How I Earned a 15-Minute One-On-One Sit-Down with the President
A Meeting with President Barack Obama
On March 1st, 2008, I began walking across America, from San Francisco back home to Boston. In my backpack, along with my tent and sleeping bag, I carried a blank leather bound journal and asked people I met along the way to write their own personal messages for the soon-to-be elected president, be it John McCain, Hillary Clinton, or Barack Obama. My route took me through Napa Valley, Carson City, Salt Lake City; through Wyoming to the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. From there it winded southeasterly to Omaha, St. Louis, down to across Mississippi and across Alabama to Atlanta; then straight along the east coast from the Carolinas to Washington D.C., Baltimore, Philadelphia, and on into New England. By the time I finished in Copley Square on January 19th 2009, ten-and-a-half months and 4,250 miles later, I’d collected three books full of notes from small business owners, ranchers, single moms, teachers, students, veterans, immigrants, octogenarians, nurses, mayors and the homeless, on issues including the economy, the environment, schools, the War on Terror, the Second Amendment, same sex marriage, UFOs, Gospel verses and even simple notes of congratulations and advice for marital bliss.
In early June of 2008, I received an email from the office of Massachusetts’ Senator John Kerry, not about my walk, but about someone else’s. A senior staffer was working with a father and daughter team who were walking from the Berkshires to Boston to help raise support for veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. This aide had Googled “walk across Massachusetts” and found that I’d accomplished a similar feat in 2006. She passed me the phone number for the dad, Tom Lanzoni. I called Tom and explained that coincidentally I was concurrently hiking my way across Nebraska, but if he and his daughter needed help I was still in contact with some of the media in the towns through which they‘d be walking. We kept in touch over the next few weeks, and when they reached the steps of the State House later that summer, I called to congratulate them. “If there’s anything I can do for you,” he said, “just let me know.”
“Actually, Tom, there is. After I finish my walk I’ll need some help to meet the new president. I don’t want to step on your toes, but would it be OK if I worked with your contact in Senator Kerry’s office?” He readily gave me permission.
When I reached Washington, D.C. at the end of November, I met with a senior staffer in her office in the Russell Building. She signed my book, introduced me to the office of the late Senator Edward Kennedy, arranged a tour of the Capitol Building, and even offered me tickets to the Inauguration. All this, but she couldn’t set up a meeting with President-elect Obama because she didn’t know any of the players on the transition team. I continued on the on last leg of my walk from D.C. to Boston. She and I traded a few more emails, but nothing ever came of it.
After I finished the walk in Boston in January 2009, I tried a few different means to deliver the volumes to the president. I reached out to Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick, the White House, even Michelle Obama, but for my efforts I received only a series of form letters stating, in short, “Thanks, but we’re too busy.” As winter turned into spring and spring into summer, other things began to vie for my attention – working at a non-profit counseling center called Children’s Friend, writing a monthly column for a newspaper in Maine, organizing conference calls for other cross-country walkers, teaching safety to children with UMass Medical Center, studying for my I.T. certification exams, traveling to Haiti with Habitat for Humanity, volunteering with the Three Day Walk for Breast Cancer, the Jimmy Fund Walk, the Boston Marathon, etcetera, etcetera. As life took over, the journals collected dust on the shelf. Whenever I met old friends, inevitably they’d get around to asking, “So… did you ever give those books to Obama?” I’d smile sheepishly, mumble an excuse about the president being a busy guy and look for ways to quickly change the subject. I tried desperately to avoid talking about the walk because I felt like a bum, a failure – I’d taken a year off and hiked the miles, but just couldn’t follow through and deliver the messages. Far from being a journey of a lifetime, the experience was beginning to feel like an albatross around my neck.
Things probably would’ve remained frozen had it not been for the tornadoes which crushed the southeast from April 25th to 28th, 2011. I received a phone call from the Director of Disaster Services from my local chapter of the American Red Cross. I’m in the Disaster Relief database and she asked if I was able to deploy to Alabama for two weeks.
I had heard there were bad storms touching down in the South, but I didn’t realize they were severe enough to mobilize a national Red Cross response. When she said Alabama, the hair on my neck rose. “What part of Alabama?” I asked.
