As the namesake for MTV's doc-style series "World of Jenks", I've landed in some pretty surprising places and met more than a few interesting characters. But I never thought the first time I shook hands with a presidential candidate would be while he signed copies of a children's book. Yet there I was at a Hilton Garden in Staten Island, where a group of mostly older book-buyers fiddled with their Sharpies in anticipation of GOP hopeful Newt Gingrich.
While the former House Speaker began scribbling his signature on copies of his books as well as "Sweet Land of Liberty" — written by wife Callista and featuring a cover illustration of the main character, Ellis the Elephant — I came to a sudden realization: There, at the Staten Island Tea Party Town Hall, I'd entered the world of politics. And On Tuesday, I made it official, helping MTV kick off the Power of 12, 11 months worth of election-year coverage, with the documentary short "Our Voice."
To be fair, though, I had always been a political junkie. I turn on the TV and go straight for the cable news stations. I DVR my favorite political morning show and watch it at night before scanning the nightly news programs ... it's gross.
But there I was at a Gingrich political press conference (also part of the Town Hall event) at the Hilton. CNN, ABC and other bigwig networks that I've watched on a daily basis were gathered to my left. I felt like too much of an outsider to be standing in the middle of the pack of aggressive-looking news types — pens out, adjusting their hair and their camera lenses. As I held onto my MTV microphone, the other reporters eyed me as if I had checked into the wrong event.
My friend and producer Monty, who had been to many of these political events, turned to me and asked, 'OK, Newt points at you — Go! What's your question?' Occasionally, Jonah, my lifelong friend and [director of photography], expressed concern about our audio levels.
Finally Gingrich walked in, though, and you could hear a pin drop. I've spoken with homeless people, convicted murderers, even people on their death beds, but this was different. I'd never seen a hush come over a room like that. A potential future president had just walked into an awkwardly named first-floor conference room (the Cherry Willow Suite?).
'SPEAKER!' 'MR. SPEAKER!' they started shouting, each one louder than the next.
I found myself acting out a real-life episode of "The West Wing" and soon, I was yelling just like everyone else, trying to get my question in. It didn't take long for it to click that this was how you played the game: being aggressive, sneaking into factories for a press conference, lingering around a car you suspect might be there to pick up a candidate, waiting three hours just to catch a politician walking down the hallway to use the bathroom. ... I can't imagine it had ever been that loud in the Cherry Willow Suite.
Suddenly, Monty gave me a puzzled look, "What was that?"
On the second go-around, I decided I was going for it. "Speaker! Mr. Speaker!"
My voice was being drowned out, and after it happened again for the third time, I took a deep breath.
So I shouted a combination of words that probably made little sense: "Jenks! MTV News! I'm traveling! The country! Everywhere and need to know!"
In what seemed like slow motion, Newt turned his head and looked right at me ... suddenly, everyone was looking at me, dead silent. I'm the only guy wearing a T-shirt, but the floor is mine.
For more on MTV's election coverage, check out the Power of 12. And make sure to catch the premiere of "Our Voice" on Tuesday at 4:54 p.m. ET/PT on MTV!