Authors: Chester Thrower, Green For All Fellow - Class 1
Last Tuesday when I received a call from Amanda Hansen of the Council on Environmental Quality, inviting me to the White House for President Obama’s speech calling for Congress to end oil company subsidies, I first thought it was a joke. I mean, it’s not every day you have the opportunity be in the presence of the President of the United States, let alone the first black president. So after getting in touch with Amanda and being told that it was a true opportunity for me as a Green For All Fellow, I immediately went into rush mode, having only 48 hours to prepare. Although truthfully I had been preparing for several years by gaining the skills needed for an economy less dependent on fossil fuels, including getting mycertification in solar panel installation and repair.
Although I was between paychecks and the rent was due the next week, it was still too good of an opportunity to pass up, so I reached out to a few friends for help and support in making the trip possible. (A special thanks to Mr. Galen Moorer who helped make this trip a reality.)
It was a beautiful, sunny day in DC andon my walk to the White House, as I passed the Washington Monument, I found that I was lost. Thanks to a friendly Secret Service bicycle police officer, I got back on course and proceeded on the right path. As I approached the northwest gates of the White House, I saw scores of tourists and school children, all taking pictures in front of the White House gates. It was kind of funny since this was my first time ever being in front of the White House, and the first thing I noticed was how small it looked, as compared to seeing it on TV. I mean, even after seeing Andrea Mitchell doing reports on the North Lawn, I never imagined how small the building really was. Then I pressed the buzzer on the gate, and the guard spoke to me on the intercom and asked me to state my name and purpose for coming. After a few minutes he came out, got my driver’s license, and went back in and all kinds of thoughts went through my mind. When I finally heard him say, “Come on in,” I finally realized that this dream was real.
After walking through the metal detectors and getting my visitor’s badge, the Secret Servicemen pointed to the West Wing, and said to follow the path and go right on in through the doors.
That’s when it hit me - I was in a place where 44 presidents actually lived and tons of foreign dignitaries walked on the same path and entered through the same doors. Never in all my years did I think that I would be in this historic place. As I entered, the Secret Serviceman that was guarding the door advised me to have a seat on the couch and relax. As I took in the scenery, I noticed the historic paintings and sculptures that adorned the walls. The Secret Serviceman was really nice and talkative. Then the kid in me came out – I started to ask all kinds of questions- like is the food here good? He confirmed it’s like gourmet cooking. (Chefs cook for the president.) I asked if he saw the president every day, and he said he did several times a day when he’s in town.
After a while a White House staffer came out and escorted me to the Roosevelt Room, where there were pictures of Theodore Roosevelt and FDR. Along the walls were FDR’s Nobel Peace Prize and his Purple Heart Medal. I even sat in President Obama’s chair, which is distinguishable because the headrest is higher than the other ones. As other invitees came (15 in all) it was like we all knew each other. We introduced ourselves and everyone was excited and soaking up the moment. The White House staffer was giving us the overview of the do’s and don’ts. One of the big rules was no pictures or autographs. After about half an hour of small talk between us and laughing and joking, all of a sudden to the left of me, the doors of the Oval Office swung open. There he was: Barack himself. You know what? I was kind of speechless. I mean - here he was in person. He worked the room and introduced himself to each of us and shook everyone’s hand. He asked everyone their name and thanked them for coming, and gave a brief overview of what he was going to talk about. Then he disappeared back into the Oval Office. That’s when we all looked at each other wide-eyed and gave our observations; how much larger-than-life he looked, and how articulate and respectful he was. He’s definitely a people’s president. Then after about 15 minutes, the White House staffers came in and said, “It’s game time.”
As we were escorted to the Rose Garden - which has a lot of history itself- butterflies definitely started settling in. I mean, I played college basketball in front of thousands of people, but to tell the truth, when we entered the Rose Garden and assembled on the steps and saw hundreds of people sitting in their seats along with journalists, photographers and news media, this was a totally different arena than I had ever encountered in my life. After about four minutes of us standing there looking into the crowd, it was loudly announced over the P.A. system, “LADIES AND GENTLEMEN, THE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES.”
As the Oval Office doors swung open, he appeared once again. Since I was in the middle of the last row, I was the one that had to actually move over and let him come down the middle of us to the podium. As he walked past, he tapped my arm, proceeded down the steps, and gave his speech at the podium.
To be totally honest, during that 15-20 minute speech, I heard and understood what he was saying about how Congress needs to cut out the oil subsidies and the millions that these companies profit per hour, but I was definitely taking in the moment: from the agents on the roof above, to the Secret Servicemen to the right and to the left, to the staffers to the side, to his shoes, and his hair cut. It was sort of like I was in a daze. As the president finished his speech, he turned around and he again congratulated everyone for coming down and being part of the day, and before you knew it, he had walked back through the Oval Office doors, and he was gone.
Looking back on the time I spent with the president, he kind of seemed to me like a ballerina who takes the stage, performs a perfect pirouette, brings the house down, and disappears, stage right.
After he left, we were escorted back to the Roosevelt Room to collect our belongings, thanked for coming and being a part of the moment, and led back to the northwest gates to leave the White House grounds. As we stood outside, marveling at what we had just experienced, reality soon set in and everyone left, returning to the reality of being ordinary citizens.
As I walked away, I realized that never would I have ever thought that I would share a mutual dream with 14 other lucky citizens: to meet and rub shoulders with the 44th President of the United States, Mr. Barack Hussein Obama.