“The north,” she said. “Around Tuscaloosa, Moulton, Cullman, Gadsden…”
I knew these towns. To some they were dots on the map, but to me they were communities which had been particularly kind to me as I struggled along Highway 287 two-and-a-half years before. In Cullman, the Busy Bee Diner presented me with a bright yellow Busy Bee T-shirt when I stopped in for breakfast. In Gadsden, the library staff arranged a place for me to collect messages, took me out to dinner, and offered me a free place to stay. And in Hokes Bluff, the elementary school students were so excited about my visit that we took pictures with every classroom. Now the Busy Bee Diner was a pile of debris, and three families from Hokes Bluff lost everything they had in the storm. I felt was indebted to these folks. I had made friends there. How could I say no? “I’ll be there,” I said.
I served two weeks with the Red Cross Disaster Health Services making sure the tornado victims’ medical needs were being met. My team of EMT’s and R.N.s was assigned to the northeast corner of the state.
Before I flew home, Andy Powell, the same Gadsden Times reporter who covered my journey in 2008, interviewed me for a short piece on my return to Etowah County. While sitting outside the hotel, he asked me the question I knew was coming – whatever happened with the books.
“This summer,” I answered, “It’s going to happen this summer.” I don’t know why I made a promise, but now it was in print and I had to come through. For a community that was so good to me when I limped through in 2008, I felt like I’d be letting Alabama down if I didn’t deliver.
But where to go? I had gotten nowhere when I tried to get through to the White House. On a lark, in September 2011, I emailed the senior staffer who worked in Senator John Kerry’s office whom I had met in 2008. I explained that I still possessed the journals, hadn’t had any luck passing them to the administration, and asked if the senator could help in any way. This time she knew exactly who to write to: President Obama’s Deputy Chief of Staff, who used to work in Sen. Kerry’s office. The staffer directed me to send her one message and hope for the best. That weekend I sat down and crafted the most persuasive email of my young life.
Two days later I received her response – what I had done was “really impressive” and she would see about adding me to the agenda. She put me in touch with a third woman, from the Scheduling Office, who asked when I would be able to visit the White House. When I finished peeing my pants I wrote back, “How is December 1st for the president?”
December 1st was about ten weeks away. But that would give me time to plan and do another walk, this time from Boston to Washington, D.C.
There were a few reasons I wanted to walk to Washington. First, I wanted to harvest a fresh crop of messages for President Obama. The original project was a snapshot of the American people in 2008. I began my walk before folks even knew who the Democratic nominee was going to be, and ended it before just days before the Inauguration. Now I felt I needed to see how things had changed in the 34 months since President Obama had taken office. Were people still as optimistic as they were on Inauguration Day? Did his detractors change their opinion? What topics were on society’s mind now? Ideally, I would’ve been able to retrace my steps across the country, but since I had only ten weeks, I’d have to settle for just a small sample from the northeastern states.
I also believed that by walking I could raise some media buzz. I emailed my contacts at CNN, NPR, and ABC who covered my walk in 2008. I thought it important to get the word out to the people that their message was finally getting to the president.
The third reason I walked was half romantic and half karmic. In 1860 a young Rhode Islander named Edward Payson Weston bet his friend that Abraham Lincoln wouldn’t win the presidential election. The wager, made over a few drinks, was the loser had to walk the 500 miles from Boston to Washington, D.C. The brash twenty-one-year-old Weston upped the ante by boldly claiming he would leave in late February and arrive in time to see President Lincoln’s Inaugural address. The feat was all but impossible. He would have to hike over 50 miles per day over ten days, through frigid February weather, on rural roads that were no more than dirt and mud paths. On February 22, 1861, Weston left the steps of the Massachusetts State House surrounded by friends and well-wishers. His route took him through Framingham, where a gaggle of giggling girls gave him a kiss to deliver to Mr. Lincoln; through Worcester, where he was detained by an old creditor, and through Leicester, my hometown, where he repeatedly collapsed on (what would become) Route 9 during a blizzard. He never slept more than six hours, took his meals while moving, started walking before dawn and continued trudging after nightfall. He walked through Hartford, New York City and Philadelphia. The story made headlines and crowds of supporters came to see him and cheer him on. (In a rhetorical aside, perhaps the enthusiastic northerners equated supporting Weston’s walk to the Inauguration as a sign of their own support for Mr. Lincoln and the Union, as seven southern states had just seceded in the previous twelve weeks). On his final morning he set out from Baltimore at 6 a.m. and reached the Capitol Building at 5 p.m. He’d walked 40 miles in 11 hours, or 510 miles in 10 days 4 hours, but alas, he arrived too late. He missed the Inauguration ceremony by mere hours. A few nights later Weston did meet Mr. and Mrs. Lincoln at a D.C. event. The president, surprised by his feat of endurance, shook the pedestrian’s hand and offered to pay his fare back home.
