فصل 10دوره: سرزمین موعود / درس 11
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ALTHOUGH I HAD VISITED THE White House several times as a U.S. senator, I had never been inside the Oval Office before I was elected president. The room is smaller than you might expect—less than thirty-six feet on its long axis, seven feet narrower along the other—but its ceiling is high and grand, and its features match up with the photos and newsreels. There’s Washington’s portrait above the mantel of an ivy-draped fireplace, and the two high-backed chairs, flanked by sofas, where the president sits with the vice president or visiting foreign dignitaries. There are two doors that blend seamlessly into the gently curved walls—one leading out to the hallway, the other to the “Outer Oval,” where the president’s personal aides are stationed—and a third leading to the president’s small inner office and private dining room. There are the busts of long-dead leaders and Remington’s famous bronze cowboy; the antique grandfather clock and the built-in bookcases; the thick oval carpet with a stern eagle stitched into its center; and the Resolute desk—a gift from Queen Victoria in 1880, ornately carved from the hull of a British ship that a U.S. whaling crew helped salvage after a catastrophe, full of hidden drawers and nooks and with a central panel that pops open, delighting any child who has a chance to crawl through it.
One thing cameras don’t capture about the Oval Office is the light. The room is awash in light. On clear days, it pours through the huge windows on its eastern and southern ends, painting every object with a golden sheen that turns fine-grained, then dappled, as the late-afternoon sun recedes. In bad weather, when the South Lawn is shrouded by rain or snow or the rare morning fog, the room takes on a slightly bluer hue but remains undimmed, the weaker natural light boosted by interior bulbs hidden behind a bracketed cornice and reflecting down from the ceiling and walls. The lights are never turned off, so that even in the middle of the night the Oval Office remains luminescent, flaring against the darkness like a lighthouse’s rounded torch.
I spent most of eight years in that room, grimly listening to intelligence reports, hosting heads of state, cajoling members of Congress, jousting with allies and adversaries, and posing for pictures with thousands of visitors. With staffers I laughed, cursed, and more than once fought back tears. I grew comfortable enough to put my feet up or sit on the desk, roll around on the floor with a child, or steal a nap on the couch. Sometimes I’d fantasize about walking out the east door and down the driveway, past the guardhouse and wrought-iron gates, to lose myself in crowded streets and reenter the life I’d once known.
But I would never fully rid myself of the sense of reverence I felt whenever I walked into the Oval Office, the feeling that I had entered not an office but a sanctum of democracy. Day after day, its light comforted and fortified me, reminding me of the privilege of my burdens and my duties.
MY FIRST VISIT to the Oval took place just days after the election, when, following a long tradition, the Bushes invited Michelle and me for a tour of our soon-to-be home. Riding in a Secret Service vehicle, the two of us traveled the winding arc of the South Lawn entrance to the White House, trying to process the fact that in less than three months we’d be moving in. The day was sunny and warm, the trees still flush with leaves, and the Rose Garden overflowing with flowers. Washington’s prolonged fall provided a welcome respite, for in Chicago the weather had quickly turned cold and dark, an arctic wind stripping the trees bare of leaves, as if the unusually mild weather we had enjoyed on election night had been merely part of an elaborate set, to be dismantled as soon as the celebration was done.
The president and First Lady Laura Bush greeted us at the South Portico, and after the obligatory waves to the press pool, President Bush and I headed over to the Oval Office, while Michelle joined Mrs. Bush for tea in the residence. After a few more photographs and an offer of refreshments from a young valet, the president invited me to have a seat.
“So,” he asked, “how’s it feel?”
“It’s a lot,” I said, smiling. “I’m sure you remember.”
“Yep. I do. Seems like yesterday,” he said, nodding vigorously. “Tell you what, though. It’s a heck of a ride you’re about to take. Nothing like it. You just have to remind yourself to appreciate it every day.”
Whether because of his respect for the institution, lessons from his father, bad memories of his own transition (there were rumors that some Clinton staffers had removed the W key from the White House computers on their way out the door), or just basic decency, President Bush would end up doing all he could to make the eleven weeks between my election and his departure go smoothly. Every office in the White House provided my team with detailed “how to” manuals. His staffers made themselves available to meet with their successors, answer questions, and even be shadowed as they carried out their duties. The Bush daughters, Barbara and Jenna, by that time young adults, rearranged their schedules to give Malia and Sasha their own tour of the “fun” parts of the White House. I promised myself that when the time came, I would treat my successor the same way.
The president and I covered a wide range of subjects during that first visit—the economy and Iraq, the press corps and Congress—with him never straying from his jocular, slightly fidgety persona. He provided blunt assessments of a few foreign leaders, warned that people in my own party would end up giving me some of my biggest headaches, and kindly agreed to host a luncheon with all the living presidents sometime before the inauguration.
I was aware that there were necessary limits to a president’s candor while talking to his successor—especially one who had run against so much of his record. I was mindful as well that for all President Bush’s seeming good humor, my presence in the very office he’d soon be vacating must be stirring up difficult emotions. I followed his lead in not delving too deeply into policy. Mostly, I just listened.
Only once did he say something that surprised me. We were talking about the financial crisis and Secretary Paulson’s efforts to structure the rescue program for the banks now that TARP had passed through Congress. “The good news, Barack,” he said, “is that by the time you take office, we’ll have taken care of the really tough stuff for you. You’ll be able to start with a clean slate.” For a moment, I was at a loss for words. I’d been talking to Paulson regularly and knew that cascading bank failures and a worldwide depression were still distinct possibilities. Looking at the president, I imagined all the hopes and convictions he must have carried with him the first time he walked into the Oval Office as president-elect, no less dazzled by its brightness, no less eager than I was to change the world for the better, no less certain that history would judge his presidency a success.
“It took a lot of courage on your part to get TARP passed,” I said finally. “To go against public opinion and a lot of people in your own party for the sake of the country.”
That much at least was true. I saw no point in saying more.
BACK HOME IN CHICAGO, our lives had shifted sharply. Inside our house, things didn’t feel so different, with mornings spent fixing breakfast and getting the girls ready for school, returning phone calls and talking to staffers. But once any of us stepped outside the front door, it was a new world. Camera crews were stationed at the corner, behind recently erected concrete barriers. Secret Service countersniper teams, clad in black, stood watch on rooftops. A visit to Marty and Anita’s house, just a few blocks away, became a major endeavor; a trip to my old gym was now out of the question. Riding downtown to our temporary transition office, I realized that the empty roads that Malia had noticed on election night were the new norm. All my entries and exits into buildings happened through loading docks and service elevators, cleared of everyone but a few security guards. It felt as if I now lived in my own portable, perpetual ghost town.
