The first surprise was that Barack Obama opened the door to the Oval Office himself, smiling, inviting us in, shaking hands, asking for names and hometowns.
No, let’s back up a bit. The first surprise was certainly that I was at the White House at all. How I got there starts way back on Herbert Hoover’s first night at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. March 4, 1929. The story is that Hoover’s books had yet to arrive, and as Calvin Coolidge had left no books at all on the White House shelves Hoover had to borrow a book from a night watchman for his bedtime reading. Picking up on this story in the newspaper the next day, the enterprising head of the American Booksellers Association quickly arranged delivery of a selection of current titles, intended as the beginning of a permanent White House library.
Pretty much every year since then, the ABA has made a delivery of books to the White House. During George W. Bush’s eight year term an ABA representative generally just dropped the books off, though on a couple of occasions there were brief meetings with Laura Bush, a former librarian.
So here it was January 2011, and as a member of the board of directors of the American Booksellers Association I was in D.C. for 7 days of meetings. Board meetings, meetings with folks from other kinds of independent business alliances, meetings with other booksellers, publishers, authors. Going in I had no idea I’d also be meeting with the President. But on Tuesday word came down that we’d be doing the annual donation of books on Thursday morning. The whole board would be going, and we each needed to pick a book. We’d be meeting with Obama himself.
Thus it was that about 11:15 in the morning on Thursday January 20th I found myself in the Oval Office with 7 other board members (great booksellers all!), and with Barbara Meade, the co-owner of Politics and Prose bookstore just outside of D.C., and Oren Teicher, the ABA’s CEO. Books in hand, we were standing around with Barack in front of the big Presidential desk. We had been told the appointment would last for only ten minutes, so I expected we would just hand him our books, they’d take some pictures, and we’d be out of there. I know Obama is a reader, but he had just finished hosting the Chinese Premier the night before. He is a very busy man and there was no political capital to be gained by hanging out with the likes of us.
But it was time for me to be surprised again. Obama asked questions about almost every book we gave him. He was especially interested in the books that the two children’s booksellers among us had brought for his daughters. He lamented the fact that he could no longer just walk into a bookstore and browse. Talking about books for his daughters, he said that the best books were ones that really engage them, but that they have to “stretch” for. He related reading aloud “Life of Pi” to his 8 year old. She kept insisting that they continue, even though the book “deals at some points with some pretty serious ideas and theology.” He was immediately drawn to Abraham Verghese’s marvelous novel, “Cutting for Stone,” and a number of us talked about the book’s richness and depth. Obama was clearly enjoying being with us, talking about books and reading.
I was the last person to hand him my book. “I figured somebody had to bring a political book” I said as I handed him a copy of Matt Taibbi’s “Griftopia,” a jaundiced, startling view of the financial meltdown. “Oh I know who Matt Taibbi is,” Obama said. “He sometimes doesn’t have a very high opinion of me.” As if to prove his point, he opened the book to an early page and read aloud the chapter heading, “The Biggest A**hole in the Universe,” a portrait of Alan Greenspan. “He’s not talking about you there,” I joked, giving him a pat on the shoulder.
After a group picture, Obama said that since we had each given him a book, it was only fair that he give each of us a book in return, and he handed out signed copies of “The Audacity of Hope.”
Now it was time to go. We filed out into the hall, and I started to walk toward the door where we had come in. But I stopped when I heard Obama’s voice again. He was standing in the doorway, talking about how hard it was to find good books for his daughters. Maybe we could help him, send him some recommendations? Oh yeah, we could do that, we all agreed.
Then we walked once more past the Marine sentry, who for the second time that morning did not move a muscle and failed to reply when I thanked him for opening the door for us. The better part of 20 minutes had gone by. But who was counting?
My 20 minute take on Barack Obama? For what it’s worth::
He’s young, smart, and handsome. He clearly has a sense of himself, and he has to have a fair amount of ambition or he wouldn’t be where he is today. Yet he also seems to understand that there is always more to learn. In my experience people that think they already know everything aren’t readers—witness our last president. Obama was engaged in talking with us, engaged in talking about books, and he is clearly engaged in the work of being a father. Many politicians become just “operators” who have long forgotten how to relate to people on a basic human level. That’s not Barack Obama.
I’ve certainly had my disappointments with him during his first two years in office. He has seemed surprisingly slow to lead, slow to frame the issues facing the country, and he has let many of the same folks who created the financial mess advise him on how to respond to it. But against this I left his office feeling he was indeed young, smart, open to learning, and still connected to the basics of our shared enterprise of being human together. All of this bodes well.
Maybe folks trying to influence him might try talking to him in a different way? Like:
--Hey Barack, when those girls of yours grow up, are you gonna want them dating people like those sleazy guys from Goldman Sachs?
I’ll bet this would get his attention. And then those sleazy guys at Goldman Sachs would probably get some more critical attention from President Obama as well...