A Powerful Woman Standing on a Box

Yesterday afternoon, as I was driving to pick up my son from school, an out-of-the-blue thought popped into my head:

What ever happened to Donna Shalala?

She’s not someone I’ve given much thought to since President Bill Clinton left office. But she came to mind yesterday. I recalled the time when as a senior at Carnegie Mellon and the Public Affairs Director of WRCT, the college radio station, by some fluke got invited to attend the 1993 White House Health Care Conference for Talk Radio Hosts. The fluke most likely being that the year before my predecessor, Sam Minter, applied for the station to receive inauguration tickets (which were not given). We likely got put on some list. Back then talk show hosts were proving to have a growing influence on Americans and the White House was eager to woo them. Talk Radio wasn’t quite the clown show tailored towards the idle and frightened elderly that it is now, but the signs of where it was heading were already showing.

Sam, News Director Beth Trapani and I were more than eager to attend and put on our best big boy and big girl finery. Sam had to buy a $10 tie (or was it 3 ties for $10?) on a DC street corner that he had no idea how to tie. He stood in front of the Executive Building holding it in his hand.

Yet we were not the youngest talk shows host in attendance.

But we were definitely young and laughably out-of-place. The other talk show hosts kept asking us where we were from and I’d proudly say “WRCT Pittsburgh!” and they’d say “Never heard of it. Who are you affiliated with?” I’d reply, “No one.” and then Beth would follow up with “We’re a college radio station!” Each and every time the host would say something like “Oh, that’s nice” and turn his back to hobnob with someone more important. I had to restrain myself from slapping her for blowing our big-wig cover. As if my wearing my grandmother’s “professional” attire, two sizes two big for me, wasn’t enough of a giveaway.

When I share anecdotes of my brief time at the White House, I usually mention stuff like how dopey Tipper Gore was when she regaled us with tales of how she loved to roller blade and when she roller bladed she listed to the RADIO. Or when, after hours of waiting, President Clinton finally came out to speak to us and I SWEAR TO GOD he was looking right at ME the entire time.

I also fondly recall how two days later we were allowed to come back and do a show live from the White House lawn. At that point they realized we were unimportant college students and mostly blew us off, except for a White House intern who looked out for us and got us interviews with the assistants to the big timers.

After our show, we hung out on the lawn and watched the network newscasters do their shows. I frequently tell the story of how Tom Brokaw, rather familiarly, rubbed my back as he declined to do a 10 second promo for the station. (A story that bores my husband to tears because he’s heard it at least 500 times.) Or how Tim Russert was kind of a dick and insisted we produce “credentials” before he gave us a promo. In his defense he accepted our college IDs and did give the promo. God rest his soul. Or how Wolf Blitzer was a TOTAL dick and said no way was he gonna give us a promo, he had a contract with Mr. Turner. Or how Andrea Mitchell was quite warm and gracious and did give us a promo and afterward spent a moment telling me about how she did college radio. She took my hand and shook it and, for a moment, I felt like I belonged on the White House lawn.

Yesterday a less frequently recalled White House memory came to mind as I waited at a red light. One of former Secretary of Health, Donna Shalala. I recalled how before she spoke to us from the podium, they put a box for her stand on so when she spoke we could see her. Or maybe so she could see us. Probably for both reasons. When one of the more obnoxious hosts asked her a question pertaining to why President Clinton didn’t release all the details of his health records suggesting it was because our president had herpes, she shut that shit down with such ferocity and made that host look the total fool that he was. He promptly shut the hell up and sat his ass right down.

I was struck by how powerful a small woman standing on a box could be.

Why wasn’t I sharing that White House memory more frequently? That’s way more interesting than getting a back rub from some old dood.

Before I went to bed I saw a news story that Donna Shalala suffered a stroke last night and was recovering in the hospital. The article also mentioned that she’s the president of the Clinton Foundation and before that was the president of the University of Miami for over a decade.

So that’s what happened to her.

oh Donna Shalala we love you get up and stand on that box

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