I spent my afternoons forming a government. A new administration brings less turnover than most people imagine: Of the more than three million people, civilian and military, employed by the federal government, only a few thousand are so-called political appointees, serving at the pleasure of the president. Of those, he or she has regular, meaningful contact with fewer than a hundred senior officials and personal aides. As president, I would be able to articulate a vision and set a direction for the country; promote a healthy organizational culture and establish clear lines of responsibility and measures of accountability. I would be the one who made the final decisions on issues that rose to my attention and who explained those decisions to the country at large. But to do all this, I would be dependent on the handful of people serving as my eyes, ears, hands, and feet—those who would become my managers, executors, facilitators, analysts, organizers, team leaders, amplifiers, conciliators, problem solvers, flak catchers, honest brokers, sounding boards, constructive critics, and loyal soldiers.
It was crucial, then, to get these early appointments right—starting with the person who could serve as my chief of staff. Unfortunately the initial response from my number one recruit for the job was less than enthusiastic.
“No fucking way.”
That was Rahm Emanuel, the former fundraiser for Richard M. Daley and enfant terrible in the Clinton administration, now a congressman from Chicago’s North Side and the mastermind of the 2006 Democratic wave that had taken back the House of Representatives. Short, trim, darkly handsome, hugely ambitious, and manically driven, Rahm was smarter than most of his colleagues in Congress and not known for hiding it. He was also funny, sensitive, anxious, loyal, and famously profane: At a charity roast in his honor a few years earlier, I’d explained how the loss of Rahm’s middle finger to a meat slicer when he was a teenager had rendered him practically mute.
“Look, I’m honored you’re asking,” Rahm told me when I reached out a month before the election. “I’ll do anything you need to help. But I’m happy where I am. My wife and kids are happy. And I know too much to believe that shit about a family-friendly White House. Anyway, I’m sure you can find better candidates than me.” I couldn’t argue with Rahm about the hardships involved in accepting my offer. In the modern White House, the chief of staff was the day-to-day quarterback, the end of the funnel through which every issue facing the president had to first pass. Few in government (including the president) worked longer hours or under more unrelenting pressure.
But Rahm was wrong about me having a better choice. After two punishing years on the campaign, Plouffe had already told me that he wouldn’t initially be joining the administration, in part because his wife, Olivia, had delivered a new baby just three days after the election. Both my Senate chief of staff, Pete Rouse, and former Clinton chief of staff John Podesta, who had agreed to help manage our transition team, had taken themselves out of the running. Although Axe, Gibbs, and Valerie would all accept senior positions in the White House, none had the mix of skills and experience I’d need for the chief of staff job.
Rahm, on the other hand, knew policy, knew politics, knew Congress, knew the White House, and knew financial markets from a stint working on Wall Street. His brashness and impatience rubbed some people the wrong way; as I would learn, his eagerness to “put points on the board” sometimes led him to care less about the substance of a deal than getting a deal done. But with an economic crisis to tackle and what I suspected might be a limited window to get my agenda through a Democratically controlled Congress, I was convinced that his pile-driver style was exactly what I needed.
In the final days before the election, I had worn Rahm down, appealing to his ego but also to the decency and genuine patriotism hidden beneath his wiseass persona. (“The biggest crisis facing the country in our lifetime,” I yelled at him, “and you’re going to sit on the goddamn sidelines?”) Axe and Plouffe, both of whom knew Rahm well and had seen him in action, were thrilled when he accepted the job. But not all of my supporters were as enthusiastic. Hadn’t Rahm supported Hillary? a few groused. Didn’t he represent the same old triangulating, Davos-attending, Wall Street–coddling, Washington-focused, obsessively centrist version of the Democratic Party we had been running against? How can you trust him?
These were all variations on a question that would recur in the coming months: What kind of president did I intend to be? I had pulled off a neat trick during the campaign, attracting support from independents and even some moderate Republicans by promising bipartisanship and an end to slash-and-burn politics while maintaining the enthusiasm of those on the left. I had done so not by telling different people what they wanted to hear but by stating what I felt to be the truth: that in order to advance progressive policies like universal healthcare or immigration reform, it was not only possible but necessary to avoid doctrinaire thinking; to place a premium on what worked and listen respectfully to what the other side had to say.
Voters had embraced my message—because it sounded different and they were hungry for different; because our campaign hadn’t depended on endorsements from the usual assortment of interest groups and power brokers that might have otherwise forced me into a strict party orthodoxy; because I was new and unexpected, a blank canvas upon which supporters across the ideological spectrum could project their own vision of change.
Once I started making appointments, though, the differing expectations within my coalition began to show. After all, each person I selected for a job in the administration came with his or her own history, paper trail, and set of supporters and detractors. For insiders, at least—the politicians and operatives and reporters whose job it was to read the tea leaves—each appointment signified my true political intentions, evidence of my tilt to the right or to the left, my willingness to break from the past or peddle more of the same. Choices in people reflected choices in policy, and with each choice, the chances of disillusionment grew.
WHEN IT CAME to assembling my economic team, I decided to favor experience over fresh talent. The circumstances, I felt, demanded it. The October jobs report, released three days after the election, was dismal: 240,000 jobs lost (revisions would later reveal that the true number was 481,000). Despite the passage of TARP and continuing emergency measures by Treasury and the Fed, the financial markets remained paralyzed, banks were still on the verge of collapse, and foreclosures showed no signs of slowing down. I loved the various up-and-comers who’d advised me throughout the campaign and felt a kinship with left-leaning economists and activists who saw the current crisis as the result of a bloated and out-of-control financial system in dire need of reform. But with the world economy in free fall, my number one task wasn’t remaking the economic order. It was preventing further disaster. For this, I needed people who had managed crises before, people who could calm markets in the grip of panic—people who, by definition, might be tainted by the sins of the past.
For Treasury secretary, it came down to two candidates: Larry Summers, who had held the job under Bill Clinton, and Tim Geithner, Larry’s former deputy and then head of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. Larry was the more obvious choice: An economics major and debate champion at MIT, one of the youngest professors to be tenured at Harvard, and more recently the university’s president, he had already served as the World Bank’s chief economist, an undersecretary for international affairs, and deputy Treasury secretary before taking the reins from his predecessor and mentor, Bob Rubin. In the mid-1990s, Larry had helped engineer the international response to a series of major financial crises involving Mexico, Asia, and Russia—the closest analogues to the crisis I was now inheriting—and even his fiercest detractors acknowledged his brilliance. As Tim aptly described it, Larry could hear your arguments, restate them better than you could, and then show why you were wrong.
He also had an only partly deserved reputation for arrogance and political incorrectness. As president of Harvard, he’d had a public row with the prominent African American studies professor Cornel West and had later been forced to resign after, among other things, positing that intrinsic differences in high-end aptitude might be one reason women were underrepresented in the math, science, and engineering departments of leading universities.
