Meeting Inspiring People

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When I worked as a news producer for CNN it was my job to decide what went into a live news show each morning, and to instruct 'guest producers' to find me appropriate guests. It was an hour long live show, an often unpredictable and fast-paced atmosphere. When these guests arrived, I would meet them and we would chat a bit about what their situation was and a bit about how we would conduct the interview. After we talked, I’d produce the live show from the control room, and they'd get about 3-5 minutes each to answer the questions. Not surprisingly, during the time I worked on the show, I met some really interesting people – and Helen Clark was one of those people.

The Right Honourable Helen Clark became the second female prime minister of New Zealand in 1999. In 2006 she was voted the 20th most powerful woman by Forbes magazine. I wanted to get her on the show because I was inspired by such a strong, influential woman. She was an enthusiastic and energetic person, always making time to come on the show, and unlike a lot of other world leaders, she would come right into the studio, rather than demanding that we come to her hotel at a time that suited her.

She became familiar to us in the studio, and every time we talked about what was happening in her country, she put us at ease and made us want to drop everything and go and live in New Zealand. She was very friendly, had a relaxed but engaging manner and the air of an academic. She obviously loved her country (and with all that beautiful scenery, I’m hardly surprised!)

Before we got her on the show, I made sure I studied a little of her background. You can’t prepare news anchors to interview guests properly, unless you can tell them a bit about who the guest really is. Sometimes a title is not enough!

Mrs. Clark has been politically active since studying politics at university, when she protested issues such as the civil conflict in Vietnam and the apartheid in South Africa. She joined New Zealand’s labour party in 1971, and was elected as MP for Mt. Albert in 1981. During 1984 and 1987 she chaired the foreign affairs and select defence committee. She worked in many areas of the party; conservation, housing, labour and health. Later on she was to become Deputy Prime Minister until 1993 when she was elected as leader of the opposition. In 1999 Labour was voted in and Mrs. Clark won a second term in 2002.

Through our brief meetings, and my research, I learned to appreciate the person behind the politician. She enjoys concerts, for example, and is full of enthusiasm for the arts in general. She also holds a passion for the outdoors, and as a child she cherished the rugged countryside of New Zealand, enjoying the outside life of her parents’ farm near Hamilton. This was a place where the boundaries between work and play were often ambiguous; she loved working out in the field with the sheep and cattle. It stood her in good stead: in 1999 she braved Africa’s tallest challenge, Mount Kilimanjaro, oh – and she also just happened to win a second term in power that year, too!

One morning was particularly manic; it was early, I had a lot of demanding stories to produce and in a short space of time. Helen came into the studio and we had a short talk about how she was, how New Zealand was faring recently - she was telling me about how the economy was booming, how beautiful the countryside was at that time of the year. I was listening and not paying enough attention to what I was doing with all the things in my hands. Suddenly, my fingers slipped and the last drop of my lukewarm coffee shot out of the cup and spilt over her shoes. I was mortified – I apologised profusely, and felt sure she’d be really angry.

I should have known better though – she was actually really great about it - very down-to-earth, and she seemed to think it really wasn’t much of a problem. What was most reassuring was that someone in such a high position could be so human. In my career I have met quite a few politicians, but it’s not often you meet one so warm and, well – real. I really enjoyed listening to Helen, and from what she told us about her country, I would seriously consider moving to New Zealand. I’m very glad to have met such a dynamic and inspiring person. Sometimes I even find myself remembering the spillage incident over an early morning coffee, and I smile, making sure to keep a firm grip on my cup, of course.

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