I nervously paced the lobby of a downtown Washington D.C. high rise, anticipating a meeting that was five months in the making. My hands tingled as I felt the adrenaline coarse through me, and while yesterday's dilemma hinged on questions I would ask my interviewee, today they became superficial -- what awkward excuse would I concoct to explain my perspiring hands when I reached out to greet her? It was apparent that my nerves were winning the internal tug-of-war when I restlessly walked over to the receptionist to strike a conversation with her about the orchid on her desk: "I'm trying to determine if it's real or fake," I mentioned, as I awkwardly pinched each leaf. No matter how fervent my effort, it was futile in alleviating my discomfort.
Over recent years I studied her political debates on all of the major news networks where she consistently demonstrated a poised, strong-willed, passionate and dominating force. And although I would challenge anyone to try to list her accomplishments in one breath (ranging from Vice Chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee to bestselling author and actress), the most surprising and assuaging aspects of her are those I've had the privilege to absorb of her outside of the public sphere, through our personal correspondence and connection.
Donna Brazile waltzed energetically into her conference room to greet me at Brazile & Associates, and with a bang. "Here ya go!" she proclaimed, as she leaned across to my side of the long conference table and slammed in front of me an "I'm ready for Hillary, 2016" poster and President Obama pin. She thumbed through a stack of cards that would be for some of her 19 nieces and nephews; some were Passover notes for friends who aided her family during hurricane Katrina and others for those who attended some of her charitable events -- "I don't usually send 'thank you' cards to the people who donate the money though -- I give it to the people who work the events," she explained.
From that moment forward I had forgotten about the questions that I compiled for our time together -- my agenda was out the door. She had an effortless, organic and welcoming aura that had a way of quickly grabbing a hold of my initially rigid, tense posture and draining it away. For several hours she hardly took a breath in between sentences, leaping to topics spanning her father's death in 2012, the potential of a Hillary run in 2016, her close and unexpected friendship with Mary Matalin, depression, whether or not she would again spearhead a Presidential campaign, and even her quest to evade the Brazile legacy of diabetes.
Jean, Donna's mother, used to say that Donna was "always a step ahead into the future." As a young girl, Donna figured out how to maximize her mom's grocery list by anticipating additional items she'd need later in the week and finding coupons in order to save. When other neighbors caught wind of Donna's entrepreneurial spirit, they too started recruiting her to do their shopping. And as a pre-teen when she recruited her younger brothers into her self-started lawn mower business, it was Jean who noticed that she was different and had a knack for creating solutions. Donna shared, "I've organized everything for my family since I was little. I know how to delegate and budget. I solve people's problems."
I recently read in O Magazine (Donna is a contributor) that she had a collection of pens, so when I observed that she was obsessively doodling on a paper bag as we spoke, it all made sense. "My mom used to say, 'Donna, just write it down!', because having nine children was enough, let alone dealing with me speaking non-stop; writing my thoughts down gave me an outlet."
As the third eldest of her siblings, she didn't just exhibit the standard leadership behaviors of most in her birth order -- next to her mother (Donna feels she eventually passed away of exhaustion in 1988), she was and is the glue of her family. Her voice amplified as she seamlessly tapped into the desperation from six years ago: "When Katrina hit, my family lost everything -- their homes, jobs, friends, and then it was a ripple effect, as so many others attached to them were affected. I had to come up with $12,000 per month to take care of everyone. I was asking anyone who came in here what their clothing size was to see if they'd donate; I even asked Wolf Blitzer (pronounced in her potent New Orleans drawl, "Blit-zah") for his shoe size when I was at CNN.