As I got to know him, I’d come to believe that most of Larry’s difficulties in playing well with others had less to do with malice and more to do with obliviousness. For Larry, qualities like tact and restraint just cluttered the mind. He himself seemed impervious to hurt feelings or the usual insecurities, and he would express appreciation (accompanied by mild surprise) when anyone effectively challenged him or thought of something he’d missed. His lack of interest in standard human niceties extended to his appearance, which was routinely disheveled, his ample belly occasionally exposed by a shirt missing a button, his haphazard approach to shaving often resulting in a distracting patch of stubble under his nose.
Tim was different. The first time I met him, in a New York hotel a few weeks before the election, the word that popped into my head was “boyish.” He was my age, but his slight build, unassuming carriage, and elfin face made him appear considerably younger. During the course of our hour-long conversation he maintained a soft-spoken, good-humored equanimity. We had an immediate rapport, partly based on childhood parallels: As a result of his father’s work as a development specialist, he’d spent much of his youth abroad, instilling in him a reserve that I recognized in myself.
After getting a master’s degree in East Asian studies and international economics, Tim worked as an Asia specialist for Henry Kissinger’s consulting shop and then joined Treasury, becoming a junior trade official in Japan. It was Larry Summers who plucked Tim out of obscurity to serve as his special assistant, and as Larry rose, so did Tim. Tim became a central if unheralded player in dealing with the various financial crises of the 1990s, and it was on the strength of Larry’s recommendation that he would end up heading the New York Fed. Their relationship spoke not only to Larry’s generosity but also to Tim’s quiet confidence and intellectual rigor—qualities that had been amply tested over the previous year, as Tim had worked around the clock with Hank Paulson and Ben Bernanke in an effort to contain the Wall Street meltdown.
Whether out of loyalty to Larry, sheer exhaustion, or justifiable guilt (like Rahm—and me—Tim still had kids at home and a wife who longed for a calmer life), Tim spent much of our first meeting trying to discourage me from hiring him as Treasury secretary. I came away convinced otherwise. For anyone—even Larry—to match Tim’s real-time understanding of the financial crisis or his relationships with the current crop of global financial players would take months, I thought, and that was time that we didn’t have. More important, my gut told me that Tim had a basic integrity, a steadiness of temperament, and an ability to problem-solve unsullied by ego or political considerations that would make him invaluable in the task ahead.
In the end, I decided to hire both men—Larry to help figure out what the hell to do (and not do), Tim to organize and steer our response. To make it work, I had to sell Larry on serving not as Treasury secretary but rather as director of the National Economic Council (NEC), which, despite being the White House’s top economic job, was considered less prestigious. The director’s traditional function was to coordinate the economic policy-making process and act as a diplomatic broker between various agencies, which didn’t exactly play to Larry’s strengths. But none of that mattered, I told Larry. I needed him, his country needed him, and as far as I was concerned, he’d be an equal to Tim in formulating our economic plan. My earnestness may have had some influence on his thinking—though the promise (at Rahm’s suggestion) to make Larry the next chair of the Federal Reserve no doubt helped get him to yes as well.
I had other key posts to fill. To head the Council of Economic Advisers—responsible for providing the president with the best possible data and analysis on all economic matters—I chose Christina Romer, a rosy-cheeked Berkeley professor who had done seminal work on the Great Depression. Peter Orszag, the head of the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, accepted the job as director of the Office of Management and Budget, and Melody Barnes, a thoughtful African American lawyer and former chief counsel to Senator Ted Kennedy, was put in charge of the Domestic Policy Council. Jared Bernstein, a left-leaning labor economist, came on board as part of Joe Biden’s team, as did Gene Sperling, the bespectacled, hyperarticulate policy wonk who had served four years as Bill Clinton’s director of the NEC and who now agreed, along with campaign economists Austan Goolsbee and Jason Furman, to function as roving utility players.
In the months to come, I would spend countless hours with this brain trust and their deputies, asking questions, sifting through recommendations, poring over slide decks and briefing books, formulating policy and then subjecting whatever we had thought up to relentless scrutiny. Arguments were heated, dissent was encouraged, and no idea was rejected because it came from a junior staffer or didn’t fit into a particular ideological predisposition.
Still, Tim and Larry were the dominant voices on our economic team. Both men were rooted in the centrist, market-friendly economic philosophy of the Clinton administration, and given the remarkable run of economic prosperity during the 1990s, such a pedigree had long been considered a matter of pride. As the financial crisis worsened, though, that record would come increasingly under fire. Bob Rubin was already seeing his reputation tarnished as a result of his role as senior counselor at Citigroup, one of the financial institutions whose massive exposure in the subprime securities market now fed the contagion. As soon as I announced my economic team, press stories noted that Larry had championed significant deregulation of the financial markets during his time at Treasury; commentators wondered whether, during his tenure at the New York Fed, Tim—along with Paulson and Bernanke—had been too slow to sound the alarm about the risk the subprime market had posed to the financial system.
Some of these criticisms were valid, others grossly unfair. What was certain was that by selecting Tim and Larry, I had yoked myself to their history—and that if we weren’t able to right the economic ship quickly, the political price for choosing them would be high.
AROUND THE SAME time that I was finalizing decisions on my economic team, I asked staffers and my Secret Service detail to arrange a clandestine meeting in the fire station at Reagan National Airport. The facility was empty when I arrived, the fire trucks removed to accommodate our motorcade. I stepped into a lounge that had been set up with some refreshments and greeted the compact, silver-haired man in a gray suit seated inside.
“Mr. Secretary,” I said, shaking his hand. “Thanks for taking the time.”
“Congratulations, Mr. President-Elect,” Robert Gates replied, steely-eyed and tight-smiled, before we sat down and got to business.
It’s fair to say that President Bush’s secretary of defense and I did not hang out in the same circles. In fact, once you got beyond our common Kansas roots (Gates had been born and raised in Wichita), it was hard to imagine two individuals who had traveled such different roads to arrive at the same location. Gates was an Eagle Scout, a former air force intelligence officer, a Russia specialist, and a CIA recruit. At the height of the Cold War, he served in the National Security Council (NSC) under Nixon, Ford, and Carter, and in the CIA under Reagan, before becoming the agency’s director under George H. W. Bush. (He’d previously been nominated by Reagan, but questions about his knowledge of the Iran-Contra affair had led him to withdraw.) With Bill Clinton’s election, Gates left Washington, D.C., joined corporate boards, and later served as president of Texas A&M University—a post he would hold until 2006, when George W. Bush asked him to replace Donald Rumsfeld at the Pentagon and salvage an Iraq War strategy that was then thoroughly in shambles.
He was a Republican, a Cold War hawk, a card-carrying member of the national security establishment, a prior champion of foreign interventions I had likely protested while in college, and now defense secretary to a president whose war policies I abhorred. And yet I was in the firehouse that day to ask Bob Gates to stay on as my secretary of defense.
