By Vinson Cunningham
Almost nine years ago, shortly after Barack Obama announced his candidacy for President, near the steps of the Illinois statehouse, I joined the staff of the then-Senator’s unlikely campaign, as a lowest-level fund-raiser in New York. My hiring was one of those life-altering flukes: I’d been tutoring a kid whose parents were more connected than I knew. But life sometimes collects an unearned momentum—somebody wins an election, somebody else remembers your name—and before long I found myself working at the White House.
This was a low-rung affair, mind you: the Atlantic once published my name on a list of the White House’s lowest-paid employees, much to the amusement of my closest friends. Still, this is how I came to receive an e-mail, last week, inviting me to watch the President’s final State of the Union address with other “Obama Alumni” at a bar in Brooklyn. Since leaving D.C. and returning home, to New York, I have mostly avoided these kinds of events, but this one was billed as more of an event than usual, complete with a nightlife-style poster, and it seemed like the beginning of a year-long goodbye.The aptly named bar, Uncle Barry’s, was a brick-walled, two-room place on Fifth Avenue, lit partly by white candles in glass jars spaced evenly across the long, wooden bar. On a little chalkboard beneath the usual selection was a description of the night’s novelty drink, just for us:
STATE OF THE UNION SPECIAL
THE EXECUTIVE ORDER
Campari, Gin, Mango, Apple Cider
The “O” in “Order” was drawn to resemble the famous Obama logo. I ordered something else. I was early. A kid in a baseball cap and a shirt that said “Inauguration” in windswept cursive came up to the bar to order a bag of chips; he saw me taking notes and asked if I was a reporter. “I worked on the ’08 campaign,” I replied. “Here in New York. Finance.” “Oh, awesome,” he said, reaching out to shake my hand. “I was on ’12. Pennsylvania. Field.” This is how it goes: year, geography, and function, a set of credentials.
After he left the bar to find his friends again, a tall guy I recognised walked in, a former intern in the office where I worked. He introduced me to his girlfriend and to two guys he worked with in ’12, after his stint at the White House. He and his girlfriend are both in medical school now. “Actually, I saw from working in that office,” he said—we worked in the Presidential Personnel Office, basically a head-hunter for the executive branch—“how many M.D.s worked all over the administration, and I thought that was pretty cool. I probably want to get another degree—M.P.A. or something—after this.”
Behind me, I heard someone say, “I’m so excited; but I think I might cry.” A projector screen slid down against the wall perpendicular to the bar, and soon Obama appeared at the beginning of the walkway into the chamber, and the bar erupted into a loud, prolonged whoop.
An underdiscussed measure of political talent, I think, is how strongly a principal holds the imagination of her own foot soldiers, past and present. I don’t mean those close enough to form a real personal bond—nobody at Uncle Barry’s last night was a Plouffe or a Jarrett or an Axelrod. Some of us had staffed the President at a few dozen events, maybe, shown him which hand to shake first, where to stand in the room before launching into the talking points. We have pictures of him being nice to our moms. The White House Christmas card comes every year. That’s the extent of it, for the most part. Still, the atmosphere was one of close friendship—this person is ours, the room seemed to feel, an emotion made evident by the things people said about the President as he sauntered toward the podium.
“Yes, I like that tie.”
And about the First Lady, in vivid yellow: “Oh, Michelle looks so good tonight.”
People shushed each other as Obama began to talk.
During the speech, it was mostly quiet, except for the occasional grunt or hum of approval. Except—and here, again, is the friendship thing, the closeness—there were several prolonged laughs. Sometimes at the President’s intentional jokes; sometimes as a result of the awkward cutaways that always accompany the televised version of this speech, no matter who gives it. Paul Ryan, looking sodden—already—with seeming regret for taking on the Speakership. Steny Hoyer, looking ready for a nap. Bernie Sanders, producing a yellow, bookmarkish object from somewhere within his suit, and inspecting it distrustfully. Marco Rubio, openly loathing the Senate. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, wearing his hair that way.
The only cutaway that inspired an earnest response from this crowd was to Joe Biden, when Obama announced that the Vice-President will lead the White House’s effort to find a cure for cancer. Biden’s face—a frictionless delivery system for sentiment—inspired a round of applause.
A bearded guy walked in off the street during the foreign-policy section. He took a look at the screen, heard a reference to ISIS, and snorted, “Didn’t this guy drone everybody?”
Somebody said, “We’re watching.” The guy said, “I’m watching, too. This is a bar.” He asked the bartender, loudly, for two Miller High Lifes, and as he passed one to a friend, who arrived just after him, he said, “Oh, by the way, you can’t say drone in here.”
Two or three people said unpublishable things.
Eventually, the President said, “We the people,” and let the clause hang in the air. Thus began what I think of as the “lift” section of his speech—the section that has remained basically unchanged since the 2004 Democratic Convention keynote speech that launched his national career: about the perils of over-segmentation and the power of American togetherness. No blue states, no red states, etc. After so many speeches, the ear recognizes the beginning of the “lift,” and so, now, in the pause after those three words, several people, simultaneously, said: “Here we go.”
After a brief visit with Kim Davis, swaddled in flag colors, the camera fixed itself on Edith Childs, the progenitor of Obama’s famous “Fired up, ready to go” campaign chant, and I took this as a sign that ABC’s producers know a “lift” when they hear one, too.
When the speech was over, everything was noise. Nobody waited to hear what Nikki Haley had to say. Every conversational snippet I heard was about Donald Trump—a fair enough microcosm of the political cycle so far. I stayed to talk with the former intern and his friends for a bit, until I saw a former roommate of one of my best friends from the White House. She works for the Clinton campaign now, and, just before I threw on my coat and left the bar, I asked her how she was feeling about it.
She started to answer, then trailed off. When you’re close to voting, she explained, the polls always tighten up. That’s what you have to remember, she said. I wished I hadn’t asked. A campaign is a personal thing. – The New Yorker via Google
By Vinson Cunningham