I'm willing to bet that she's logged just about as many air miles as the Secretary of State given she oscillates weekly between speaking engagements around the country, her students at Georgetown (she's an adjunct professor), and her consulting firm. She adamantly explained, "I just can't abandon my students. That's one thing each week that I have to attend. I have to be there." And for such a frequent flyer, she has a surprisingly pervasive fear of flying and as a result has virtually adopted two new professions -- part meteorologist, part aviator. She told me more than I needed to know about the various jet streams and weather patterns -- she is aware of the times of day that winds are scheduled to affect her departing and arriving cities; at a point I became lost in her rhetoric:
"I was on a flight recently where the top and bottom of the plane's wings had to be de-iced and all I could think was that we would be delayed and then we would fly into Houston just in time for their bad weather to hit. I had to tell myself not to start cursing at the pilot to take off and I started praying to God and all of the saints." Then (as if the Catholic Saints were her personal comrades) she proceeded, with a straight face, to describe their personalities and seemed visibly delighted by those who were 'easy to get to know,' while sounding almost frustrated with the saints who are elusive. With a hint of sarcasm encased in humor, she executed her punchline, "but once that plane took off, and was sure enough all over the sky (demonstrated by moving her hand sideways), I started prayin' to all the saints and discovered that the person sitting next to me was a priest! I looked up and said 'Lord, you sure do have a sense of humor.'"
The tone of our conversation was swiftly transported from humorous, to pensive and nostalgic, as we pored over some affecting life events, post-Katrina. With her head tilted downward and slightly away from me, Donna began to wade through some of the most salient circumstances from 2005-2013 -- a period of time when she had been in the center of her own life's vortex: "after Katrina, no one was the same. People, relatives, they were dying one after another. My Dad's cancer returned (she noted that he had tried to keep the news from the family but she 'intercepted' him one day and found out) and he passed away in 2012 and my sister died of congestive heart failure within weeks of him." In that brief fragment of our conversation, I saw an armor break away piece by piece and an admirable strength that emerged from her agony. In a moment of unexpected vulnerability, she revealed something that most everyone is afflicted with at some point along their life journey but frequently suffer in isolated silence: "I went to my doctor last year and said, 'I think I'm depressed.'" She went on to explain that there had been and are many times when she just wanted to stop and take a break from her 'chaotic' pace, which she finally did in 2013 when she retreated to Europe for a few weeks to decompress. With an evident sense of pride and accountability, she said, "It's crazy, but this is the life I've created; it's the life I've designed."
The president appeared on the TV screen in the room and she leapt out of her chair to turn it up as I looked at the headline that read, 'Obamacare reaches 7.1 million registrations.' "Good," she said, "we've met expectations." I contested, "there are still a lot of Republicans who feel that it hasn't been worth it, to go through all of this for 'just' 2 percent of the country to have healthcare coverage." She leaned in toward me like a mother scolding a child and said, "I don't care if it's one person (waving her index finger in front of me). Anything makes a difference." We were starting to get comfortable and into a rhythm of sorts. Our feet were elevated on the chairs in front of us while we gossiped like a couple of old friends. I reflected on sections of her 2005 bestselling book, Cooking with Grease, and it's no wonder that affordable healthcare for all is notably and intensely close to her heart; this was the woman whose mother used to ask her as a child not to play outside, of fear that she would become sick, knowing they couldn't afford a doctor visit.
Another component of her book was heavily centered around the election of 2000, of which she made history as the first African American to manage a campaign -- Vice President Al Gore's. We can't think about, much less mention that prominent election day without the recollection of the infamous 'hanging chads' and slew of other voting mishaps. But most calamitous was the vision of thousands of working class Americans who were lining up for hours just to be turned away due to 'insufficient' secondary and tertiary forms of ID. At the thought of the droves of people waiting hours on end to exert their voice through the ballot, only to be denied, I became choked up. I winced and with a cracked voice, said, "I just felt so sorry for all of those people." Donna moved her head forward toward me with enlarged, fixated eyes, and asserted, "you feel bad for your country." She continued, "I keep telling these millennials it's all about them to get into politics and start making things happen. They don't care about whether or not someone is gay. They don't care to see contraception taken away or want to even discuss it. They're going forward not backward."
"Why haven't you run for an office yet?" I was inquiring, with an edge of encouragement to do so. Without blinking Donna said,"I can't be put into a box. I have a big personality and that can't be slotted into something smaller. I can't be restricted -- my life is really dynamic." Her professorial character surfaced as she wrote on the white board and drew diagrams of all of her 'buckets' of endeavors that traversed her speaking engagements, consulting, teaching, and more. I probed into the next option, "well, what if Hillary runs in 2016 and asks you to manage her campaign? (The two are longtime friends.) Would you drop all of your 'buckets' and do it?" With a quick glance at her life that sat organized and interestingly, contained, in five compartments on a board, she nodded and assuredly said, "yep, I'd do it. I want to see a woman in the White House." I interjected, "but you don't just want to see a woman in the White House, right?" "No, I want to see Hillary," she confirmed.
