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A President I Want to Become

09/18/2012 10:11 am ET | Updated Jan 19, 2013

On July 13, 2012, 29-year-old Obama campaign staffer Alex Okrent collapsed unexpectedly in the Chicago headquarters. He was rushed to the hospital where he died, surrounded by his loving family. That evening, Mitt Romney tweeted, "Ann & I were deeply saddened to learn of the death of Alex Okrent. Prayers are with Alex's loved ones and the entire Obama campaign team." I was one of Alex Okrent's best friends, and this is the story as to why I find Mitt's tweet an offense to his memory.

I first met Alex when we were freshmen at Wesleyan University in 2001. We sat next to each other during Nancy Schwartz's government class. One of us loved it, the other hated it. I don't need to point out who was who; you can figure it out by looking at Alex's leadership in multiple political campaigns. However, within minutes of sitting next to this man, I knew I had made a lifelong friend.

Alex and I belonged to that class that arrived at university went through orientation, and then a week later was traumatized when the twin towers fell on 9/11. The two of us were young, and idealistic, and the blanket bombing of Afghanistan struck us as an eye-for-an-eye tactic that would only perpetuate aggression between the United States and the Middle East for a long time to come.

It was October 25, 2001, when the two of us marched shoulder to shoulder in the streets of Hartford, Connecticut. You can Google that march; it was the first major protest post-9/11 and there is Alex, on the front page of the Hartford Courant, yelling his head off. For years we would reflect on that march. It's an amazing irony that I, the less politically active of the pair, was one of the protestors arrested that day while he was able to escape being thrown behind bars.

I had a very real scared-straight experience during my weekend in jail, spent the following year in court and on probation for trumped-up charges, and gradually was frightened away from being too involved in political activism for our college years. Meanwhile, Alex persevered throughout our time in school, fighting for every issue he believed in.

That is why, as we were getting ready to live together senior year, I gave him a hard time when he decided to take the first semester to go work on the campaign of some relatively unknown guy in Chicago. The year was 2004 and Barack Obama was running for Senate. "Think of all of the good times you're going to miss," I said, trying to woo him to stay on campus. I figured that when we were old men and in the same retirement home, we would look back on our senior year of college fondly and say, "Remember when...?"

I was out of luck, though; he was adamant. He said Barack Obama stood for something. It is rare to find that in a candidate, on any level of the political stage, and this man was worth fighting for. Alex was brilliant and despite my protests, he went to work for this Obama fellow -- and lo and behold, his brilliance shined and he made a great addition to that campaign.

While I never admitted it, I admired him for the bold move of leaving school and working that election. Here we were, all floundering in trying to figure out what we want to do, and Alex was already out there creating real change in the world. When he returned to Wesleyan in November, crashing on my couch and trying to piece together his credits to graduate with the rest of us, he had no regrets. That is why, as part of my desire to honor his memory, I am working with his friends to organize a memorial scholarship for other young people to have this same opportunity.

After college, I went on to run a Buddhist meditation center and Alex went to work in D.C. He was instrumental in the 2008 Obama campaign, serving as the Get Out the Vote Director in the swing state of North Carolina. We would gchat every day in order to stay in touch. He was working 90-hour weeks and I felt for him. He would make light about the intensely long hours working the political campaign but he so clearly loved it; it was his life blood.

There is this great video of the last minutes of the 2008 election results. Everyone working in Obama HQ is gathered around a giant monitor and as the final votes were added up you can hear a countdown like it was New Years Eve. "10...9...8..." then when the voices crescendo into "one" people start screaming. Obama won the election! He's our new president! The camera pans to Alex, who is playfully hiding his extreme excitement. "Eh," he says, "I guess that's okay."

Alex's sense of humor was incredible. The delivery of this one line, thankfully caught on video, will play in the theater of my mind for the rest of my life. I know many people think this about their best friend but you should know: Alex was really, really funny. Once Alex convinced my girlfriend at the time he couldn't pronounce the "th" sound. We sat there for an hour with him pretending to try and fail to say "aflete."

One of his times to shine in the humor department was Halloween. He loved it, and would normally go all out, dressing up as the Arrested Development character Tobias Fuenke (when he dressed as a Blue Man Group member), Bob Ross, and even a Care Bear.