Edward Payson Weston went on to live a life uncommon. He refused President Lincoln’s offer because he planned to walk back to Boston since he had missed his first goal. Instead he became an agent for the Union Army, sneaking behind Confederate lines to deliver letters to northern soldiers.
After the war, he became a main attraction in a world where “pedestrianism” was a spectator sport. He competed in footraces in America and Europe. Over the decades, he took all comers, struck up rivalries, dodged angry bettors, survived gunshot wounds, and rubbed shoulders with presidents and dignitaries. He could maintain a ten-minute mile. He once walked from New York to Philadelphia, one hundred miles, in 24 non-stop hours. He hiked from Portland, Maine to Chicago twice – once when he was 28, and again when he was 68. In 1909, he walked across America in 105 days. Not happy with his time, the next year he walked back, beating his record. When he entered New York City he was greeted by a crowd of 500,000 people. Did I mention he was 70 and 71 when he undertook these 4,000-mile journeys?
Weston continued to take 500 mile hikes into his 80’s. “The famous “Pedestrian” however, who warned of the vices and sloth brought about by automobiles, was struck by a New York City taxicab in 1927, when he was 88. He never walked in another event. He died wheelchair-bound and impoverished two years later. Edward Payson Weston, not only one of America’s greatest athletes, was a real-life John Henry giving humanity hope in a fast-changing and confusing world of iron horses, Model T’s, and flying machines.
To honor this remarkable man and the 150th anniversary of his historic Boston-to-D.C. trek, I decided to walk also. My route would be similar to but not the same as his. I knew myself better than to try it in 10 days; 450 miles in 30 days, with a handful of days off, was more my speed. My trip would take me from Boston to Framingham, Worcester, Sturbridge, Stafford Springs (CT), Hartford, Meriden, New Haven, Stamford; into the Bronx, over the George Washington Bridge to Fort Lee (NJ), Newark, Elizabeth, Trenton, Philadelphia (PA), Chester, Havre De Grace (MD), Baltimore, College Park; and into the Capital. I’d be passing through many of the same towns I’d walked through in ‘08 so I’d have family and friends to stay with along the way. That meant I could pack light, sans tent and sleeping bag.
One of the biggest concerns on this walk was the possibility of delays incurred by inclement weather. Then we had a freak ice storm on October 29th, so I got that one over with early. The other concern was Daylight Savings Time. We set the clocks forward the weekend after I started, so I had one less hour of daylight in which to walk each day. For safety reasons, I always tried to get off the road by the time it got too dark. I’d need to start early to finish 16 miles by nightfall if I wanted to make it to D.C. by December 1st. Ask anyone: I’m normally chronologically challenged. But this was one meeting I couldn’t be late for.
On Sunday morning, October 30th I began my walk from the steps of the Massachusetts State House, the same spot Edward Payson Weston began his walk to Washington 150 years before. Like Weston, my friends and supporters came to see me off and walked with me through Brookline, Newton and Framingham. The full account of my journey to D.C. will be published in a forthcoming causerie, but there are a few tales to tell.
First, the day before I began, Winter Storm Alfred downed trees and cut power in the towns through which I’d be walking in south central Massachusetts and northern Connecticut. Parts of my hike demanded skirting around broken branches and underneath dangling power lines strewn about the road.
Second, I’m very grateful to my friends and family who offered me places to stay as I made my way south through their states. I’m especially glad I had the opportunity to reconnect with three classmates from college – Tammi, Elyse, and Melissa – whom I hadn’t seen since in over a decade.
Third, besides my usual “man on the street” interviews, I had the chance to gather batches of messages at a senior center, my nieces’ elementary school, the lobby of a YMCA gym, a Tea Party Rally, and four Occupy Encampments (Hartford, Wall Street, Trenton, and Baltimore).
Fourth, I must say that I’d jauntily walk from Boston to New Haven, Connecticut again just to eat at Louis’ Lunch. They serve some of the best burgers in the country.
Besides the freak Halloween blizzard, the November weather was unseasonably balmy for the northeast. I never thought that during the week after Thanksgiving I’d still be hiking in just short sleeves!
