(I was not permitted to post this piece until now.)
I felt guilty about meeting him.
The guy had two full-time jobs: running for reelection and running the country. And yet every month he takes about an hour from his impossibly busy schedule to shake hands, chat briefly and take photos with certain members of the armed forces attached to the White House. It's one of the perks. They must have served at least one year and must be departing in the next 60 days. Each is allowed one tag-along parent. I won the toss.
Although we'd been warned that the President's schedule could change "at a moment's notice," and therefore the grip-and-grin might have to be cancelled, ours was slated for 9:45, Tuesday morning, September 18.
My son and I arrived in the wee hours at the "staging area" -- near his base, about an hour from Washington, D. C.
We'd also been advised that we could enter the White House, with a single "government-issued identification card" -- a driver's license. No camera phones, books, pens, coins. Nothing else.
Before we boarded the secure bus, officials asked for our identification, checked off our names against a list and eyed our attire. (Parents who show up in shorts and flip-flops are sent home.) I'd been instructed to wear a dark suit. Military uniforms were scrutinized by a flashlight, because it was dark and overcast, as we departed at 7:10.
The trip to the White House took over three hours, because it was rush hour and because (we later learned) there was no rush. (The President was running late.)
Finally, our bus pulled into the southeast entrance at 10:40, nearly an hour late for our appointment. When we got off, it was drizzling. Of course, no one had umbrellas, also forbidden fruit. In single file, we walked to nearest guard house, presented our identification to the uniformed, armed Secret Service agent, and were escorted into the Eisenhower Executive Office Building (formerly the Old Executive Office Building), adjacent to the White House. There, another armed guard behind bullet-proof glass asked for our identification, checked off our names against a list on a computer screen, and handed us RFID cards. We moved several feet to the right, scanned our cards, which allowed us to enter and pass through a metal detector. When I went through, a loud buzzer sounded. "I've had my hip replaced," said I to the armed plain-clothes Secret Service guard, who confronted me. "That'll do it," said he pleasantly. He passed a wand all over my entire body and allowed me to proceed.
We walked down several flights of circular stairs, along a corridor, and back outside. We were now only steps from the West Wing. Led through a door, we were placed in a specific order and told to wait in a corridor under a vaulted ceiling. I stood under a portrait of Betty Ford. We were told that if a woman was in our party, she was to stand next to the President. Otherwise, the two of us would choose who stood next to the leader of the free world.
After waiting twenty minutes, we were led into the South Portico next to the Rose Garden where we stood for another twenty minutes. I was surprised that only half of the nearby flowers were roses. I spied the outdoor patio table and chairs where the Beer Summit had been held.
Next, in groups of four, we were led through French doors into the reception area outside the Oval Office, passing the Press Room. The reception-room walls were covered with photos of the President visiting "ordinary" Americans in a coffee shop, and Michelle in the arms of an Olympic athlete and chatting with Jay Leno. I whispered, "Good morning" to Jay Carney, Obama's press secretary, as he rushed by. (Romney's 47-percent "inelegant" comments had just hit the news cycle earlier that morning.) Carney looked at me pleasantly and wished me good morning.
My son asked if I was nervous. Not I. Feeling uncharacteristically relaxed -- no panic attacks on the horizon -- I was determined to step into the Oval Office and take mental photographs of every detail -- the famous rug, the exposed floorboards, the paintings, the busts, the color of the walls, the desk and who, in addition to the President, was in the room.
In his official capacity, my son has had a certain amount of incidental and superficial contact with Obama. Once when he dropped by, my son was watching a college football game.
My son was watching a college football game on a TV monitor in the gym, when the president suddenly walked in and greeted him. They shook hands. Glancing up at the game, the president asked what was my son's favorite college team. Since he grew up in the Boston area, my son replied, "B. C., sir." The President pointed out that Boston College hadn't been doing very well lately. To which my son cheekily responded, "Well, sir, our professional team have more than made up for it." (The New England Patriots reached the Super Bowl in 2012, the Boston Bruins won the Stanley Cup in 2011, the Boston Celtics made it to the NBA Finals in 2010, and the Boston Red Sox captured The World Series in 2004 and 2007.)
Obama laughed and got on the treadmill a few feet away
A few months later, my son was again on duty, reading Michael Lewis' The Big Short. It's a book about the October 2008 financial crisis, credit-default swaps, and how John Paulson made billions.
The president walked in, noticed what my son was reading, and remarked that Michael Lewis was a very good writer. He asked if my son was enjoying the book.
"Yes, Mr. President, very much."
The president remarked that firms trading in derivatives needed to be regulated.
