An Evening With the President

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The call came as I was starting my week of solitary confinement.

“Thanks for the invite, really, but I think it’s just too last minute, and plus, this is my week away. Well, wait, give me a couple hours to think about what I should do.”

I told you on Monday how energized I was to be away for some uninterrupted silence, for study, prayer and writing. Those noble plans of mine, my friends, crumbled quickly —I guess I’m a sucker for the White House.

Fourteen hours after my cell phone wiggled in my breast pocket I found myself on a big plane and States-bound. The following evening I was greeting the President of the United States and the First Lady.

“Mr. President, I respect you as a man of character and faith.” “Mrs. Bush, thanks for remembering my name.”

Then he and she told me a few simple, but profound things. They just seemed relieved to be talking to someone from outside — way outside — the D.C. beltway.

Of course, I wasn’t the only one squeezing presidential flesh. It was a Christmas party for members of the television media.

It’s a small and funny world, the media. As you can imagine, there was a bit of typical holiday party head-nodding, the disingenuous kind people do from across the room. And this was in media style to boot.

“Yes, nice to see you again, if only in real life and not on T.V. (the place that really counts)”
“Likewise. You look stunning (?) without all that flattering studio make-up.”

But insincere formalities were the exception. As my guest and I (my older brother, Joe) made our way through the colored rooms — the Red, Blue, and Green ones — and through the Library, the East Room, and the State Dining Room, I reflected on how good it is for opinion-makers to encounter history. The White House may well be the only place on earth where competing political and social pundits, media executives, and bigwig anchors all feel at home, together.

There is just too much history in that 200 year-old building for anyone in his or her right mind to feel self-important. This was the house George Washington commissioned in 1790, the residence John Adams and his wife, Abigail, first inhabited in 1800, and the control room for all national struggles beginning with the war of 1812 and continuing today.

And it is the only private residence of a head of state that is open to the public, free of charge.

In fact, at this party, the President himself — arguably the most powerful man on earth — and his wife, made themselves open to the public, free of charge, and they did so graciously. For us, their graciousness was free of charge, but for them, the emotional toll must have been costly. President Bush is leading a chaotic war that will not only define his presidency; its positive outcome will determine global stability for the foreseeable future.

And yet, tonight, he’s shaking my hand and talking to me about real things that matter to me.

When you see up close the demands of the job — made heavier with social commitments like this one — you realize no single set of shoulders is broad enough, no one mind sharp enough, no individual heart big enough to do the job of the President of the United States of America.

Maybe that’s what President John F. Kennedy was talking about when he admonished us to “think not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.”

That’s what I got out of the White House Christmas party. I’m going back to work.

Thank you, Mr. President. Thank you, Mrs. Bush.



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