Lastly, while I was walking near the high speed train tracks, which run parallel to the main street of Metuchen, New Jersey, I saw a rail worker collapse. Being a licensed EMT in Massachusetts, I dropped my pack and ran back to try to help him. Another crew member and I performed CPR until the cardiac team from the local hospital arrived. The ambulance transported him and as it was getting dark, I continued walking south, more than a little shaken. The next day, a reporter who interviewed me for a local newspaper learned that the worker, Mike, didn’t survive the heart attack. Sadly, it was just a week before Thanksgiving.
I also learned that while sprinting over the stones in the rail yard, I’d injured my left ankle (later diagnosed as sprained). Putting weight on it sent flames of pain up my leg, especially once I had stopped for more than a few minutes. Since I couldn’t take a day off to rest, I limped the last 200 miles to Washington, D.C.
Despite the injury, I was on schedule as I hobbled into the Capital on Tuesday evening, passing by the National Shrine and through the Howard University campus. I stayed that night with Kate, a fellow AmeriCorps NCCC alum, who has an apartment near DuPont Circle. Wednesday was for last-minute errands – getting a haircut, copying the latest book of messages, shopping for a necktie fit for meeting a president, and a meeting at the Corporation for National and Community Service, where I was introduced to some of the new directors of my old AmeriCorps program. That afternoon I met my girlfriend, Jen, who had taken a flight from Boston. In her suitcase were my suit, dress shoes, new underwear, and the original three journals from 2008. Jen had rented us a hotel just a mile north of the White House. After we went for dinner, we returned to the room, where I made some last-minute tweaks to the books. It was my last night with the messages, and as Jen turned in I turned on the lamp at the desk, reading them one last time.
For almost a year on the road I coddled these journals in the small of my back, tucked between my tailbone and pack, rarely out of arm’s reach. They held a good deal of sweat, a few tears, and on one page I think there’s splotch of blood from a bad mosquito bite. I guarded them like I’d watch over a baby. For me, the written words represented the hopes and dreams for the future of our country, not just from Americans but from people I’d met from all over the world. When I slept in my tent, the books were laid under my head like a pillow. When I stayed with families, the books were opened and read after dinner, discussed and added to, around kitchen tables from California to Nebraska to Georgia to Massachusetts.
When my body ached and I was hungry and tired and a week away from sleeping in a bed and wondering how I was going to slog through another 20-something mile day, I’d read the notes I’d collected that day and they would remind me why I’d set out to walk across this country. The idea that these letters came from ordinary Americans and were going straight to the hands of the president, I’d like to think that’s what makes our nation great. I had to carry on, because the president would want to meet the guy who walked across America, not the guy who almost walked across America then quit. From the freezing mornings in Nevada to the 105 degree afternoons in Missouri to the dark streets of Baltimore, these messages gave me the strength and inspiration to walk almost 5,000 miles. And tomorrow I’d be giving them away.
It made me sad, but the least I could do was make sure the books looked their best. My cousin’s first grade class had given me a stack of hand-drawn letters for the president, so I meticulously glued those to the sheets. I checked my email inboxes for any last-minute messages to be transcribed. Were all the pages numbered? Were the maps of my route legible? How much biographical information should I include? What would I write as my own message to the President? I finally asleep around 4 a.m., when I could no longer keep my eyes open.
Jen woke me at 9:00. I sent a few more emails, read notes of encouragement on Facebook, showered, ate a granola bar, and shined my shoes. I changed into a light blue Oxford, a new paisley tie, and gray pin-stripe suit. On my lapel Jen fastened my AmeriCorps pin. I considered showing up for the meeting in my hiking kit: boots, khaki cargoes, and my lucky Superman T-Shirt, but Jen talked me out of it. Besides, the only man who could show up at the Oval Office in his signature duds – and genuinely pull it off – was when The King met Nixon. Maybe next time…
It was a cool day but I didn’t need my overcoat. I carried the four notebooks under my arm for their last mile. My appointment was at 11:40 a.m. and an email from the Office of Scheduling had advised me to arrive 20-25 minutes early to account for security. Thanks to Jen, who kept me on time, I arrived at the southwest gate on State and 17th Street a few minutes after 11:00.