Finally, we were next in line to enter the Oval Office. My son leaned over and whispered that he doubted the President would even remember him. When dressed in their formal bemedaled blue uniforms, all of the soldiers in his branch of service look exactly alike. They are trim, in excellent shape, and sport jarhead haircuts.
At last, our moment -- it would essentially be no more than that, because we'd been told he was running behind schedule and not to engage him in prolonged conversation -- had arrived. We stepped into the Oval Office. I was a deer in headlights. Yes, I saw the President standing facing the famous desk. To the left, I did see a female photographer and her tripod set up under the portrait of George Washington, but I saw absolutely nothing else. I can't say how high the ceiling is or whether it has crown molding or if there's applied molding on the walls. I forgot to notice the bust of Martin Luther King Jr., which Obama had so controversially swapped out for the one of Winston Churchill lent to George W. by Tony Blair. I totally forgot to take note of the new oval rug Obama had installed, inscribed with the profoundly sanguine Martin Luther King Jr. quote: "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice." A few feet away, its very epitome was standing there, an American flag in the lapel of his dark blue suit.
I blinked hard and dreamt I heard a female voice, emanating from a naval officer to our right I hadn't noticed before. We were being introduced to the President of the United States. As we floated to the center of the room, I heard him say, "Hey, there's my buddy!" To me, he said, "I see him in gym all the time."
My son shook his hand: "Good morning, Mr. President."
Now, it was my turn. Shaking his hand, I somehow managed to squeak out, "It is an honor to meet you, Mr. President."
(My son later told me that that my face turned cherry red. He likes to jerk my chain, so it may not be true.)
What I really wanted to say -- but knew I was incapable of stringing two coherent words together, never mind a sentence -- was that even though it would be an honor to meet any sitting President in the Oval Office, it was especially and incredibly an honor meeting and shaking hands with this particular one. Forget that he's African-American, many of whose surnames came from those of their ancestor's slave owners -- Washington, Kennedy, Johnson, etc. This name couldn't have been more un-Americanly discordant -- Barack Hussein Obama. And at the risk of sounding trite and gushy, it is testament to his abilities, not to mention our transcendence as a people to rise above the silliness of skin color and name as qualifications to get elected president.
Obama then spoke directly to me: "Where are you from?"
"Cambridge, Massachusetts." I looked at him and involuntarily raised my eyebrows, because I knew he had spent three years there at Harvard Law School and had been the first black editor of its Law Review.
We talked briefly about a couple of people we knew in common at the law school.
Since this was a "departure photo," the President turned to my son and asked, "Where are you going after this?"
In the past, my son has always observed strict protocol. He never speaks to the President unless spoken to and never volunteers information about himself. While waiting in the South Portico, my son had wrestled with how to answer this very question. Should he say, "I'm going to college in New York City," hoping the President would then ask him where. But I pointed out that he was running late and may not ask him the name of the school.
"Sir, I'll be a freshman at Columbia University," replied my son, "starting in January."
"My alma mater," says the President, brightening. "That's a school I know something about."
I dug deep and found the nerve to say something witty and pithy: "He's a smart kid."
The president smiled. "He's also rather serious. I found him reading Michael Lewis a couple months ago."
Even though my son maintained his stiff military bearing, I knew his jaw had just hit the floor. Here's this guy -- perhaps the most famous and powerful person in the world -- dealing with a gazillion people, juggling a gazillion things, and he had somehow remembered that my son had been reading The Big Short.
The president then turned us toward the camera.
Amazingly, my son and I have no memory that a photo was ever taken. There was no "One, two, three, Cheese." (We were both deathly afraid we would look like idiots, but the photos arrived a few days ago, and we're actually smiling. Each one is "personally" signed. Mine says, "To Gary Chafetz With Appreciation." The signatures on my photo and my son's are precisely identical. How does he do it?)
Each of us then shook the president's hand.
"Thank you, Mr. President," said my son.
I said, "Very best of luck in November."
"We'll be fine," replied Obama confidently, probably savoring that morning's 47-percent Romney gaffe.
I'm a serious tennis player, so I wanted to say, "It's easy to win a match when your opponent makes all the mistakes." But I didn't.
Neither of us could have anticipated the disastrous first debate a few weeks later.
My son and I then walked toward the exit, shook hands with the plain-clothes Secret Service agent at the door, and stepped into the Colonnade in front of the Rose Garden.
I stopped to smell the roses.
As we got back into line, waiting for the others, my son expressed astonishment that Obama had remembered the Michael Lewis book. I didn't have the heart to tell him that Lewis had recently spent some time tagging along with the President for a Vanity Fair article, which could explain why he'd remembered what my son had been reading. On the other hand, maybe Obama, like Clinton, has an incredible memory.
My son, now a civilian, starts Columbia in a few days.