David Kennedy recalls his dinners with President ObamaHistorians in the News
tags: Obama, David Kennedy
In the early evening of June 30, 2009, I joined eight other historians in the White House’s Red Room for drinks and conversation while we awaited the arrival of President Barack Obama. Shortly after 7 p.m. the president walked in, alone and unannounced, an athletic spring in his step, and began shaking hands around the room. He thanked each of us for accepting his invitation to dinner. Then he said simply, "OK, everybody, let’s eat," and ushered us across the hall into the Family Dining Room, an elegant but intimate space just off the much larger State Dining Room. There we were joined by a handful of White House aides, including Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel.
I had seen candidate Obama speak at Howard University but had not met him in person before that evening. I was struck by how little difference there was between his public and private personae. In both settings he was affable and unpretentious, while also decidedly reserved — "no-drama Obama." But on this occasion he did reveal a puckish side. When I mentioned a mutual friend who was one of his earliest supporters, and said we had known each other for nearly 50 years, he looked at me in mock astonishment and said, "Really? She looks a lot better than you." And as we were taking our seats he poked fun at the solemn historical notes about the table’s chinaware printed inside our place cards. Like an awestruck rube in a swank restaurant, he flipped over his plate to check out the hallmark.
I was able to attend four such "historians’ dinners" that the president convened over the next five years. They were all working occasions where serious discussion began as soon as we settled into our chairs. Twice on warm evenings, the president doffed his suit jacket, loosened his tie, unbuttoned his cuffs (no links), rolled up his sleeves, and invited us to do the same. He typically ate sparingly and swiftly, and as far as I could see, drank nothing at all, not even water.
At that initial gathering, after a forkful or two of salad, he quickly got down to business by asking each of us "to say something about this moment in history." He added that if we did not speak up, he — a former law professor — would call on us individually.
That moment, of course, was a time of acute crisis, near the fearsome nadir of what came to be called the Great Recession. Several of us drew a comparison with the 1930s, noting that the Great Depression had set the stage for the sweeping reforms of the New Deal, and that the present crisis was likewise a time of opportunity as well as danger. ...
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