Saturday, March 5, 2011

This day in MY history

Today, March 5 holds significance to me in two ways.

Firstly, March 5, 1966 was the day of my Bar-Mitzvah. The day in the Jewish religion on which I became a man.

But even more exciting was March 5, 1977. It was on that day that I had a telephone conversation with the President of the United States.

The president at the time was Jimmy Carter who had taken office on January 20 of that year. One of the things that he said he would do is hold regular radio call in programs, in which anyone could call in and ask him a question. The first one would be held on CBS radio on March 5, 1977.

Like most Americans, I thought about what question I would ask him, given the opportunity. I had one. Chip Carter, the president's son, was caught with marijuana in the White House. If given the opportunity, I would ask about that and the possible legalization of marijuana. But what were the chances of me getting through? Schools had set up phone banks to try to get through. Millions and millions of people would be dialing the phones in an attempt to ask the President a question. In fact, 9.5 million people would receive a recording that the lines were busy, and no one know how many millions couldn't even get through to that recording.

On the morning of March 5th, my wife was taking a shower (I already had) and our friend Cindy would be visiting for the day. About 1:00 PM - an hour before the call-in show was to begin - I picked up the phone to call the number, expecting to receive nothing but a busy signal. Of course, that is exactly what happened. I tried again with the same results. One more try and then I would give up feeling that I gave it a try but just couldn't get through.

And then it happened ... the phone started ringing! Before I knew it I was speaking with a CBS network screener at the White House! I was asked my name and phone number, as the procedure was that they would call each selected participant moments before they were to be on the air with the president. This way they knew who they had on the line. I was informed that I would be among the first called towards the beginning of the show. By being selected, I discovered that no one else in New York State could now get through.

When I told Sandy that I was going to be on, she asked what my question would be. I told her and she told me I couldn't ask that, as she expected hate mail and the like to follow. So here I was about to talk with the president, and I didn't have a question.

To make matters worse, network TV news crews started showing up at my apartment. I had better not make a fool of myself and searched for a question. I turned to the NY Daily News where on the back page was a headline about the (hated!) NY Yankees possibly being allowed to play an exhibition game in Cuba. I would ask about the continuing Cuban embargo using the Yankees as the hook.

Just before the show began, I got a call back and was told to stay on the line - I would be the third caller. Was I nervous? Hell yeah! When I was in college,  I had a radio show, and by listening to tapes of my show each week, I managed to make my voice more controlled when I was on the air. As you can hear on the video below, all of that went out of the window once I was introduced (by Walter Cronkite) to the president. Forty-two of us spoke to our president that afternoon.

Once done, the interviews all began, and being in New York City, there is a lot of media to deal with. On the train the next day, all the newspapers looking back at me ... were me!

When I returned to work on Monday, I found John Tesh and his crew waiting to interview me and my colleagues. The interviews continued for about a week, with me being interviewed by the newspapers, national magazines, as well as New York City radio and morning TV shows. On Tuesday I went on jury duty, and the judge in the first courtroom I was called into called me aside to ask if I were indeed the one who spoke with the president.

The next weekend I was downtown shopping with my wife, and while I was waiting for her at one point, a woman stopped me to ask if I was the one who spoke with the president, and then asked me to sign an autograph for her!! Before I finished there was a line of people waiting for an autograph. I can guarantee that no one had any idea who I was or why people were asking for my autograph.

Oh, and remember my original question which I didn't ask because Sandy was afraid I would get hate mail? Well you should have seen the hate mail and death threats I received over the course of the next month! I didn't tell Sandy about those for many years afterwards.

And that was the one and only time that a president sat for a live call-in program. Jimmy Carter never made it a regular feature of his presidency and no other president attempted it.

In the NY Daily news article about my phone call they quote me as saying that if the Yankees do play an exhibition game in Cuba that "I hope the Yankees win." Come on now ... anyone who knows me knows that those words would never cross my lips! So much for ever trusting the press any more.

So that was my day ... 34 years ago today.

Here are some links about that call-in show.

Time Magazine

Full transcript of the show


  1. How amazing for you to have it on film. Fantastic! Thanks for the link (I'm your latest follower).

  2. Thanks Kirsty. The clip was taken from discs I purchased from the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library.

    (And congrats on your piece in a current NY Times.)

  3. Wow - that is a great story, Mark. Well done.