So, obviously, it’s a photo-op at a fundraiser.
Two hundred people line up in a U, along the walls of a largish beige hotel conference room. Our bags and purses taken away. No bar. Still there’s a buzz. A third of the room is hidden by navy blue sheets on movable barriers, like privacy curtains from old hospital wards. Behind them, the President of the United States. The President. How often does one meet the President? And he’s waiting to meet us!
The attire is nominally business but there are few five-o’clock shadows, there are higher heels and finer jewels than get worn to staff meetings. In line we are joking through anxieties. How do I look? What if it’s just a cardboard cutout? How do I look?
“Let us know if you see something,” some women ask me, because I am tall. But there is nothing to see, save a tiny woman scuttling about collecting more purses.
A big man and a short shrink-wrapped woman arrive late. She gives him a look that says, I’m not staying at the end of the line in these heels. He flashes me a hideously insincere smile, points with fast fingers as if we both are lifelong friends from the party fundraising committee, and smoothly cuts in behind me. Whatever. This one room is, by my rough guess, adding $750,000 to the campaign. We are all assholes in some way; that’s where the money is. And he’s behind me.
The line moves fast enough that it’s clear we’re not having any conversations with the man. Whatever. We can say whatever we want when people ask about our picture with the President.
Behind the curtains, there he is, standing in front of his own blue curtains, a donor on each side. His smile dental-office radiant, theirs nervous. If you ever meet a president, smile big.
In the wings, the entrance guy and the exit guy. The entrance guy shakes our hands and asks our names. He repeats them to the President. We shake the President’s hand. It is dry. His face and hair are careworn and gray but his familiar voice greets us enthusiastically. We mumble that it is an honor. Flash. The exit guy shakes our hands to move us along.
We swing by the bar, go to dinner. I go to the bar twice more. The last time a mustached man addresses me. “Did you get a picture?” he asks. “I don’t know. An assembly line. I feel — It just didn’t seem –”
“Presidential?” I say.
“Exactly. I don’t know. It’s not right.”
I nod sagely, but on the walk back I realize I was wrong to nod. Barack Obama is perfectly presidential — because he’s working.
We’d like to think that our President is a temporary king, enjoying privileges and security and fine pursuits. But he’s not a king. He’s a president. That’s the point of the United States. He’s a president and he has work to do, and like most work it’s mostly drudgery. The privileges and security are for us, to show ourselves how plush we are; as for fine pursuits, half of them are imposed on him, and then there’s golf.
Right now his job is running the country, with all its crappy grunt work, from eating corn dogs to shaking assholes’ hands to dealing with Congress. (But I repeat myself.) That’s the job and he’s doing it.
He’s an excellent man, this President. But he’s not a fucking king. He’ll smile for the money to keep his job. So would you.