When I had contacted the White House previously to ask if a reporter from NPR could attend the meeting with me, I was told “no add-ons would be possible.” That squelched my next question about my girlfriend accompanying me. (Although knowing the altruistically-spirited, over-achiever that Jen is, she’ll have her own well-earned invitation to meet the president soon enough). Jen gave me a peck on the cheek and I approached the guardhouse. Up until this point it hadn’t really hit me that I was really going to meet with the President of the United States. Over the past four weeks, while I was on the road, meeting President Obama had been in the back of my mind, but more pressing concerns were things like, What if I don’t find a place to stay in Havre de Grace? Will I make enough miles today? And, Why does my ankle hurt so much? Not until I passed my license through the slot of the guard house window, the guard searched my name on his computer, and slipped it back to me with an “A” visitor’s tag, did it hit me – the president was really expecting me.
After clearing the first guardhouse, I proceeded down a walkway (this is where Jen snapped a photo of my receding back) and came to a second guardhouse. In this small checkpoint was a metal detector. I showed my license again, passed through the detector, and was out the opposite door. Step by step, it appears easier to get into the White House than it is to fly on an airplane – there was no full body scan or removal of shoes. By the way, the pre-check required an email with my full name, Social Security number, Date of Birth, driver’s license number, and address. I assume someone, somewhere cross-checked me with the FBI and my local police department.
Once inside this zone, I suppose I could have wandered around either to the White House or to the adjacent Eisenhower Executive Building. I took out my cellphone and dialed the number of a scheduling assistant who had written me the night before. The sharply-dressed young man arrived within a few minutes and guided me into the White House.
I’m not sure where we he led me. The White House had been undergoing a mysterious two-year mystery excavation project, so everything seemed to be a jumble of pits, pipes, machinery, and temporary walls and pathways. As we walked, we chatted about my journey, and then he asked me if the guards had taken my cellphone. “No,” I said, “I have it right here.” “Oh…” he said, looking a bit puzzled. “Well, I’d keep that in your pocket.”
I shut off the phone and put it away. I’d heard there would be a photographer on hand to record the moment, anyways. My escort led me up a ramp and into a doorway. We walked by a guard (I believe all the guards I had seen up to this point were from the Secret Service Uniformed Division). This was a waiting room and the ancillary introduced me to the receptionist behind the desk. “This is BJ Hill,” my guide said, “here for a meeting with POTUS in the Oval.” (Yes, they do actually say “POTUS,” and it’s just “the Oval.”)
The receptionist directed me to a seat on the left (east) side of the waiting room and then my aide departed. The chairs were arranged around three walls, sort of a “C”, and the center of the long side, against the wall, was a Christmas tree. I don’t believe this is The Official White House Christmas Tree, merely one of them. I looked around, trying to both steady my nerves and remember everything. The ornaments hanging from the branches were little bronze eagles. I looked at the artwork. It seemed every wall has at least two classical-looking paintings. The tree was on my left and on the other side another person was waiting. He wasn’t the President of France and he wasn’t Lady Gaga, so I didn’t recognize him. Eventually he was summoned to the corridor opposite from me, on the right side of the tree, towards the vice presidential offices.
I was now in the waiting room alone. I wasn’t sure how long I’d be there. My official appointment time was 11:40, but I was prepared to wait all afternoon. I had prepared myself if the meeting was postponed our even cancelled. I knew I was small potatoes on the president’s agenda. (I later learned my December 1st, 2011 visit was sandwiched between World AIDs Day in the morning and Pentagon budget meetings in the afternoon).
But after just a few minutes, another young man emerged from the hallway on my right and introduced himself. “The president will be with you very shortly, if you’ll follow me.” I rose and he took me down a corridor. “Would you like water or juice or anything?” he asked. The only thing I could think I needed was the men’s room, which we happened to be passing by. I went inside and locked the door.
From what I could tell, this is the closest toilet to the Oval Office, so this may have been the same washroom which the president uses. The room was small, and I couldn’t help but to sit and think of the great men who once graced this throne. Surprisingly, the toilet paper in the White House is standard double-ply but not as plush and … charming as I’d thought. I guess because of budget cuts, even the president feels the people’s pain when he does his duty.
Back in the hallway, the assistant led me to a second waiting area, which was simply a corridor with a few chairs. He disappeared around the corner opposite me into an office. About twenty feet to my right were two motionless Secret Service Agents, wearing dark suits and those things in their ears. Their eyes gave me the once-over. They didn’t seem the smiling type so I simply raised my eyebrows in greeting. I sat down. I pretended to study the paintings.
Oh, man.. Things were moving very quickly. What the hell was I doing here? Who was I fooling? Regular guys like me don’t get to meet the President of the United States.
