La Senora Presidenta

I didn't realize I'd ever meet a president, and if I did, I didn't ever think she'd be a woman.

I first learned about la senora Presidenta Michelle Bachelet, Chile's first female president and one of its most popular, while working on the Women, Power and Politics exhibit at the International Museum of Women in 2008. We were doing a segment on women as political leaders, and one of my colleagues suggested I watch La Hija del General, a documentary about Ms. Bachelet. Her father, a general in the Chilean Air Force, was arrested in 1973, and later died in prison. Michelle and her mother were also arrested and detained for several months, only to emerge, like a butterfly from a cocoon, into a life of social activism. In 2002, she became the Chilean Minister of Defense, a position that took her back to the very same military that altered the course of her parents' life. In 2006, she ran for president and won. A progressive, divorced mother with longstanding political convictions, she gave Chile a new face, only to leave it shortly before the recent earthquake.

I had all this in mind when I went to greet her for today's Forum broadcast, and yet all that came out of my mouth was some fluff about the weather. What do you say, in the five minute walk from the stairs to the studio, to convey your level of respect? Certainly you don't say something as banal as, "Oh, yes, it get so foggy here in the summer," and certainly you don't boil her tea too hot, and certainly you don't just stand there, smiling stupidly, wanting desperately to talk to her in the language you both know, the one she thinks you don't understand, wishing you could be half as eloquent and a quarter as accomplished. But she's effortlessly presidential, and you only have five minutes, and she's got a posse with her, so you talk quickly and walk fast and then, before you know it, she's lost to the airwaves and you're lost in thought, wondering, I wonder who else in this great world I might actually meet.

And realizing, of course, that it's rarely the ones you think will dazzle you that do--usually it's the ones that have been newsmakers all along, the ones that pop up on your horizon only when it's convenient to you.