Sometimes what seems important isn’t. And what seems so ordinary is really special.
In 1990, I was serving as a special assistant to the president in the George H. W. Bush White House. One day a staffer named Joe Watkins brought Michael Jackson in for a visit. Joe was a floater who reported to several different members of the senior staff but I suppose I was the action officer since the stop-by fell into one of the categories that I was supposed to be tracking. In any case, Joe generously offered to bring him by for a visit.
Now I have to explain that the gloved one’s career was in decline and no one made a lot of fuss on this visit and everyone was so busy we let Joe just take him around. It was a far cry from the 1984 Rose Garden — Ronald Reagan heyday for Jackson. And in 1988, then vice president George H. W. Bush had his own White House event with him. So yes, we genuinely respected and admired Michael Jackson but there was something like that happening all the time and everyone was very busy.
I had my hands full that day with a gaggle of French students. We had an event ready in the ornate, Indian Treaty Room of the Old Executive Office Building where Vice President Dan Quayle would greet them and give a short speech. My wife is French and would be translating for the vice president so she was nervous and that made me nervous too. So I was totally preoccupied.
Well, just as we were about to open the two grand doors and introduce the vice president, who was waiting in the adjacent room, one of the students looked out of another doorway into the hall of the Old Executive Office Building and saw Joe Watkins strolling his way with Michael Jackson at his side.
“Michael Jackson!” he yelled. And the French students rose as one person and raced out of the room and into the hallway. They surrounded Jackson asking for autographs and giggling and smiling as the cameras popped. Joe Watkins was beaming.
I was with the vice president’s assistant who was dumbfounded. He had just lost his audience. “What’s going on?”
“It’s Michael Jackson,” I said.
“And this is the vice president of the United States,” he snapped back angrily.
There was an awkward pause. The vice president’s schedule was pretty important.
“These kids have never heard of Dan Quayle,” I explained gently. “But they do know Michael Jackson.”
“You’re telling me that these university students don’t know the name of the vice president of the United States?”
“Well,” I responded mischievously, “Do you know the name of the vice president of France?”
The aide only glared back with a puckered expression on his face.
“I rest my case.”
Of course, it was a trick question because there is no vice president of France. The office doesn’t exist in the French government.
We patiently waited for the tide to come back in and the vice president graciously gave his speech to the students from France but they were still glowing with smug satisfaction, their cameras sated and their minds already formulating the stories they would tell back home.
And so it was, that day I missed my chance to meet Michael Jackson, or to get his autograph for my kids, but then, if any of you are interested, I do have lots of signed pictures with Dan Quayle.
And the kids from France? They returned with full hearts. My guess is that when Michael departed last year, every one of them had a story to tell. And a picture to prove it.
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