No. I deserved this. There were people around the country who trusted me to carry their messages to the White House. They had faith that this moment would happen. I saw the pen in their hands as they wrote their hearts on the page, I saw that tiny glimmer of hope in their faces as they returned the books to me. They believed in me. I took a deep breath. I rehearsed the three important things I’d trained myself to say.
Abruptly, the aide re-appeared at the door. Then I heard the words for which I’d been awaiting three long years… “Mr. Hill, the President will see you now.”
I stood up, walked to the door, turned the corner – and standing before me was President Barack Obama. And that’s when I realized I forgot the books back at the hotel.
Just kidding, just kidding. But once during my walk I did have a dream like that. My friends and I met the president at a fundraiser at a farm, we shook his hand, spoke for a while, and it wasn’t until hours later that I noticed the books were still under my arm and I’d totally forgotten to hand them over. Another time I had a dream Barack Obama came to my house to give an important campaign speech, but only a few of my friends showed up so we all sat around my living room and watched DVDs of the Simpsons.
But this wasn’t a dream. There he was, in a dark suit, his big trademark smile, and an open hand. “BJ! Welcome!”
The scene. In this small anteroom were two desks, the aide, a woman who I assume was Anita Decker Breckenridge (the president’s personal secretary), and a photographer already click-whirring with a very heavy-looking camera.
Honestly, Moses in sandals could have been there kicking a Hackey Sack, and I probably wouldn’t have noticed. My mind was telling me that this Barack Obama was a wax figure, a cardboard stand-up, an animatronic from Disney World. We see his two-dimensional image a dozen times a week in magazines, newspapers, and on TV, but to see him standing just feet in front of me, pumping my hand and saying my name, my brain tripped a circuit and I was left with: Aggghghghghghghghghhghggghhgghhh.
Fortunately, the first question he lobbed at me was a grapefruit. He asked what kind of shoes I wore. It was a question I could answer by rote – folks had asked me that a hundred times before. I let my medulla oblongata handle that one while I found my feet.
I answered when I first started walking, I bought cheap sneakers from Wal-Mart, which would last only three or four weeks before falling apart. Then, while I was in Alabama, I splurged on a good pair of sturdy hiking boots, which carried me from Cullman all the way to Boston and back to Washington, D.C. “So I guess the moral,” I said, “is always spend more on shoes.”
He nodded and grinned. “It’s true, it’s always all about the shoes.”
The president turned and led me into the Oval Office (and though I’d warned myself not to, halfway through my story I found myself blurting out, “Whoa! It really is an Oval!”) Anyhow, I’ve never watched an episode, but I understand the set of the TV show “The West Wing” looks exactly like the real deal. In one half of the room is the 132-year-old Resolute Desk, instantly recognizable from photographs of the Kennedy, Carter, Reagan, Clinton, and Bush, Jr. Administrations. President Obama circuitously led me around, in the front of the desk and back to the arc from which we entered. In this half, which isn’t photographed as much, sit a heavy rectangular coffee table, encircled by two sofas on both sides and two pairs of accent chairs on either end. As I finished my story of the shoes, he sat on one chair, with his back to the door, and offered me the couch on his left (not my first choice – as I sunk into the cushion I immediately felt lower than my host). There was a centerpiece of fresh apples (Gala, I believe) on the table. I laid down my books next to them. The photographer followed us into the office and snapped away in the background.
President Obama next asked me how I got the idea to do the walk – again, another popular question I could answer like reciting the alphabet. “In the fall of 2006,” I began, “I had just broken up with my girlfriend, couldn’t find a job anywhere, and just felt like I needed some time to get away. I was an Eagle Scout growing up, and felt I needed to go back to hiking and camping and the outdoors, take a time out to reassess things. I had a plan to set out to walk across my home state of Massachusetts, from Williamstown to the tip of Provincetown. I’d lived in Massachusetts all my life, but didn’t really know anything west of Worcester (he could probably understand, being a former Cantabrigian himself). About three days into the walk I was invited to attend a town hall meeting in this tiny town called Charlemont, up near the Vermont border. The State Senator of the district was also there. While at the meeting, I noticed that the residents were frustrated that their lawmakers on Beacon Hill just didn’t get the needs and priorities of this rural farming community, two and a half hours west in the Berkshires. Remember, this was in October, just weeks before a vibrant four-way gubernatorial election (I told you, I’ve repeated this story so many times I could toss in words like “gubernatorial” without a hitch). That night, while in my tent, I began to think that there had to be a way I could amalgamize what I was doing– this walk across Massachusetts – with what needed to be done, which was to bring attention to these small communities through which I’d be passing. So the next day I found a notebook and began asking people I met along the way to jot down a few of their own ideas for the soon-to-be elected governor. By the time I finished on the tip of Cape Cod one month later, I had collected hundreds of notes, from all across the state, and had the opportunity to hand these messages to Governor Deval Patrick (a good friend of Barack Obama) in his office shortly after his inauguration. Based on the success of that walk, I wanted to extrapolate the project to the entire country in 2008, because as you know, it was a pretty important election.”
