger set who only know him as an intense political commentator approaching middle age, in those days he was quite the bachelor "hottie".)
As a thank-you for the hard work, all of the speech-writing team (including me!) was invited to the Capitol to sit with the legislators as the speech was delivered by the President. I remember watching the senators and congressmen around me starting to shift in their seats and squirm about 45 minutes into the speech, and I giggled to myself because I knew there was at least another half hour to go!
Quick little-known fact: The 1995 State of the Union Address was the longest at that point in history at 9,200 words and 81 minutes long. President Clinton broke his own record a few years later with an address of 89 minutes. If you're interested, you can click here to check out Clinton advisor Don Baer's perspective on the speech and its impact.
Afterwards we were taken back to the White House and invited up to the second floor (the First Family's private quarters known as "the Residence") for a brief cocktail party with the First Family. Me, I was a nobody, I didn't belong there with all of these senior staffers, people whose names you're now seeing again in the news as they are considered for senior positions in the new administration.
So I picked up a drink and played wallflower, drooling over the antiques while the rest of the staffers hobnobbed with the President. I was startled when the First Lady came over and introduced herself, saying that she knew who I was and what I did to help with the speech. As I tried to pick up my chin from the floor, she thanked me for all of my hard work and effort, and then chatted with me for a moment about her husband's lefty handwriting and how I was one of the few in the West Wing who could read it.
First Daughter Chelsea drifted over to listen to the conversation, and the President also took notice. A moment later he excused himself from his advisors and wandered over to chat with us. He put his arm around his daughter and touched his wife's shoulder as we chatted about family stuff, and I felt a little like Cinderella.
I felt like that a lot during the two years I was in D.C., like I was in a fairy tale. My experience was exhilarating and exhausting, and over much too soon. But I wouldn't trade the memories -- and the opportunity to be on the fringes while history was being made -- for anything.
Thanks, Mom and Dad.