As with my economic appointments, my reasons were practical. With 180,000 U.S. troops deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan, any wholesale turnover in the Defense Department seemed fraught with risk. Moreover, whatever differences Gates and I may have had regarding the initial decision to invade Iraq, circumstances had led us to share similar views about the path forward. When President Bush—on Gates’s recommendation—had ordered a “surge” of additional U.S. troops in Iraq in early 2007, I had been skeptical, not because I doubted the ability of more U.S. troops to reduce violence there, but because it was framed as an open-ended commitment.
Under Gates’s direction, though, the Petraeus-led surge (and a brokered alliance with Sunni tribes in Anbar Province) not only significantly reduced violence but also purchased the Iraqis time and space for politics. With the help of painstaking diplomacy by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and, especially, U.S. ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker, Iraq was on the path to forming a legitimate government, with elections scheduled for the end of January. Midway through my transition, the Bush administration had even announced a Status of Forces Agreement with the Maliki government that would withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq by the end of 2011—a timetable that effectively mirrored what I’d proposed during the campaign. Meanwhile, Gates publicly emphasized the need for the United States to refocus attention on Afghanistan, one of the central tenets of my foreign policy platform. Tactical questions remained regarding pace, resources, and personnel. But the fundamental strategy of winding down combat operations in Iraq and bolstering our efforts in Afghanistan was now firmly established—and for the moment at least, no one was in a better position to carry out that strategy than the defense secretary currently in place.
I also had sound political reasons for keeping Gates. I had promised to end constant partisan rancor, and Gates’s presence in my cabinet would show that I was serious about delivering on that promise. Retaining him would also help generate trust within the U.S. military and the various agencies that made up the intelligence community (known as the IC). Wielding a military budget larger than those of the next thirty-seven countries combined, leaders in the Defense Department and the IC were filled with strong opinions, skilled at bureaucratic infighting, and had a bias for doing things the way they’d always been done. I wasn’t intimidated by this; I knew in broad strokes what I wanted to do and expected that habits born of the chain of command—saluting and executing orders from the commander in chief, even those with which one strongly disagreed—were deeply ingrained.
Still, I understood that moving America’s national security apparatus in a new direction wasn’t easy for any president. If President Eisenhower—the former Supreme Allied Commander and one of the architects of D-Day—had occasionally felt stymied by what he called the “military-industrial complex,” there was a high likelihood that pushing reform might be harder for a newly elected African American president who’d never served in uniform, had opposed a mission that many had devoted their lives to achieving, wanted to rein in the military budget, and had surely lost the Pentagon vote by a sizable margin. To get things done now, rather than in a year or two down the line, I needed someone like Gates, who knew how the building worked and where the traps were laid; someone who already had the respect that I—regardless of my title—would in some ways have to earn.
There was a final reason I wanted Gates on my team, and that was to push against my own biases. The image of me that had emerged from the campaign—the starry-eyed idealist who instinctively opposed military action and believed that every problem on the international stage could be solved through high-minded dialogue—had never been entirely accurate. Yes, I believed in diplomacy and thought war should be a last resort. I believed in multilateral cooperation to address problems like climate change, and I believed that the steady promotion of democracy, economic development, and human rights around the world served our long-term national security interests. Those who voted for me or had worked on my campaign tended to share those beliefs, and they were most likely to populate my administration.
But my foreign policy views—and, indeed, my early opposition to the invasion of Iraq—owed at least as much to the “realist” school, an approach that valued restraint, assumed imperfect information and unintended consequences, and tempered a belief in American exceptionalism with a humility about our ability to remake the world in our image. I would often surprise people by citing George H. W. Bush as a recent president whose foreign policy I admired. Bush, along with James Baker, Colin Powell, and Brent Scowcroft, had deftly managed the end of the Cold War and the successful prosecution of the Gulf War.
Gates had come of age working with such men, and in his handling of the Iraq campaign I saw enough overlap between our views to feel confident that we could work together. Having his voice at the table, along with those of people like Jim Jones—the retired four-star general and former head of European Command, whom I had slated as my first national security advisor—guaranteed that I’d hear a broad range of perspectives before making major decisions, and that I would have to continually test even my deepest assumptions against people who had the stature and confidence to tell me when I was wrong.
Of course, all this depended on a basic level of trust between me and Gates. When I had asked a colleague to reach out to him about his possible willingness to stay on, Gates had sent back a list of questions. How long would I expect him to serve? Would I be willing to exercise flexibility in the drawdown of troops from Iraq? How would I approach the Defense Department staffing and budget?
As we sat together in the firehouse, Gates acknowledged that it wasn’t typical for a potential cabinet appointee to quiz his or her future boss this way. He hoped I hadn’t found it presumptuous. I assured him that I didn’t mind, and that his candor and clear thinking were precisely what I was looking for. We went through his list of questions. I had a few of my own. After forty-five minutes, we shook hands and were whisked away in our separate motorcades.
“So?” Axelrod asked upon my return.
“He’s in,” I said. “I like him.” Then I added, “We’ll see if he likes me back.”
WITHOUT MUCH FUSS, the other pieces of my national security team fell into place: longtime friend and former diplomat Susan Rice as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations; Leon Panetta, a former California congressman and Clinton chief of staff with a well-earned reputation for bipartisanship, as director of the CIA; and retired admiral Dennis Blair as director of national intelligence. Many of my closest advisors from the campaign took on key staff roles, including my debate drill sergeant Tom Donilon as deputy national security advisor, young hotshots Denis McDonough, Mark Lippert, and Ben Rhodes as assistant deputies at the NSC, and Samantha Power in an NSC position newly focused on atrocity prevention and the advancement of human rights.
Just one remaining potential appointee caused any kind of stir. I wanted Hillary Clinton to be my secretary of state.
Observers put forth various theories about my rationale for choosing Hillary: that I needed to unify a still-divided Democratic Party, that I was worried about her second-guessing me from her seat in the Senate, that I had been influenced by Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book Team of Rivals and was self-consciously mimicking Lincoln by placing a former political opponent in my cabinet.
But really it was simpler than that. I thought Hillary was the best person for the job. Throughout the campaign, I had witnessed her intelligence, preparation, and work ethic. Whatever her feelings toward me, I trusted her patriotism and commitment to duty. Most of all, I was convinced that at a time when diplomatic relations around the world were either strained or suffering from chronic neglect, having a secretary of state with Hillary’s star power, relationships, and comfort on the world stage would give us added bandwidth in a way that nobody else could.
With the scars of the campaign still fresh in their minds, not everybody in my camp was convinced. (“You sure you want a secretary of state who ran TV ads saying you weren’t ready to be commander in chief?” a friend asked. I had to remind him that my soon-to-be vice president had said the same thing.) Hillary was wary too, and when I first offered her the job, at a meeting in our transition office in Chicago about ten days after the election, I found myself politely rebuffed. She was tired, she said, and looked forward to settling into the more predictable Senate schedule. She still had campaign debt she needed to retire. And then there was Bill to consider. His work in global development and public health at the Clinton Foundation had made a real difference around the world, and both Hillary and I knew that the need to avoid even an appearance of conflicts—particularly with respect to fundraising—would likely place him and the foundation under new constraints.