One year he came to my house straight from work, and hadn't had time to figure out what he was going to be. He was so creative; within minutes he took off his tie, grabbed a champagne flute from my cabinet, disheveled his suit, and became the best man at the wedding. At the parties that night he would walk up to strangers, throw his arm around them, and proclaim to anyone nearby, "This guy? I've known this guy my entire life. I'm so glad he's finally getting married! Mazel tov!" Needless to say, he was incredibly adept at making friends.

Above and beyond his sense of humor, I loved Alex because he would do what needed to be done, no matter what. That's just who he was. As a friend, as a son, as a brother, as a boyfriend, he was just there, unconditionally, authentically. When my book, The Buddha Walks into a Bar, came out at the beginning of this year, he came to every single event for it. He went to more than anyone. Most of these events were boring and repetitive if you have already been, but he came, just to show his love and support. Whenever something happened to me, be it family issues or a tough break up, Alex would show up. He could be in the middle of a meeting or going through his own stuff, but he would be there in minutes offering a comforting shoulder and a wry sense of humor. He was a loyal and dutiful friend.

That is why, when my friend Sean called me on July 13 and said that Alex had collapsed at work, I couldn't process that information. I was in shock. Alex and I had hung out three weeks prior, while I was visiting Chicago, and I was complaining about some respiratory issues I was experiencing and he was saying how he had gotten checked out and was completely fine. So even after hearing he had collapsed I thought, "Oh. He'll be okay. There is no way he will not be okay."

A half hour later Sean called back and broke the news. I crumbled. I'm still crumbled. I live a devastated life, having lost my best friend. There are no words that can comfort me, and very little I can do to feel at all okay about him dying this young.

However, I know Alex would do anything for me, and now I wish to live my life doing anything I can for him. That initially meant escorting his grieving girlfriend out to Chicago and spending an intense few days doing what little I could to comfort his family.

I never knew what a mama's boy Alex was until he died. Even though I had only met his mom a handful of times prior to this event, she knew everything about my life. In fact, that may be a sign that I didn't realize how much Alex and I loved each other until he was gone.

While Alex was working in politics I had spent my post-collegial experience running nonprofit Buddhist meditation centers. I'm a meditation teacher and author, and have spent the majority of my life immersed in Buddhist teachings.

One of the tricky things with Buddhism is the concept of anatman, or no self. With these teachings you can rationalize that on an ultimate level there is no solid sense of self, or any fixed version of the world around us, which means that the world is illusory. When you realize this concept of emptiness of self and other, you are encouraged to strive for complete awakening, or enlightenment.

I say the Buddhist concept of anatman is tricky because within this context trivial matters like who becomes president seem irrelevant. Presidents come and go every four to eight years, while your own mind and its neurosis will be with you until you die. Distinctions between liberals and conservatives can be chalked up to dualistic thinking; who cares about two parties forcing their fixed ideas of what should happen on the population? It's all fixed ideas. It is better to work with your own mind and avoid these worldly pursuits right?

Wrong. Buddhists of this ilk miss the point that we live in a relative world, not an absolute one. Things like having a job, and exercise, and who is the leader of an entire nation are actually pretty damn important. Yes, you can strive for awakening, but not at the expense of ignoring how something like one man's economic policies will affect the entire world. If you cannot find your way into realizing that an election matters then you are ignoring all of the Buddhist teachings around compassion and interdependence.

Something happened that first night after Alex's death that changed my view of Buddhism and politics: Barack Obama called his family. He was so upset, and offered his condolences, and he really cared for Alex's mother. I feel like people should know how amazing he was. I also feel like people should know that one week later, Joe Biden, sometimes known for his gaffes, called Alex's family as well.

Why one week later? Well, as you may know, Joe Biden lost his wife and daughter in a car accident. He intuited that in this first week of mourning, the Okrent family would be surrounded by loving family and friends, and be well taken care of. He also knew that a week later, we would have all returned back home to mourn individually. He knew that is when the loss hits you the hardest; when you are alone with your thoughts. And that is when Joe Biden called, offering a comforting shoulder and his home phone number.

As I write this, I am sitting in Midway Airport, waiting for a flight home to New York City. After Alex died, I packed up my apartment and headed out west, to Ohio. Over the last several months I entered Alex's world, one of tremendous hard work and devotion, and served as a Field Organizer for the Obama campaign. In my mind, one way to honor Alex was to make sure his work got done and our president was re-elected.

