As someone who has met and interviewed dozens of politicians in my career, I’m often asked what these people are really like. It’s not too often you get a peek behind the curtain, as many are always in campaign mode. I can tell you who’s rude, who’s friendly. Veteran reporters can spot a phony (usually a politician that won’t give you a straight answer), but you sometimes run into those who play against type.
In other words, you actually meet a real person.
If you asked me to name the most arrogant politician, it would be a 50-way tie. But the funniest politician? You’d be as surprised as I was.
Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.
We were scheduled to do a morning live shot with him and set up in a hotel meeting room. About an hour before we went live, I set out to knock on his door, but while walking past the hotel restaurant I spotted him eating breakfast alone.
I went up and introduced myself, then looked around. The place was empty. “Mister Secretary, don’t you have any Secret Service or security with you?”
He waved my question away. “Pffft. I was on the wrestling team. No one’s gonna bother me.”
I led him back to the meeting room. While we waited for our live interview, Rumsfeld cracked jokes and one-liners that had us in stitches. Of course, once the red light atop the camera went on, he turned into Donald Rumsfeld. When we were done and got the all-clear, the door opened and a few small children who were members of the family rushed in and hugged him. Off the clock, he was a regular guy.
Another regular guy was former Georgia U.S. Senator Saxby Chambliss. We were to set up our live truck at his home in Moultrie, Georgia, which, I quickly learned, was located below that state’s “gnat line.” (Open wide at dusk and you’ll get a mouthful of gnats.) I knocked on the door, and his wife answered. “I sent Saxby to the grocery store, he’ll be right back.” I figured, yeah, right, a United States Senator goes grocery shopping. And then one minute later, the senator pulled in and started unloading groceries.
There were too many tall trees around his home, so we needed another location to go live the next morning. He said we could use his local office downtown. I told him we needed to be set up at 4 a.m. for a 6 a.m. live shot, so he tossed me the keys to the office. “Let yourselves in. I’m not getting up that early.” I was impressed he’d trust a media crew alone in his office for two hours. When we wrapped up the next day, he gave each member of the crew a bag of peanuts, as this was the big crop in the area. (Along with the gnats.)
A politician who does not want to talk politics off-camera? Former Arkansas Governor and presidential candidate Mike Huckabee. After wrapping up a story with him, he joined the crew for breakfast and did nothing but talk about hunting and fishing for an hour, and asked each member of the crew about their families.
In 1993, new President Bill Clinton appointed a guy from Mississippi named Mike Espy as the Secretary of Agriculture, and we were sent to a news conference that would introduce him. There was no internet back then, so all we had was a press release. I had no idea what the man looked like.
We arrived early at the hotel meeting room and a nice gentleman greeted us. “Let me know if you need anything. Can I get you guys a cold drink?” Sure, why not. We figured he was the public relations guy or someone who worked for the hotel. He returned with sodas for the crew. “We should be starting right on time.”
About 20 minutes later, the news conference did start on time. And the guy who brought us the cold sodas… was Mike Espy.
Meanwhile, one for the “phony” hall of fame. In 1988, we were covering the Democratic National Convention at the old Omni in Atlanta. I was walking down the stairs and Illinois Senator Paul Simon (not the singer) was walking up. I extended my hand as I reached him. “Hi, Senator, may I have a quick word?”
He nodded and smiled. “Of course! How have you been? Haven’t seen you for quite a while. You’re looking well!”
After our interview, the photographer asked me about that. “So, you’re friends with Paul Simon?”
I shook my head. “First time we’ve met.”
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