The concerns she voiced were valid, but I considered them manageable. I asked her to take some time and think it over. Over the course of the next week, I enlisted Podesta, Rahm, Joe Biden, several of our Senate colleagues, and whoever else I could think of to reach out and help make the case to Hillary. Despite the full-court press, when we spoke next, on a late-night phone call, she told me she was still inclined to turn me down. Again I persisted, certain that whatever remaining doubts she might have had less to do with the job and more to do with our potential relationship. I elicited her views on Iraq, North Korea, nuclear proliferation, and human rights. I asked her how she might revitalize the State Department. I assured her that she’d have constant and direct access to me, and the ability to choose her own team. “You’re too important for me to take no as an answer,” I said at the end of the call.
By the next morning, Hillary had decided to accept my offer and join the administration. A week and a half later, I introduced her and the rest of my national security team—along with my choice for attorney general, Eric Holder, and my Department of Homeland Security nominee, Governor Janet Napolitano—at a Chicago press conference. Looking at the men and women assembled onstage, I couldn’t help noticing that almost all of them were far older than I was, possessed of decades more experience in the highest levels of government, and that at least a couple of them had originally supported someone else for president, unmoved by talk of hope and change. A team of rivals after all, I thought. I’d find out soon enough whether this indicated a well-founded confidence in my ability to lead—or the naïve faith of a novice about to get rolled.
WHEN GEORGE WASHINGTON was elected president in 1789, Washington, D.C., didn’t yet exist. The president-elect had to make a seven-day trip by barge and horse-drawn buggy from his home in Mount Vernon, Virginia, to New York City’s Federal Hall—the temporary seat of the new national government—for his swearing in. A crowd of ten thousand greeted him. The oath of office was administered, followed by a shout of “Long live George Washington” and a thirteen-gun salute. Washington delivered a muted, fifteen-minute inaugural address, not to the crowd but to the members of Congress within their ill-lit, makeshift chamber. He then headed to a service at a nearby church.
With that, the Father of Our Country was free to get on with the business of making sure America outlasted his tenure.
Over time, presidential inaugurations grew more elaborate. In 1809, Dolley Madison hosted the first inaugural ball in the new capital, with four hundred people shelling out four dollars each for the privilege of attending what to that point was the largest social event ever held in Washington, D.C. Befitting his populist reputation, Andrew Jackson threw open the White House doors to several thousand of his supporters for his inauguration in 1829; the drunken crowd got so rowdy that Jackson was said to have escaped through a window.
For his second inauguration, Teddy Roosevelt wasn’t content with military processions and marching bands—he threw in a passel of cowboys and the Apache chief Geronimo. And by the time it was John F. Kennedy’s turn in 1961, the inauguration had become a multiday televised spectacle, complete with performances by famous musical artists, a reading by poet laureate Robert Frost, and several fancy balls where Hollywood’s leading celebrities could sprinkle stardust on the new president’s bankrollers and ward heelers. (Frank Sinatra apparently pulled out all the stops to make the parties Camelot-worthy—although he was forced into what must have been an awkward conversation with his friend and fellow Rat Packer Sammy Davis, Jr., when Joe Kennedy sent word that the presence of Davis and his very white Swedish wife at the inaugural balls might not sit so well with JFK’s southern supporters and should therefore be discouraged.) Given the excitement our campaign had generated, expectations for my inauguration—scheduled for January 20, 2009—were high. As with the Democratic convention, I didn’t have much to do with the details of putting it together, confident that the committee we’d set up and my campaign’s organizational whiz Alyssa Mastromonaco (then slated to be my Director of Running Stuff) had everything well in hand. Instead, while stages were being erected and bleachers set up along the D.C. parade route, Michelle, the girls, and I went to Hawaii for Christmas, where—in between sorting out my final cabinet appointments, daily consultations with my economic team, and early work on my inaugural address—I tried to catch my breath.
Maya and I spent an afternoon going through Toot’s personal effects and then walked the same rocky outcropping near Hanauma Bay where we’d said a final farewell to our mother and scattered her ashes over the ocean below. I pulled together a pickup basketball game with some of my old high school teammates. Our families sang Christmas carols, baked cookies, and debuted what would end up becoming an annual talent show (the dads were fairly judged to be the least talented). I even had a chance to bodysurf at Sandy Beach, one of my favorite haunts as a youth. Shooting down a gently breaking wave, the light curling with the sweep of water and the sky etched with a flight of birds, I could pretend for a moment that I wasn’t surrounded by several wet-suited Navy SEALs, that the Coast Guard cutter in the distance had nothing to do with me, that pictures of me shirtless wouldn’t later end up on the front pages of newspapers around the world with headlines like FIT FOR OFFICE. When I finally signaled that I was ready to go, the leader of my security team that day—a sardonic agent named Dave Beach who’d been with me from the start and knew me as a friend—tilted his head, shook the water out of his ears, and said matter-of-factly, “I hope you enjoyed that, ‘cause it’s the last time you’ll be able to do it for a long, long while.” I laughed, knowing he was joking…or was he? The campaign and its immediate aftermath had offered no time for reflection, so it was only during this brief tropical interlude that all of us—friends, family, staffers, Secret Service—had a chance to wrap our heads around what had happened and try to envision what was yet to come. Everyone seemed happy but slightly tentative, unsure whether it was okay to acknowledge the strangeness of things, trying to figure out what had changed and what had not. And although she didn’t show it, no one felt this uncertainty more keenly than the soon-to-be First Lady of the United States.
Over the course of the campaign, I’d watched Michelle adapt to our new circumstances with unerring grace—charming voters, nailing interviews, perfecting a style that showed her to be both chic and accessible. It was less a transformation than an amplification, her essential “Miche-ness” burnished to a high shine. But for all her growing comfort with being in the public eye, behind the scenes Michelle was desperate to carve out some zone of normalcy for our family, a place beyond the distorting reach of politics and fame.
In the weeks after the election, this meant throwing herself into the tasks any couple might go through when having to relocate for a new job. With typical efficiency, she sorted. She packed. She closed accounts, made sure our mail would get forwarded, and helped the University of Chicago Medical Center plan for her replacement.
Her overriding focus, though, was on our daughters. The day after the election she had already arranged for a tour of D.C. schools (both Malia and Sasha crossed the all-girls schools off their list, settling instead on Sidwell Friends, a private school founded by Quakers and the same school Chelsea Clinton had attended) and talked to teachers about managing the girls’ transfer into classes midyear. She sought advice from Hillary and from Laura Bush on how to insulate them from the press and grilled the Secret Service on ways to avoid having the girls’ security detail disrupt playdates and soccer games. She familiarized herself with the operations of the White House residence and made sure the furniture in the girls’ bedrooms wouldn’t look like something out of Monticello.