Just as I was starting to absorb that potential, my thought was obstructed as she didn't miss a beat without clarifying the point that although she would like to see Hillary in the White House, she is open to all candidates, and based on the 'rules,' she would be required to step down as Vice Chair of the DNC as well as her TV commitments. She asserted, "I cannot put all of my eggs in that one basket. I have to be present for everyone."
And speaking of TV, Donna has incorporated another component to her distinguished list of talents: Actress. With appearances (playing herself) on The Good Wife and House of Cards, it seems that after so many years in politics, she has stumbled upon an unanticipated, perpendicular occupation that seems to fit her like a glove. I even sensed that if the option presented itself, this multifaceted lady would be perfectly content as a full-time actress. "At this point, after all of these years in politics, I'm probably best suited for Game of Thrones," she added. I've often watched politicians in the core of their emotive speeches and wondered to what degree they were acting. Were they acting for the benefit of their base? Or pretending to be someone else in an effort to empathize with the other side? Perhaps they were simply trying to play themselves -- if that person was still recognizable. Feasibly, politics and acting are one in the same as Donna explains:
"Acting is like politics -- you have to say the right thing at the right time, or everything goes wrong. It's just that in politics, there are no second takes. A politician can sometimes get away with acting very badly, but they can never succeed if they are a bad actor."
We delved deeper into the polarization between the Right and the Left; namely surrounding the president and the majority of Congress, and the rise in racism, post-election. Collectively, the energy of the country after President Obama was sworn in was that of hope and change -- the overarching theme on which he ran his campaign. And an elemental, optimistic byproduct of the first elected African American was that we would become more racially cohesive and united. Not according to Donna: "Don't you see, it's become worse. We've gone from desegregation to resegregation. It's practically a civil war."
As our time wound down and I started to gather my belongings, Donna mentioned that she was in the midst of a new health regimen and spoke while chewing with slight disdain, her sugarless gum: "I've lost five pounds in a month. My nightstand consists of a bunch of fitness magazines, now. I have to be careful because diabetes runs in my family. My body just doesn't work right anymore when I eat all of the wrong stuff. I'm even growing a garden now in my backyard. I'll be eating dinner at 7:00 p.m. if you'd like to come over and eat."
By this intersection of our afternoon I had already asked myself a handful of times, why I had felt so nervous several hours prior, to meet her. For five months leading to our meeting, there were two means by which I was familiarizing myself with her -- through her news network appearances where she continually, single-handedly governed the stage with great intensity woven with grace. And through an extended chain of emails that illuminated a contemplative and whimsical side. Some messages simply but purposely read: "I'm watching football." "I'm still a work in progress." "Spring is here." And one that resonates with me often, is "I'll be in four cities in the next three days; stopping home only for a change of warm clothes" -- ten years ago, in Cooking With Grease, she stated that her campaign travel schedule was so frenzied that she only had time to 'stop home for a warm change of clothes;' not much has changed.
It became crystal clear that my uneasiness stemmed from the unknown; I didn't know which Donna to expect -- the TV version or the one who unraveled her raw self through our months of email communications. What I encountered was infinitely better -- a woman who encapsulated both interpretations while wearing her heart on her sleeve and life lessons in the palm of her hand, while presenting her friendship squarely on the table.
Running late, I messaged Donna at 7:00 p.m. to say that I would gladly take her up on her dinner offer, and by 7:45 I was in a taxi a quarter of a mile from her home in a nearby, D.C. suburb. It was then that she messaged me, "I'm so sorry, I'm back at the office because CNN called me in to talk about Obamacare. It's a good thing I have an extra suit at the office." With a grin, I gazed out of the taxi window as the city lights danced around me, and wrote, "don't apologize. I get it. This is your life -- dynamic and unrestricted."