Two weeks ago I received an invitation to come visit the White House. Sent along by the White House Office of Public Engagement, the idea was to welcome 50 community leaders from across the country to meet with leaders in the Obama Administration, hear about their record and give direct feedback from "the base that got us here" as they put it. I took my daughter Audrey, 13; the other child there was a ten year old from North Carolina who was visiting with his grandmother, an educational consultant. There were community organizers, small business people, non-profiteers. We were black, white, Asian, Latino, Arab. Gay and straight. Disabled and spanning ages from 10 to 75. It was an impressive array. As far as I could tell, I was the only member of the clergy.
The presentations were excellent. Clear, concise, and honest. There were admissions of error in not staying in closer touch with the electorate; a clear-eyed assessment of what a tsunami the national media market and blogosphere are to the attempt to govern. There was also considerable pride in their achievements and a direct claim that the depths of the mess inherited in 2008 were unlike that faced by any President-elect in recent history. There were lots of nods of understanding in the room.
One official after another--Michael Strautmanis, David Simas, Brian Deese, Anne Filipic, Michael Blake, Stephanie Valencia, Jenny Kaplan and Jon Carson were all fantastic. Seriously. Fill a room with 80 people; give them honest presentations and demonstrate transparency and open government; speak passionately and clearly for 45 minutes (that's 8 people) and it was a winner. At one point during the presentations, Audrey passed me a note: "I've decided I'm getting into politics." That's a success.
After a two hour break, we were invited back to the White House to meet the President. Here I was totally overwhelmed for a good fifteen minutes--by the presidential portraits; by the beautiful, stately aesthetic; by the scope of history all around us; and by that undeniable notion that it's likely I may never be back and that I am the first member of my family--going back generations of those who voted, paid taxes, served their country, lived their lives in devotion to our nation--to meet the President. The power of the office is more real than one realizes when you are inside those gates, walking those halls.
Audrey and I studied the portraits of the First Ladies--Hillary's was ambitious and spoke to her future achievements; Eleanor Roosevelt's was inspiring; Jackie Onassis seemed as beautiful and fleeting as her husband's portrait was pained and haunting. I stood in front of FDR's portrait and strained to see Harry Truman's, both of which hung on an off-base stairwell between the 2nd and 3rd floor that I wished with all my soul my father had lived to hear about. They were his Presidents during his War as a young man and growing up I heard about their greatness to no end.
A kind officer noticed us studying the rooms and invited Audrey to meet the charming and warm White House Executive Chef Cristeta Comerford, a highlight to be sure.
I found the entire experience to be deeply moving. Inspiring. And I was grateful for how well we were all treated--how receptive the Administration officials were to hearing complaints, prodding, words of inspiration, rallying cries to keep up the work to fix our nation. There were expressions of humility on behalf of each of the presenters and promises to stay connected. If the Obama Administration can keep these efforts going, they will be far ahead of the game when it comes to preparing for another election in 2012.
nb: on the Acela on the way home, the Brewers stormed back from behind the Nationals, only to lose the game in the 10th inning on an error and a bit of a bumbled fielder's choice. That Washington prevailed on such a day seemed a poetic end to a spectacular experience.