It’s not as if I didn’t share Michelle’s stress. Malia and, especially, Sasha were so young in 2008, all pigtails and braids, missing teeth and round cheeks. How would the White House shape their childhoods? Would it isolate them? Make them moody or entitled? At night, I would listen intently as Michelle gave me the latest intel she’d gathered, then offer my thoughts on this or that issue that was nagging her, providing her with assurances that a sullen remark or small piece of mischief from either of the girls didn’t indicate the early effects of their suddenly topsy-turvy world.
But as had been true during so much of the last ten years, the day-to-day burden of parenting rested largely on Michelle. And as she watched how—before I had even assumed office—the vortex of work pulled me in, as she saw her own career sidelined, her tight-knit circle of friends soon to be hundreds of miles away as she made her way in a city where so many people’s motives were necessarily suspect, the prospect of loneliness settled on her like a cloud.
All of which helps explain why Michelle asked her mom to come live with us in the White House. That Marian Robinson was even willing to consider it came as something of a surprise to me, for by nature my mother-in-law was cautious, finding satisfaction in steady work, familiar routines, a small circle of family and friends that she’d known for years. She had lived in the same house since the 1960s and rarely ventured out of Chicago; her one extravagance was an annual three-day trip to Vegas with her sister-in-law Yvonne and Mama Kaye to play the slots. And although she adored her grandchildren and had agreed to retire early to help Michelle look after the girls once the campaign heated up, she had always made a point of not hanging around our Chicago home or staying for dinner once her work was done.
“I am not going to be one of those old ladies,” she’d say with a huff, “who won’t leave their kids alone just ‘cause they’ve got nothing better to do.”
Still, when Michelle asked her to move to Washington with us, Marian didn’t put up much resistance. She knew her daughter wouldn’t ask unless it was really important.
There was the practical stuff, of course. For the first few years we were in the White House, it would be Marian who accompanied Malia and Sasha to school every morning and kept them company after school if Michelle was at work. But it was more than that. What really mattered—what wouldn’t stop mattering long after the girls had outgrown the need for babysitting—was the way Marian’s mere presence kept our family grounded.
My mother-in-law didn’t act like she was better than anybody else, so our daughters never even considered that an option. She lived by a doctrine of no fuss and no drama and was unimpressed by any form of opulence or hype. When Michelle came back from a photo shoot or a black-tie dinner, where her every move had been monitored or her hairstyle scrutinized by the press, she could shed her designer dress, throw on a pair of jeans and a T-shirt, and know that her mom was upstairs in her suite on the top floor of the White House, always willing to sit and watch TV with her and talk about the girls or folks back home—or about nothing in particular.
My mother-in-law never complained about anything. Whenever I interacted with her, I’d remember that, no matter what kind of mess I was dealing with, no one had forced me to be the president and that I needed to just suck it up and do my job.
What a gift my mother-in-law was. For us, she became a living, breathing reminder of who we were and where we came from, a keeper of values we’d once thought ordinary but had learned were more rare than we had ever imagined.
WINTER SEMESTER AT Sidwell Friends School started two weeks before Inauguration Day, so after New Year’s we flew back to Chicago, scooped up whatever personal effects had not already been shipped ahead, then boarded a government plane for Washington. Blair House, the president’s official guesthouse, couldn’t accommodate us that early, so we checked into the Hay-Adams hotel, the first of three moves we’d make in the span of three weeks.
Malia and Sasha didn’t seem to mind being in a hotel. They especially didn’t mind their mom’s unusually indulgent attitude toward TV watching, bed jumping, and sampling every dessert on the room-service menu. Michelle accompanied them to their first day of school in a Secret Service vehicle. Later, she would tell me how her heart sank as she watched her precious babies—looking like miniature explorers in their brightly colored coats and backpacks—walking into their new lives surrounded by burly armed men.
At the hotel that night, though, the girls were their usual chattering, irrepressible selves, telling us what a great day they’d had, and how lunch was better than at their old school, and how they had already made a bunch of new friends. As they spoke, I could see the tension on Michelle’s face start to lift. When she informed Malia and Sasha that now that school had started, there’d be no more weeknight desserts and TV watching and that it was time to brush their teeth and get ready for bed, I figured things would turn out okay.
Meanwhile, our transition was firing on all cylinders. Initial meetings with my national security and economic teams were productive, with folks sticking to the agenda and grandstanding kept to a minimum. Crammed into nondescript government offices, we set up working groups for every agency and every imaginable topic—job training, airline safety, student loan debt, cancer research, Pentagon procurement—and I spent my days picking the brains of earnest young whiz kids, rumpled academics, business leaders, advocacy groups, and grizzled veterans of previous administrations. Some were auditioning for a job in the administration; others wanted us to adopt proposals that had gone nowhere over the previous eight years. But all seemed eager to help, excited by the prospect of a White House willing to put new ideas to the test.
There were, of course, bumps along the way. Some of my preferred choices for cabinet positions declined or didn’t pass vetting. At various points in the day Rahm might pop in to ask me how I wanted to handle some emerging policy or organizational dispute, and behind the scenes there was no shortage of the early jockeying—over titles, turf, access, parking spots—that characterizes any new administration. But overall, the mood was one of focused exhilaration, all of us convinced that with smart, deliberate work we could transform the country in the ways we had promised.
And why not? Polls showed my approval rating close to 70 percent. Each day brought a new round of positive media coverage. Younger staffers like Reggie and Favs were suddenly hot items in the D.C. gossip columns. Despite forecasts for frigid temperatures on Inauguration Day, authorities predicted record crowds, with hotels already booked for miles around. The avalanche of requests for the ticketed events—from elected officials, donors, distant cousins, high school acquaintances, and various important personages we barely knew or hadn’t even met—never slowed. Michelle and I did our best to sort through all of them without bruising too many feelings.
“It’s like our wedding,” I grumbled, “but with a bigger guest list.”
Four days before the inauguration, Michelle, the girls, and I flew to Philadelphia, where in homage to Lincoln’s whistle-stop train ride from Springfield to Washington for his 1861 inauguration we boarded a vintage railroad car and reprised the last leg of his journey, with one deviation: a stop in Wilmington, where we picked up Joe and Jill Biden. Watching the adoring crowd that had gathered to see them off, hearing Joe joke with all the Amtrak conductors he knew by name after years of commuting, I could only imagine what was going through his mind, rolling down tracks he’d first traveled not in joy but in anguish so very long ago.
