So I was talking to my good friend, the President of the United States, today .... Well, I actually ended up saying just "yes" and "thank you," and he didn't address me personally at all. But I've always wanted to say that.
This actually happened early on sol 4, but I was still up from sol 3 (my shifts cross the Mars-day boundary). I was sitting in the Sequencing MSA, finishing a little applet to display a Local Solar Time clock on my workstation, when I heard some very interesting discussion in the room. ("Did you tell her?" "Yeah, she knows already." "OK, because I was told I could only tell two people about this in advance." "It's a shame not everyone gets to participate, but only so many people can fit in the room.")
Then they said something about the President, and I worked it out. So I did the sort of thing I never do: when everyone else filed out of the room, I casually got up and trailed along after them, as if I belonged.
We ended up in one of the conference rooms, the one right next to the SMSA. Dr. Elachi, Dr. Squyres, Pete Theisinger, Jennifer Harris Trosper, and several others sat at the conference table, and there were three cameramen, plus one in the hallway filming through the window. Everyone else who works at JPL was standing around the table. (I exaggerate, obviously, but not much. The fire marshal would have had a heart attack.)
We waited patiently while Sean O'Keefe's voice, along with the voices of a couple of women I don't know, emanated from the conference phone. O'Keefe thanked us for sending the Columbia patch picture (that is, the NAVCAM photo we took of one side of the rover's high-gain antenna, the side dominated by a large sticker honoring the Space Shuttle Columbia and her final crew). There is some possibility of naming the landing site to honor that mission.
At least one of the disembodied female voices clearly belonged to a White House employee. "We see this [conversation with the President] being about five or six minutes," she said. Then, "The next voice you hear will be the President of the United States." (Amusingly, it wasn't -- the two women still had something to negotiate -- and when the President started talking, I almost missed it.)
During the conversation, Elachi briefly referred to notes -- possibly points he wanted to be sure to communicate -- and Theisinger took a couple of notes on a piece of paper he borrowed from someone. I believe that some of the President's remarks were planned. But on the whole it was extremely informal, most of it plainly unscripted.
Highlights of the conversation, from memory:
Bush: Sean [O'Keefe], I knew I'd picked the right man for the job and that you'd be a good guy in good times and bad times. I've already seen what you're like in the bad times ....
O'Keefe: I'm liking the good times a whole lot more, Mr. President.
Bush: I know what you mean.
A NASA participant: Well, you're the one firing the cylinders, Mr. President, we're just following along ...
Bush: This is not the time to, you know what I'm sayin' ...
Bush: Your contract is renewed, okay?
[Big laugh & applause]
Bush: [Suggests a visit to the White House in a maybe-we-can-work-it-out kind of way.]
Elachi: We'd love to do that, and we'd love to have you come out here, Mr. President.
Bush: Yeah, we could discuss quantum physics.
Trosper: We'll even let you drive the rover.
Bush: Just as long as I get to do it from here on Earth.
Bush: You are keeping alive the tradition of American exploration.
Bush: Thanks for what you're doing; it inspires young people to enter science/math fields.
Bush: I wish I could be there to shake your hand and look in your eyes, but I hope you can hear the pride in my voice. Your nation is proud of you.
I'm always dismissive of that "Oh, he's not really like that" claim that you hear about public figures, particularly politicians. Like "Oh, Al Gore is actually really funny in person," or "Oh, President Bush is actually really smart." (For the record, I didn't vote for either one of them.) If it doesn't match what I see from them on TV, I don't buy it. But I'm now rethinking that stance. The President was quick-witted and clearly reads people well, even over the phone. He fumbled his words once or twice (I recall his saying "the Jet Propulsion team," for example, which is not how most people would phrase it), but he is plainly sincere, clever, likable, and -- sorry -- he is actually really smart. And if you don't believe me -- well, I was there and you weren't. So nyah.
I also have to add that I liked the President's response to the attempt to butter him up, as quoted above. You could hear something in his voice that is not evident in the plain words: he was instantly uncomfortable; he genuinely wanted the spotlight to be on us and our achievements, not on himself. Which is not what I would have expected from a politician, and that's probably why I could never be one. "Your contract is renewed" made everyone laugh and simultaneously put the conversation back where he wanted it. Come to think of it, there's only one other time I've seen that behavior: at a SAGE conference, where everyone was waiting for a meeting to end so that they could meet Linus Torvalds. The instant it was over, the whole roomful of people swarmed up to him. I expected him to expand to meet us, if you know what I mean, but he didn't -- he visibly shrank from the attention. I've always liked him more because of that, and now I know why.
I like it when I learn something I wasn't expecting.
After the teleconference, Gentry Lee said that the only other time a president has made such a call regarding unmanned space exploration was Gerald Ford, in 1976, after Viking 1.
Me, on the phone with the President. Not pictured: me. :-)