Driving Mrs. McCain: An Alaskan girl’s odyssey
“Me?” I said pointing to myself.
“Yeah you, get in that van now, and make sure it’s clean. You’ll be driving Mrs. McCain.”
My brain went into overdrive as I hastily cleared food wrappers and crumpled papers out of the white Ford minivan.
I’ve never driven over 60 miles per hour. I’ve never driven on a highway. I’ve never driven outside of Ketchikan, Alaska, a town that has a whopping grand total of 30 miles of paved road. Didn’t the Secret Service know this? Don’t they know everything about everyone? Why would they have me do this?
There I was, 19 years old, red-faced and sweaty palmed—sweaty everything really—waiting for Roberta McCain, then presidential candidate John McCain’s mother, and her staff to get into “my” van so I could drive them to the final presidential debate of the 2008 election.
Planting the political seeds in Alaska’s fertile snow
Growing up in small-town Alaska, I learned to love politics. My grandparents were very politically minded, and they taught me at a young age that a representative democracy could only work if the people took an active roll.
I was always speaking up in high school, pushing the buttons of my classmates and even teachers with my political commentary. I argued about ideologies, legislation and what I felt was truly right for our struggling country.
To say I was a nerd would be an understatement.
Thus it came as no surprise to my friends and family when, during my freshman year at Hofstra, I rushed to volunteer for the presidential debate that was set to be held at the university.
I had just become involved with the university’s College Republicans, a group that had already been contacted to volunteer for the McCain/Palin staff.
I signed up, passed a Secret Service background check, got a fancy ID card and got to work. I assembled signs, stuffed envelopes, made copies, stapled copies, made more copies and wondered why I had to dress up—and wear heels—for this type of work. My golden opportunity began to seem a bit more bronze.
And then it happened…the day of the debate. Looking back on it now, it’s hard to remember everything clearly. It was a whirlwind of excitement and nervousness, powered by an adrenalin rush I have yet to ever feel again.
The day of the debate
I woke up early that morning—too early by most college students’ standards—showered, and put on the outfit I had carefully planned days in advance: a black pencil skirt, black blazer and a red blouse, since I was working for the Republicans after all. Then I made what was likely the second best decision of my day: flat shoes.
When I walked out of my dorm room, I could immediately feel the buzz that was encompassing the campus. I met up with other student volunteers and McCain campaign organizers outside of the student center. There were reporters, satellite trucks and media tents everywhere. We were given massive 6 foot tall “McCain/Palin” signs and instructed to get them in front of every television camera possible.
I did this for about an hour before a reporter approached me for an interview. When I told her I was from Alaska, her face lit up. I quickly realized the last frontier was about to be my route to “fame.”
Word of a “mini-Palin” must have spread quickly through the media circle, because after that, I was doing interviews like I was Governor Palin herself. I don’t remember what they asked me or what I said. I really just hoped I looked good. There were no television stations where I lived. This was a big deal.
A few hours into the media madness, I was contacted by a member of the McCain staff, asking if I wanted to be a driver for the motorcade that would be delivering everyone from the campaign headquarters to the debate.
“Sure,” I said. And then panic set in.
I didn’t know how to drive on the highway or how to drive fast. I crashed the first car I ever owned. Yet, I didn’t say a word.
“Ok,” he said. “Come with me.”
Panic sets in
I met up with a few of the other students who had volunteered to be drivers. The staff handed us directions to the campaign headquarters and off we went.
About 45 minutes later, we arrived at a Hilton hotel. We were instructed to wait in a conference room and help ourselves to any food or drinks. The head of McCain’s transportation staff came in and thanked us for our time. He carefully laid out how our night would go.
“Who is familiar with the area?” he said.
Just my luck, I was the only clueless one. The man’s solution was to print me out a page of Google Map directions.
“Hey buddy this looks like Chinese to me,” I thought to myself, but I kept my mouth shut and sulked in my seat. I was so done for.
The transportation man left, and I started to full-on panic. There were a few tears, a few four-letter words, and a lot of planning as to how I would get out of this.
Now if I had ever doubted the presence of a higher power, the next moment made me a believer. The transportation man walked in and said one of us needed to give up our vehicle so it could go to JFK airport.
The next second, my keys were in his hand. I remember hearing a faint victory chant. He told me I could ride along with one of the other student volunteers. Perfect, I thought.
That was until I was standing outside, and I got the word. That “Hey you,” that changed everything. There I was sitting in a van, waiting for John McCain’s mother.
Driving Mrs. McCain
The first few miles of our journey were tense. Driving in a Secret Service motorcade is tense. You have to drive fast, and you have to drive close to the other cars. On more than one occasion, Mrs. McCain asked me to speed up.
Eventually, I calmed down and stopped seeing “Student crashes motorcade vehicle” headlines in my mind. Mrs. McCain and I started to chat.
I learned about her days at boarding school, and we talked about the hardships of being far from home. She told me about living in Hawaii, and what she thought about MSNBC’s Keith Olberman.
At the end of the debate, I drove Mrs. McCain back to the Hilton, snapped a quick photo and we wished each other well.
As I arrived back on campus that night, the magnitude of what had just happened began to set in. I had been a part of history. I had witnessed it, I had felt it, and I had lived it.
Debate coming back to Hofstra
When I heard the grand announcement in late October that Hofstra was set to host another presidential debate, my heart began to swell. I felt a tinge of jealousy that I wouldn’t be around to experience another historic event, but ultimately I just felt lucky that I had been given my chance.
I can only hope that every student at Hofstra University finds a way to get involved in the 2012 debate. I hope they stand up for their beliefs and fulfill the true meaning of democracy. Experiences, like the one I had, shape us as individuals and let us know that anything is possible.