I spent much of the time that day chatting with the several dozen guests we’d invited along for the ride, most of them ordinary voters we’d met here and there along the campaign trail. They joined Malia, Sasha, and me in singing “Happy Birthday” as Michelle blew out the candles on her cake (it was her forty-fifth), giving it the feeling of a close family gathering, the kind Michelle so treasured. Occasionally I’d step out onto the train’s rear platform, feeling the wind cut against my face, the syncopated rhythm of wheels against tracks somehow slowing down time, and I’d wave to the clusters of people who had gathered along the way. There were thousands of them, mile after mile, their smiles visible from a distance, some standing on flatbed trucks, others pressed up against fences, many holding homemade signs with messages like GRANDMAS 4 OBAMA or WE BELIEVE or YES WE DID or lifting up their kids and urging them to wave.
Such moments continued over the next two days. During a visit to Walter Reed Army Medical Center, I met a young Marine amputee who saluted from his bed and told me he’d voted for me despite being a Republican, and that he would be proud to call me his commander in chief. At a homeless shelter in southeast Washington, a tough-looking teenage boy wordlessly wrapped me in the tightest embrace. My father’s stepmother, Mama Sarah, had traveled all the way from her tiny rural village in northwestern Kenya for the inauguration. I smiled as I watched this elderly woman without any formal education, a woman whose home had a tin roof and neither running water nor indoor plumbing, being served dinner in Blair House on china used by prime ministers and kings.
How could my heart not be stirred? How could I resist believing there was something true in all this, something that might last?
Months later, when the magnitude of economic wreckage was fully understood and the public mood had turned dark, my team and I would ask ourselves whether—as a matter of politics and governance—we should have done more to tamp down this collective postelection high and prepare the country for the hardships to come. It’s not as if we didn’t try. When I go back and read interviews I gave right before taking office, I’m struck by how sober I was—insisting that the economy would get worse before it got better, reminding people that reforming healthcare couldn’t happen overnight and that there were no simple solutions in places like Afghanistan. The same goes for my inauguration speech: I tried to paint an honest picture of our circumstances, stripping out some of the loftier rhetoric in favor of calls for responsibility and common effort in the face of daunting challenges.
It’s all there, in black and white, a pretty accurate assessment of how the next few years would go. And yet maybe it was for the best that people couldn’t hear those cautionary notes. After all, it wasn’t hard to find reasons to feel fear and anger in early 2009, to mistrust politicians or the institutions that had failed so many people. Maybe what was needed was a burst of energy, no matter how fleeting—a happy-seeming story about who we were as Americans and who we might be, the kind of high that could provide just enough momentum to get us through the most treacherous part of the journey.
That feels like what happened. A collective, unspoken decision was made that for a few weeks at least, the country would take a much-needed break from cynicism.
INAUGURATION DAY ARRIVED, bright, windy, and freezing cold. Because I knew that the events had been choreographed with a military precision, and because I tend to live my life about fifteen minutes behind schedule, I set two alarms to make sure I was up on time. A run on the treadmill, breakfast, a shower and shave, repeated tries before the tie knot was up to snuff, and by eight forty-five a.m. Michelle and I were in the car for the two-minute drive from Blair House to St. John’s Episcopal Church, where we had invited a friend of ours, Dallas pastor T. D. Jakes, to lead a private service.
For his sermon that morning, Reverend Jakes drew on the Old Testament’s Book of Daniel, describing how Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, faithful to God despite their service in the royal court, refused to kneel before King Nebuchadnezzar’s golden idol; how as a result the three men were thrown into a blazing furnace; and yet how because of their faithfulness, God protected them, helping them to emerge from the furnace unscathed.
In assuming the presidency during such turbulent times, Reverend Jakes explained, I too was being thrown into the flames. The flames of war. The flames of economic collapse. But so long as I stayed true to God and to doing what was right, I too had nothing to fear.
The pastor spoke in a majestic baritone, his broad, dark face smiling down on me from the pulpit. “God is with you,” he said, “in the furnace.”
Some in the church began to applaud, and I smiled in acknowledgment of his words. But my mind was drifting back to the previous evening, when after dinner I had excused myself from my family, walked upstairs to one of Blair House’s many rooms, and received a briefing from the director of the White House Military Office on the “football”— the small leather-jacketed suitcase that accompanies the president at all times and contains the codes needed to launch a nuclear strike. One of the military aides responsible for carrying the football explained the protocols as calmly and methodically as someone might describe how to program a DVR. The subtext was obvious.
I would soon be vested with the authority to blow up the world.
The night before, Michael Chertoff, President Bush’s secretary of homeland security, had called to inform us of credible intelligence indicating that four Somali nationals were thought to be planning a terrorist attack at the inauguration ceremony. As a result, the already massive security force around the National Mall would be beefed up. The suspects—young men who were believed to be coming over the border from Canada—were still at large. There was no question that we’d go ahead with the next day’s events, but to be safe, we ran through various contingencies with Chertoff and his team, then assigned Axe to draft evacuation instructions that I’d give the crowd if an attack took place while I was onstage.
Reverend Jakes wrapped up his sermon. The choir’s final song filled the sanctuary. No one beyond a handful of staffers knew of the terrorist threat. I hadn’t even told Michelle, not wanting to add to the day’s stress. No one had nuclear war or terrorism on their minds. No one except me. Scanning people in the pews—friends, family members, colleagues, some of whom caught my eye and smiled or waved with excitement—I realized this was now part of my job: maintaining an outward sense of normalcy, upholding for everyone the fiction that we live in a safe and orderly world, even as I stared down the dark hole of chance and prepared as best I could for the possibility that at any given moment on any given day chaos might break through.
At nine fifty-five, we arrived at the North Portico of the White House, where President and Mrs. Bush greeted us and led us inside, to where the Bidens, Vice President Cheney and his family, and congressional leaders and their spouses had gathered for a brief reception. Fifteen minutes ahead of schedule, our staffs suggested that we leave early for the Capitol in order to account for what they described as massive crowds. We loaded into the waiting cars in pairs: leaders of the House and Senate first, then Jill Biden and Mrs. Cheney, Michelle and Mrs. Bush, Joe Biden and Vice President Cheney, with President Bush and me bringing up the rear. It was like the boarding of Noah’s Ark.
It was my first time in “the Beast,” the oversized black limousine used to transport the president. Reinforced to survive a bomb blast, the thing weighs several tons, with plush black leather seats and the presidential seal stitched on a leather panel above the phone and the armrest. Once closed, the doors of the Beast seal out all sound, and as our convoy slow-rolled down Pennsylvania Avenue, while I made small talk with President Bush, I looked out the bulletproof windows at the throngs of people who were still on their way to the Mall or had already taken seats along the parade route. Most appeared to be in a celebratory mood, cheering and waving as the motorcade passed. But turning the corner onto the final leg of the route, we came upon a group of protesters chanting into bullhorns and holding up signs that read INDICT BUSH and WAR CRIMINAL.
