Right away I knew I really didn't belong.
I pulled up in my slightly used but new-to-me Chevy Cavalier. I parked it next to Mercedes and Porsches that definitely cost an ungodly multiplier to my annual salary as a cub reporter for the Salinas Californian.
I was covering a story at the Tehama Golf Club, Clint Eastwood's private club in Central California, which at one point had an initiation fee of $135,000. I was there to cover a visit from Sen. John McCain in the spring of 2006. McCain was there for a fundraiser to remove landmines from former war-torn countries. But, of course, the real story was whether or not he was going to run for president in 2008 (spoiler alert: he did).
This was my first job out of college. I had been at the Salinas Californian for a few months so I wasn't completely green but I wasn't used to such glitzy surroundings.
I walked through the crowd of one-percenters in my Old Navy outfit. I had my list of questions ready for the scheduled press conference. I spent my time talking to attendees about the fundraiser (which apparently didn't make the story), biding my time for the presser.
As the media in attendance was ushered into the press conference area, I tried to jockey my way into a spot where I would at least have the opportunity to ask one question.
And, of course, the TV news was there. If you've ever been a print reporter at a press conference with TV news, you know exactly how that feels. Something about the big cameras and lights gives TV news reporters more clout at these things.
Fun Fact: at the time, Eastwood was married to a local former news anchor. During sweeps week, her former station would bring her out for ratings.
And here we go. McCain started fielding questions. Of course, the TV guys got the first couple of questions — "Were you going to run for president? When would you make a decision."
The press conference went so fast, I still had my hand up when it was announced McCain was not going to take any more questions.
Well, damn it.
I moped back to the fundraiser party and drowned my sorrows in fancy finger food. I was about to leave when I saw McCain down a hallway. "Here's my shot," I told myself.
I approached him and I think he could tell how nervous I was. He told me he saw that I didn't have the opportunity to ask a question before. He answered a couple of questions about an immigration reform bill he was sponsoring (I guess some things never change). He then asked me about where I was from and where I had gone to college.
Usually, at these things, people stay in the prescribed roles: journalists stay journalists and sources stay sources. But McCain let down his guard and just talked to me like a person.
It was a short exchange but not only did I walk away with a little exclusive for my story but with a little bit more confidence and more sure of myself.
I had the chance to meet McCain while reporting for a small weekly in New Mexico in 2010. I didn't bother to ask if he remembered me (doubtful).
After hearing about McCain's recent diagnosis, I've thought about this story often. That short exchange has stayed with me for more than a decade. Maybe it was because it was my first interaction with a powerful politician but I think it was because of McCain's display of generosity and sympathy for a young reporter who was way, way out of his element.