The inside of the White House doesn’t have the luminous quality that you might expect from television or film; it seems well kept but worn, a big old house that one imagines might be a bit draughty on cold winter nights.
On a chilly January afternoon in 2005, the day before my swearing-in as a senator, I was invited there with other new members of Congress. At 1600 hours on the dot, President Bush was announced and walked to the podium, looking vigorous and fit, with that jaunty, determined walk that suggests he’s on a schedule and wants to keep detours to a minimum. For 10 or so minutes he spoke to the room, making a few jokes, calling for the country to come together, before inviting us for refreshments and a picture with him and the first lady.
I happened to be starving, so while most of the other legislators started lining up for their photographs, I headed for the buffet. As I munched on hors d’oeuvres, I recalled an earlier encounter with the president, a small White House breakfast with me and the other incoming senators.
I had found him to be a likable man, shrewd and disciplined but with the same straightforward manner that had helped him win two elections; you could easily imagine him owning the local car dealership, coaching Little League baseball and grilling in his backyard – the kind of guy who would make for good company so long as the conversation revolved around sport and the kids.
There had been a moment during the breakfast meeting, though, after the backslapping and the small talk and when all of us were seated, with Vice-President Cheney eating his eggs benedict impassively and Karl Rove at the far end of the table discreetly checking his BlackBerry, that I had witnessed a different side of the man.
The president had begun to discuss his second-term agenda, mostly a reiteration of his campaign talking points – the importance of staying the course in Iraq and renewing the Patriot Act, the need to reform social security and overhaul the tax system, his determination to get an up-or-down vote on his judicial appointees – when suddenly it felt as if somebody in a back room had flipped a switch.
The president’s eyes became fixed; his voice took on the agitated, rapid tone of someone neither accustomed to nor welcoming interruption; his easy affability was replaced by an almost messianic certainty. As I watched my mostly Republican Senate colleagues hang on his every word, I was reminded of the dangerous isolation that power can bring, and I appreciated the wisdom of America’s founding fathers in designing a system to keep power in check.
“Senator?” I looked up, shaken out of this memory, and saw one of the older black men who made up most of the White House waiting staff standing next to me.
“Want me to take that plate for you?” I nodded, trying to swallow a mouthful of chicken something-or-other, and noticed that the queue to greet the president had evaporated. A young marine at the door politely indicated that the photograph session was over and that the president needed to get to his next appointment. But before I could turn around to go, the president himself appeared.
“Obama!” he said, shaking my hand. “Come here and meet Laura. Laura, you remember Obama. We saw him on TV during election night. Beautiful family. And that wife of yours – that’s one impressive lady.”
“We both got better than we deserve, Mr President,” I said, shaking the first lady’s hand and hoping that I’d wiped any crumbs off my face.
The president turned to an aide nearby, who squirted a big dollop of hand sanitiser in the president’s hand.
“Want some?” the president asked. “Good stuff. Keeps you from getting colds.” Not wanting to seem unhygienic, I took a squirt.
“Come over here for a second,” he said, leading me off to one side of the room.
“You know,” he said quietly, “I hope you don’t mind me giving you a piece of advice.”
“Not at all, Mr President.” He nodded. “You’ve got a bright future,” he said. “Very bright. But I’ve been in this town a while and, let me tell you, it can be tough. When you get a lot of attention like you’ve been getting, people start gunnin’ for ya. And it won’t necessarily just be coming from my side, you understand. From yours, too. Everybody’ll be waiting for you to slip. Know what I mean? So watch yourself.”
“Thanks for the advice, Mr President.” “All right. I gotta get going. You know, me and you got something in common.”
“What’s that?” “We both had to debate Alan Keyes. That guy’s a piece of work, isn’t he?” I laughed, and as we walked to the door I told him a few stories from the campaign.
It wasn’t until he had left the room that I realised I had briefly put my arm over his shoulder as we talked – an unconscious habit of mine, but one that I suspected might have made many of my friends, not to mention the secret service agents in the room, more than a little uneasy.
As I’ve been a steady and occasionally fierce critic of Bush administration policies, Democratic audiences are often surprised when I tell them that I don’t consider George Bush a bad man and that I assume he and members of his administration are trying to do what they think is best for the country.
After the trappings of office are stripped away, I find the president and those who surround him to be pretty much like everybody else, possessed of the same mix of virtues and vices, insecurities and long-buried injuries, as the rest of us.
No matter how wrongheaded I might consider their policies to be – and no matter how much I might insist that they be held accountable for the results of such policies – I still find it possible, in talking to these men and women, to understand their motives, and to recognize in them values I share.
This is not an easy posture to maintain in Washington. The stakes involved in policy debates are often so high that I can see how, after a certain amount of time in the capital, it becomes tempting to assume that those who disagree with you have fundamentally different values – indeed, that they are motivated by bad faith, and perhaps are bad people.
Outside of Washington, though, America feels less deeply divided. Spend time actually talking to Americans, and you discover that most evangelicals are more tolerant than the media would have us believe, most secularists more spiritual. Most rich people want the poor to succeed, and most of the poor are both more self-critical and hold higher aspirations than the popular culture allows. Most Republican strongholds are 40% Democrat, and vice versa. The political labels of liberal and conservative rarely track people’s personal attributes.
All of which raises the question: what are the core values that we, as Americans, hold in common? One core value, individual freedom, is so deeply ingrained in us that we tend to take it for granted.
Barack Obama, Audacity of Hope