Whether the president saw them I couldn’t say—he was deep into an enthusiastic description of what it was like to clear brush at his ranch in Crawford, Texas, where he’d be heading directly after the ceremony. But I felt quietly angry on his behalf. To protest a man in the final hour of his presidency seemed graceless and unnecessary. More generally, I was troubled by what these last-minute protests said about the divisions that were churning across the country—and the weakening of whatever boundaries of decorum had once regulated politics.
There was a trace of self-interest in my feelings, I suppose. In a few hours it would be only me riding in the backseat of the Beast. It wouldn’t take long, I figured, before bullhorns and signs were directed my way. This too would be part of the job: finding a way not to take such attacks personally, while avoiding the temptation to shut myself off—as perhaps my predecessor had too often done—from those shouting on the other side of the glass.
We had been wise to leave early; the streets were choked with people, and by the time we arrived at the Capitol we were several minutes behind schedule. Together with the Bushes, we made our way to the Speaker’s office for more handshakes, photos, and instructions before participants and guests—including the girls and the rest of our families—began lining up for the procession. Michelle and I were shown the Bible we’d borrowed from the Library of Congress for the administering of my oath, a small, thick volume covered in burgundy velvet with gilt edges, the same Bible Lincoln had used for his own swearing in. Then it was Michelle’s turn to go, leaving me, Marvin, and Reggie momentarily alone in a holding room, just like old times.
“Anything in my teeth?” I asked with an exaggerated smile.
“You’re good,” Marvin said.
“It’s cold out there,” I said. “Just like Springfield.”
“A few more people, though,” Reggie said.
A military aide stuck his head into the room and said it was time. I gave Reggie and Marvin fist bumps and followed the congressional committee down the long hallways, through the Capitol Rotunda and National Statuary Hall, past the rows of well-wishers who lined the walls, a gauntlet of honor guards saluting each step, until I finally arrived at the glass doors leading out onto the inaugural platform. The scene beyond was stunning: The crowd blanketed the Mall in an unbroken plane, reaching well past the Washington Monument and out to the Lincoln Memorial, with what must have been hundreds of thousands of handheld flags shimmering under the noonday sun like the surface of an ocean current. For a brief moment, before trumpets sounded and I was announced, I closed my eyes and summoned the prayer that had carried me here, one I would continue to repeat every night I was president.
A prayer of thanks for all I’d been given. A prayer that my sins be forgiven. A prayer that my family and the American people be kept safe from harm.
A prayer for guidance.
TED SORENSEN, JFK’s friend, confidant, and chief speechwriter, had been an early supporter of mine. By the time we met, he was almost eighty but still sharp, with a bracing wit. He even traveled on my behalf, a persuasive if also slightly high-maintenance campaign surrogate. (Once, while our motorcade was barreling down the highway in a driving Iowa rainstorm, he leaned forward and yelled at the agent behind the wheel, “Son, I’m half blind but even I can see you’re too damn close to that car!”) Ted also became a favorite of my young speechwriting team, generously offering advice and occasionally commenting on drafts of their speeches. Since he had co-authored Kennedy’s inaugural address (“Ask not what your country can do for you…”), they asked him once what had been the secret to writing one of the four or five greatest speeches in American history. Simple, he said: Whenever he and Kennedy sat down to write, they told themselves, “Let’s make this good enough to be in a book of the great speeches someday.” I don’t know if Ted was trying to inspire my team or just mess with their heads.
I do know that my own address failed to reach JFK’s lofty standards. In the days that followed, it received far less attention than did the estimates of the crowd size, the bitterness of the cold, Aretha Franklin’s hat, and the slight glitch that occurred between me and Chief Justice John Roberts during the administering of the oath, causing us to meet in the White House’s Map Room the following day for an official do-over. Some commentators thought the speech had been unnecessarily dark. Others detected inappropriate criticism of the previous administration.
Still, once I’d finished delivering it, I felt satisfied that I’d spoken honestly and with conviction. I was also relieved that the note to be used in case of a terrorist incident had stayed in my breast pocket.
With the main event behind me, I let myself relax and soak in the spectacle. I was moved by the sight of the Bushes mounting the stairs to their helicopter and turning to wave one final time. I felt pride holding Michelle’s hand as we walked a portion of the parade route. I was tickled by the parade participants: Marines, mariachi bands, astronauts, Tuskegee Airmen, and, especially, the high school bands from every state in the Union (including my alma mater Punahou’s marching band—Go Buff ‘n Blue!).
The day contained just one sad note. During the traditional postinaugural lunch in the Capitol, in between toasts and presentations by our congressional hosts, Teddy Kennedy—who had recently had surgery to remove a cancerous brain tumor—collapsed in a sudden, violent seizure. The room fell silent as emergency medics rushed in. Teddy’s wife, Vicki, followed alongside as they wheeled him away, her face stricken with fear, leaving the rest of us to wonder anxiously about his fate, none of us imagining the political consequences that would eventually flow from that moment.
Michelle and I attended a total of ten inaugural balls that evening. Michelle was a chocolate-brown vision in her flowing white gown, and at our first stop I took her in my arms and spun her around and whispered silly things in her ear as we danced to a sublime rendition of “At Last” sung by Beyoncé. At the Commander in Chief’s Ball, we split up to dance with two charming and understandably nervous young members of our armed forces.
The other eight balls I’d be hard-pressed to remember.
By the time we got back to the White House, it was well past midnight. A party for our family and closest friends was still going strong in the East Room, with the Wynton Marsalis Quintet showing no signs of letting up. Twelve hours in high heels had taken a toll on Michelle’s feet, and since she had to get up an hour earlier than I did to get her hair done for another church service the next morning, I offered to stay and entertain our guests while she headed to bed.
Just a few lights were on by the time I got upstairs. Michelle and the girls were asleep, the sound of night crews clearing dishes and breaking down tables and chairs barely audible from below. I realized I hadn’t been alone all day. For a moment I just stood there, looking up and down the enormous central hall, not yet certain of where each of the many doors led, taking in the crystal chandeliers and a baby grand piano, noticing a Monet on one wall, a Cézanne on another, pulling out some of the books on the shelf, examining small busts and artifacts and portraits of people I didn’t recognize.
My mind went back to the first time I had seen the White House, some thirty years ago, when as a young community organizer I had brought a group of students to Washington to lobby their congressman on a bill to increase student aid. The group of us had stood outside the gate along Pennsylvania Avenue, a few students mugging and taking pictures with disposable cameras. I remember staring up at the windows on the second floor, wondering if at that very moment someone might be looking down at us. I had tried to imagine what they might be thinking. Did they miss the rhythms of ordinary life? Were they lonely? Did they sometimes feel a jolt in their heart and wonder how it was that they had ended up where they were?
I’d have my answer soon enough, I thought. Pulling off my tie, I walked slowly down the hall, turning off what lights remained on.
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