I Just Met Two Obamas
President Obama is taller than I thought. And he’s friendly and handsome, and his ears don’t really stick out like they do in caricatures of him, and he called me “Adrienne” like only my mother ever did, and when he put his arm around me I started floating.
Which is why my beautician's reaction when I told her I’d be meeting him surprised me. She’s young and hip and probably voted for Barack, and thought my going to meet him was cool—but cool, I could tell, in the manner of “I found a great dress at Younkers” cool instead of “OMG I’M MEETING BARACK OBAMA THE FRICKING PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES!!!” cool. And her dispassion was not unique. I polled my friends and found some with my OMG!! reaction and some not—and then they named other heroes whom I’d never heard of as the ones who would make them float.
My first reaction was to wonder what was the matter with them. But I couldn’t find a unifying flaw, so I went deeper, asking instead, how do we all choose heroes and why do we float when we touch them?
The first part’s maybe pretty simple—we see ourselves in them. I grew up Jewish in Skokie, Illinois, which post-WWII came to serve as a refuge for Holocaust survivors. My elderly neighbors had numbers burned into their wrists, and my indomitable father went white with terror and rage when skinheads threatened to march down Dempster Street. I couldn’t step foot on the grounds of the gentile country club in the middle of my city (though I did relieve myself by “watering” the seventeenth green late one angry teenage night), and “kike” was etched indelibly into the stainless steel by the elevator buttons that I pressed every day in my college dorm.
In my twenties I became a Christian, a betrayal to my people of all things Jewish. So I became ostracized by the ostracized, and to top it all off, I pursued and became a senior pastor in a denomination that largely resisted such advancement for women.
So I loved Barack from a distance with the love of unabashed projection. All of me was there in him—a people group cruelly oppressed, shame and segregation, savage epithets and a struggle against opposition to emerge into the fullness of identity. My vicarious experience of his success was inspiring: his story mirrored mine, his success gave me hope, he paid a price and I can too.
Even so, the invitation to meet him activated something in me that I hadn’t expected. It began with an email from a friend who I hadn’t heard from in a couple of years. After updating me on her personal life, she added
Also, I now work on the advance team for presidential visits. My friend Max is on a trip in Iowa right now looking for some volunteer drivers for Wednesday in the President’s motorcade. It's extra fun because you (very) briefly get to meet him and have a photo taken. Would you and Tom be interested?
WHAT??? She had me at “volunteer drivers,” but when I got to “meet him and have a photo taken” my heart rate spiked to a thousand and I quickly began Google-stalking her to make sure this was all for real. And when I still wasn’t sure how to feel I forwarded the email to my husband Tom, who zinged back, “We’re going, right?!?”
I suddenly couldn’t figure out what to wear. I’d have to get my nails done and my hair colored and read current events. I felt like I was eight years old with my first crush on my Dad’s friend Sid the cantor (who sang beautiful Hebrew prayers in the synagogue).
But my friend David, along with my beautician, confirmed the lack of a universal empathic swoon: “I’d feel like that,” he said, “if I got to meet Arcade Fire!” A video game, I wondered? How does one meet a video game? “Yeah, if I went to their concert and could get a backstage pass for even a minute . . .”
“Why Arcade Fire?” I asked.
“I'd like to meet Win Butler,” he said, “so that we could talk music, politics and death.” David is a deep-thinking guy who grew up in stay-between-the-lines Indiana and majored in philosophy and religion. “I think he's onto some major piece of reality and meaning that Western civilization tends to ignore or banishes to the shadows. If he didn't have time to chat, I'd love to simply shake his hand and say, ‘Keep up the good work.’"
Then I remembered my friend Michelle. When Mother Theresa died on September 5, 1997, I felt deep grief. I took my sadness to Michelle who, it turns out, was also grieving, but over Princess Diana, who’d died just a few days earlier. I was baffled. Externally, Michelle was Diana’s antipode: funky and goth with asymmetric, platinum blonde hair, wearing short skirts and tall boots while finding strange solace for her deep existential angst in the quiet of cemeteries. She felt her own vulnerability, wrestling with depression and self-loathing—and that was the connection. “You inflict it upon yourself,” Princess Diana said of her bulimia in a BBC interview, “because you don't think you're worthy or valuable. You’re very ashamed of yourself and you hate yourself.” It’s not that bulimia in the palace would surprise, but Di came forward, led others out, and gave the Michelles of the world hope that their inner demons could be cathartically expressed even in a milieu of oppressive pretense.
Which brought me back to shaking hands with Barack. I realized that while he represents ideas and ideals born out of centuries of struggle, the fact that they are now embodied in an actual flesh-and-blood person gives those ideas substance and emotional valance. Michelle felt grief not when her ideal was lost, but when the person of Princess Diana was taken out of her world. David would have given a lot for a handshake and a brief word with Win Butler. Our hopes and dreams must be instilled into and emerge out of real human beings or they remain vapor. And I had been offered the rarest of opportunities—to touch the embodiment of my ideals.
And so I sat in our rental passenger van with my husband at the Waterloo, Iowa, airport and watched the real Air Force One—not the TV Air Force One—move slowly towards our waiting motorcade. And I watched as the real President Barack Hussein Obama—not the six o’clock news President Obama—came down the stairs smiling and waving to us. And then half an hour later, a few minutes before he was to speak to television cameras projected to the nation from the Cedar Falls utilities building, my friends and I turned a corner and met him. The space was makeshift, with hanging tarps and bright lights for taking photos. He was smiling, relaxed and engaged as we filed in. “Don’t stumble,” he said as I stutter-stepped over a phantom carpet ridge. He reached out to shake my hand. “And what’s your name?” I hesitated, as though I’d gotten to a tough question on an IQ test. I am Adey to everyone except for my mother, who always and forever spoke my full name.
“Adrienne,” I said.
“Hello, Adrienne!” he said.
“Well drivers, let’s all look to the camera and smile.” I was standing next to him and he put his arm around me. So I put my arm around him.
The camera flashed and we were done.
He said, “Thank you all so much for driving for us today,” and we filed out to make room for the next group.
Thirty seconds of contact, a blur of photos, whispered reconstruction of the details with my friends as we filed out—it really shouldn’t have affected me much. But I was floating because the person and my personalized projection of him were one, and I haven’t come down yet.
This article was written with Tom Wassink.