The day I met President Obama
When Barack and Michelle Obama threw open the doors of the White House, Leonard Doyle was in the queue
Friday 23 January 2009
It was their first day in their new home and Barack and Michelle Obama had promises to keep, foremost of which was flinging open the doors of the White House to the general public. Just after lunch, the First Lady looked out of the bow window of the South Portico and saw a line of shivering people hoping to get inside. Some were invited but just as many, like me, were trying their luck.
Realising what was going on, Mrs Obama instructed the Secret Service agents to open the doors to everyone in line, whether they were on the carefully screened list or not. Soon we were walking through hallowed halls from which the public has been largely excluded since the attacks of 2001.
There was confusion everywhere on Day One, so much so that some of Mr Obama's senior aides had difficulty entering the White House because they had yet to receive their Secret Service clearance. Even the President's political guru David Axelrod, who orchestrated his victory, was delayed at the front gate. Late for the open-house event, he came panting up the stairs and looked sheepish as he pushed in at the front of the queue.
While we waited patiently, a Secret Service agent confided that it took less than four hours to move the Bushes out and the Obamas into their new home. With a staff of fewer than 100, the new First Family are being made to feel at home, and photographs of Tuesday's inauguration were already in place as we trooped inside.
Mercifully out of the cold, we headed down a long corridor dominated by a bronze bust of Abraham Lincoln. To the left was the canary-yellow Vermeil Room with its large portrait of Jacqueline Kennedy, a First Lady whose style, charisma and love of sheath dresses Mrs Obama shares in abundance.
Then it was up a narrow marble staircase into the ceremonial East Room, where yet another Secret Service man was recounting how Teddy Roosevelt's six children used to bring their pony up in a lift to race it around the elegant ballroom. More recently, the Harlem Globetrotters played basketball there and somehow avoided the enormous chandeliers.
"I love my job here, I see history happening every day," our Secret Service guide said cheerfully, adding that the White House already has a basketball half-court where the President may soon be practising his shots.
From behind a closed door, we could hear children, presumably the Obama girls, Sasha and Malia, scampering around with their pals from Chicago who had been invited over for a movie and a Jonas Brothers concert.
Finally, the door to the Blue Room swung open and there they were, the President and First Lady standing framed against a window, the afternoon sun streaming in. Claudia and Manuela Calderon, two young Mexican-Americans, walked up to shake the President's hand.
"Where are you from?" Mr Obama enquired, warmly. For a moment they were speechless. From Mexico City, they volunteered, but they had grown up in Dallas. They were soon chatting away with Mrs Obama.
Then it was my turn and the President proffered his hand. He looked exhausted after the inauguration, followed by a night of celebratory balls that ended in the small hours. But his handshake was warm and firm, not the bone-cruncher many politicians specialise in. He looked me directly in the eye and asked where I was from. "Dublin," I said, adding that we had met once before in Iowa, at a time when his candidacy was all but written off by the US media.
That November night he had just given a barnstorming speech which would prove to be the turning point in his campaign and lead to his first upset victory on 3 January last year. We had talked about his speech, the war in Iraq and how The Independent had also been against President Bush's adventure in Iraq. "I like The Independent," he had said then, "but I've got the Des Moines Register to consider. So before we talk further, tell me just how many of your folks vote here?"
Now, almost 15 months later, we were in the Blue Room and Mr Obama smiled broadly at the recollection. "Oh, I remember you. You gave me your card," he said. We talked for a few moments about the huge expectations around the world for his presidency. Then it was the First Lady's turn to exchange pleasantries about her new home. Over her shoulder in the distance were George Washington's monument and the National Mall, where just the day before more than two million people watched the inaugural address.
Confident and at ease in her new surroundings, she seemed delighted that so many members of the public were getting to walk through rooms where they have not been particularly welcome for eight years. The Obamas are determined to turn the White House into the "People's House", with jazz and blues concerts and picnics on the lawn in the summer months.
Just behind me was Michele Hardman, from Illinois. An enthusiastic volunteer organiser for the Obama campaign, she had hoped to give the First Couple the traditional house-warming gifts of flour, salt and a penny, but the Secret Service put its foot down. Instead, she brought a ceremonial Hawaiian lei flower necklace, traditionally given at a house-warming. "He recognised it right away and put it on," she recalled afterwards. "He said, 'You know I'm from Hawaii?' He gave me a kiss on the cheek. Michelle kissed me on the other cheek."
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