After my protest arrest 11 years ago, I snuck off to the sidelines to live vicariously through Alex as he championed a man whose values he believed in. His devotion to Barack Obama, and the principles this man stands for, was unwavering. The fact that Alex died is shocking and devastating. The fact that he died in the office, giving the campaign his all, is not surprising in the least. But that was just one reason for my work in Ohio.

The primary reason I ended up going to Ohio was because Alex was loving and did not try to hide that love. He was one of those rare men that would tell you he loves you. And I loved him. Like a brother. He was my brother.

When this tragedy occurred, and we were all devastated, Barack Obama and Joe Biden responded with love. They did not offer their tweeted prayers, like Romney did, but overcame whatever hesitation they may have felt in this incredibly awkward, horrible time, and offered their hearts fully to the people that Alex cared for most. Furthermore, they are continuing to do that every day.

Romney's tweet was well-intended. I understand that when a tragedy like this happens during a campaign, the right thing to do is pause and acknowledge it, even if the individual worked for your opponent. However, Alex would have hated that tweet. His mother said that explicitly during her eulogy. Alex was viciously opposed to everything Mitt Romney stands for, and was a firm believer that should he be elected president our country would be in trouble. Our economy would decline even further, the gap between the rich and the poor would widen and our healthcare benefits would be in constant jeopardy -- Alex hated this idea.

Before leaving for Ohio, I was spending time with Alex's girlfriend trying to remember what Alex would look like angry. Neither of us saw him angry except for a handful of times, like when she would refuse to put on a seatbelt or when some drunk idiot would try to start a fight with me. Alex was protectively angry. He would get angry because he believed in something or was loyal to someone and would fight to defend them. So to have Mitt Romney, a man who Alex believed he was defending our country against, tweet his condolences, is an offense to his memory.

A staff member at the Chicago headquarters sent me pictures of the memorial wall they have set up to honor Alex's memory. On it are two notes. The first is from Joe Biden, who offered a better eulogy than I was able to, when standing in front of the eight hundred people who attended Alex's service. It reads, "In 29 years, Alex lived a fuller more worthwhile life than most people who live to be 90. We miss him." President Obama pointed to Alex's qualities in a way that I hope I have captured here when he wrote, "We will always remember your commitment, humor, and passion."

I remember calling Alex when the 2004 campaign results came in. He was crushed that George W. Bush won re-election. "Well," he joked, "I guess a whole lot of people thought he was someone you could get a beer with." I would like to posit that when we think of this campaign and the character of these two candidates we consider that Barack Obama isn't the president you want to get a beer with; he is the president you want to become.

When I see how incredibly loyal and loving President Obama has been toward Alex's family, my own grief ebbs just a little bit. I am inspired by his presence, in addition to his policies, and that is why I worked my butt off in Ohio. Because Alex had a giant heart, and partly he was raised with that but also, in large part, he learned it from spending his working life supporting and emulating a man who embodied open-heartedness.

On Oct. 25, 2001, it was one of those rare times where Alex and I were both angry. We thought we could yell our points of view into existence, particularly if we yelled them at authority figures through marching in the streets. We learned we were wrong. I pursued Buddhism and learned of its compassion practices while Alex pursued politics and learned their own. He used the political process as a way to create real change for the world, through offering his open heart, humor, and passion in a constructive way.

The reason I have beef with Mitt Romney tweeting about Alex is because I don't think he understands these qualities. Reporter after reporter came away from their time with Mitt using terms like "robot" and "inaccessible." I don't think they are pointing to inherent qualities about Mitt; I bet he climbs into bed with his wife and says he loves her every night. But when it came time to mourn for a 29-year-old man who had given his all to the political process he could not bring himself to open his heart beyond a tweet about prayer.

As I said, I am sure Mitt Romney meant well. But he is not someone you can get a beer with. He is not someone who has articulated great policy plans. And he is not someone you want to become. As a young person reflecting back on this political race, I'm not going to express my anger beyond remarking that I don't emulate Mitt Romney.

I feel the need to carry on Alex's work, which for the last few months meant defending the world against Mitt Romney. I was protectively angry like Alex and knocked on every door and talked to every potential voter to give them the option of joining me in defending our country. I met incredible people, who went way beyond their comfort level to fight for their president. Barack Obama is the change I want to see in the world, and when the race was called and it was Ohio that pushed him over the edge I stood there with Alex's mother, sister, girlfriend, and so many friends, and knew he was right there with us, proud to have the president reelected.

For more information about Alex, or to contribute to the Okrent Memorial Scholarship for Social Justice, please click here.