I think he knew.
During my white-knuckle genesis story, President Obama reached for the top journal and was flipping through the pages. Feeling like I had just said a mouthful, I sat still while he perused. I noticed that he had landed on a page I knew well. “Ooh, that’s a pretty powerful message,” I proffered. “Read the first sentence.”
In silence, President Obama read, “Dear Mr. President, My father was just deported last week…” The writer was a young woman whom I had met at Brigham Young University in Utah. She wrote her father had come to the United States from Nigeria in 1977 and had gone on to work and start a family here. Somehow, in 2008, Immigration had caught up with him, had him arrested, and sent back to Africa, where he hadn’t even visited in over three decades. She was understandably upset about her father and concerned for the rest of her family and her own status as a citizen. “What will you do to fix immigration so that people who have been here for 20+ years don’t fall victim to INS/ICE bias like my father did?” she asked.
The president was sitting back, angled away from me so I’m not sure which other messages he perused. But there were a few “hmm!”s and there were a couple of smiles, as some of the notes were quirky, witty, and off the cuff.
As he was involved in the pages he asked, “So BJ, what did you learn from your year walking across the country?”
Now that was a question no one had asked me before. “Well,” I said, “being from New England, I learned there really are people living in Nevada and Wyoming.”
Ba-dum chingg! Instead, crickets. I thought that was a great line; it didn’t rouse even a polite laugh. But that’s somewhat indicative of the sentiment I had in my short fifteen minutes with Barack Obama. I got the feeling he’s not a warm and cozy man. I don’t want to say he’s uncaring, because I’m sure in his own way he is. But after reading accounts from people who’ve worked closely with him on the campaign trail, my impression matches their description – Barack Obama’s cool, regulated, and down to business. He’s just not a president you’d run up to and hug. Not like William Howard Taft – I’ll bet he was a huggy Commander in Chief.
That’s when I noticed it was quiet… too quiet. What was missing? The clickity-whirr of the camera. The photographer had slipped out of the room and it was just me and the Leader of the Free World, sitting alone in the Oval Office. Deep breath. “Play it cool, Beej,” I thought.
“But seriously,” I said, “I’ve learned that people assign their president super-political powers,” and he began to move his head in agreement. “And, if I might be permitted to speak bluntly, it must be very frustrating for you.”
He nodded, lifting his brows and pursing his lips, still looking down at the book in his hand. “It is. People expect me to be able to swoop in and fix things with a signature.”
And writing bluntly, I get the feeling that he’s frustrated that things aren’t changing as quickly as he wanted them to, and he knows that people are frustrated that things aren’t changing as quickly as they had expected them to. But that’s the way the system works – our Constitution was worded specifically to slow things down, not to speed things up.
By this time President Obama was reaching for the fourth book of messages. I explained that the first two journals were collected from March 2008, when I started walking from San Francisco, to November 2008, when I spent Election Night in Greensboro, North Carolina. The third volume was gathered from Election Night to just before Inauguration, so people knew to whom they were writing, but he still had not assumed office. This fourth book was filled with missives collected during my recent peregrination from Boston to Washington, in November 2011. These were written when President Obama had been in power for almost three years. I pointed out that the tone could be a little less… optimistic than in the first three books. I know he read some phrases that were glaringly sharp, including a vein of notes collected from a Tea Party rally in Connecticut (“Dear Mr. President, I hope you stand trial for sedition and treason.”) I prefaced, “I didn’t edit and I didn’t censor what people wrote, but even so I think you’ll find most people understand you inherited a difficult situation. Like one gentleman from Massachusetts said, you ‘walked into Cah-nage.’”
