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My Turn: Driving Mr. B

For the Monitor
Published: 7/30/2021 8:00:07 AM

Picture this. It’s 1987. I’m new in town, a former New Hampshire state representative from a nearby district, and I’ve been invited to a Democratic fundraiser for a presidential candidate in the New Hampshire primary. I may still have political ambitions and I’m anxious to make a good impression on these donors.

The event is in a beautiful barn and the speaker is fantastic. He’s not a lot older than I am. He’s gracious, well-spoken, polite and has good ideas. Everyone has a chance to ask questions and drink wine. These donors are important, busy people. In fact, they are too busy to drive the candidate to his next event. I drive my kids to school and sports and events. I know how to chauffeur. So I offer.

I’ve never done this before. I’m not sure of the protocol for having a U.S. senator in my car. Do I call him ‘senator?’ Do I open the car door for him? While I’m thinking about all this, he surprises me by opening his own door and hopping into the front seat. With me. He must have had a press secretary or some handler with him in the back seat but my lasting impression is that I was driving down a dark, rural New Hampshire road with Joe Biden.

I’m sure he could tell from the condition and year of my car that I wasn’t one of the big donors. He had just been telling a monied crowd about his experience and his platform and why they should write a check to his campaign but when he got in my car he completely switched gears. He didn’t tell me his plans for the country or policies he supports or proposes or why he should be the Democratic nominee for president. Instead, he asked what motivated me to run for the state legislature. What issues did I care about? How was my family doing and what did I want to do next? It wasn’t a long ride, but on that dark New Hampshire road, I felt seen. I felt heard. I felt cared about.

Flash forward to 1994. I’m new in town again, but this time it’s Palo Alto, Calif., and I’m there for my job at the Stanford Alumni Association (SAA). At that time, SAA was very innovative and by using alumni expertise and contacts offered a huge variety of programs, one of them being the Stanford Professional Publishing Course. Each summer publishers and authors, many of them celebrities, descended on campus to teach and network. SAA was a huge team and everyone in the organization helped out with all the programs regardless of what your job was.

My colleague from the Publishing Course needed someone for an airport run to pick up a speaker (and she didn’t even know I had experience driving celebrities!) Amazon was a brand new business model, selling books online, and the attendees wanted to learn about it. So I was sent to SFO to pick up the founder, one Jeff Bezos.

I found him waiting at the curb. I think I must have had a sign on my car for him to identify me. From my previous volunteer chauffeuring job I assumed I’d pull up to the curb and he’d get in the front seat and talk to me. He did neither of those things. I’m chatty, and I wanted him to feel welcomed so I told him a little bit about the campus and who he would meet. I got radio silence. No conversation whatsoever. No thank you at the drop off. Nothing.

Admittedly, he wasn’t running for office. He didn’t need my vote. But he did need my business, and he was completely unwilling to engage. Okay, maybe he was having a bad day.

But today as I watch one Mr. B working to save lives and the other Mr. B shooting off into the space, I feel compelled to share the radically different experience in how I, as a volunteer driver with no one watching, was treated by my passengers who to turned out to be two of the most powerful men in the world.

(Catherine O’Brien is a former NH state rep for Strafford County.)

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