What I didn’t say is that I found a surprising number of Americans on this trip who outright refused to sign the book. In 2008, few people turned down the opportunity to write to the president. Perhaps because of the anticipation of a new administration, it seemed everyone had something to say to Hillary Clinton, John McCain, or Barack Obama. Three years later, I encountered a lot more reluctance to share their thoughts. This may be because people think Obama is doing an awesome job, but frankly I think it’s an “if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all” mentality. In Maryland I met a man who canvassed door to door for Obama in ’08, – but when I handed him the book and pen three years later, he held up his hand with an “Errr, I prefer not.” I’m not a political analyst, but I’d guess this doesn’t bode well for the incumbent.
“So what’s next for you?” The president asked, raising his eyes from the page to mine. “Well,” I began, “this project has always been a three-legged stool. The walking across the country was the easy part, meeting you was a little harder. The last leg is to have these books self-published or hopefully published by traditional means. It’s important for readers in Massachusetts, for example, to see what’s important to folks in Mississippi, and people in California to understand what’s on the minds of families in Iowa.” Then he asked me if I had made copies of the pages (I had) and said I shouldn’t have a problem finding a publisher (I had). “But you’ll need to do some editing,” he added. “I doubt anyone will print all these pages.” (I wondered if he meant specifically that string of nasty notes from the Tea Party).
With that, he laid the book down, placed his hands on his knees, and leaned forward. “Well, BJ, we’ll take a look at these letters. What you did is collect a unique tapestry of the American spirit,” he stated as he began to rise.
OK, that was my cue to cut to the important things. During my months hiking in solitude, I had practiced the following sentences over and over again. I knew that if I had just half a minute with the president, and didn’t have time for anything else, I’d be content knowing these words hung between us. “Mr. President, three things, if I may.” Here goes.
“First, please, take time with these messages. They’re very important to a lot of people.”
“I will,” he promised.
To make sure his interest was hooked, I added, “There are a few in there for Mrs. Obama as well.”
He chuckled, “Yeah, everyone loves Michelle.” (They do… after I returned home, one of the first questions friends asked me wasn’t about the president, but did I see Michelle?)
“Secondly, I believe these books are of historical value, so please make sure these are archived in a museum, a library, or an institute.”
“We will, we’ll have a librarian come and determine what’s best for them.”
That brought me to my final point. I’d walked across America as a way to meet the president for the purpose of directly handing him these messages, and always felt it was essential to keep our conversation free of ulterior motives. I’d drilled myself not to ask him for a job, a favor, an autograph. Therefore, I’d been on the fence about making this final request, but in the end I felt it was worth taking a chance if I could help out to a fellow idealist and walker down the road. “Lastly, Mr. President, I had a devil of a time trying to get these books to you. If, in the future, someone else wants to take up this project, to walk across America to collect messages, do you think it could be a little easier for him or her to get in?”
He shot me a sidelong glance. Did I push him too far? “I can’t make any promises right now, but we’ll cross that bridge if we get there.” He stood up and grinned, “As you can see, persistence, pays off.”
The rest is a blur. We were on our feet and circling again around the furniture and by the desk we were in the anteroom and we clasped hands one more time and I wished him good luck. The attendant accompanied me out of the office and he made some small talk and I think we walked through the first waiting room by the Christmas tree and then I found myself outside alone. I followed the path to another guardhouse and turned in my visitor’s badge. The guard buzzed the gate and I exited onto Pennsylvania Ave. Now I was on the northern side of the White House, facing Lafayette Square. A few tourists and protestors milled around me. I turned on my cellphone and called Jen, who had been waiting by the first gate. I saw her walk around the corner of the security barriers a few moments later.
“So… How did it go?” she asked with a smile.
“Ummm… alright, I think.”
“What do you want to do now?”
“Let’s get some lunch.”
“Sure, I passed a sandwich place on my way over. Is that good?”
I found myself in the deli. It was a little past noon. There was a long line. “What’re you ordering?” She said.
“I asked you three times what you’re ordering?”
“Oh, um, nothing. I’m not really hungry.”
Frustrated, she left me and went back to the hotel.
I felt like I’d just gone twelve rounds. I’d been anticipating this meeting for three years – more than a year before Barack Obama was even elected president (after all, I could’ve sat down with Hillary Clinton or John McCain in there). People often ask me what I thought about while I was walking, how I kept my mind occupied during those endless hours of solitude. It was this moment in the Oval Office that I’d think of, stretching it, playing with it, changing it, forming it over and over like chewing gum in my mind. And now our fifteen-minute meeting was over. I felt drained and dried, body and mind. I loosened my tie, sagged into a seat, dragged a napkin from a dispenser, and began to jot down everything I remembered.
When the napkin was covered with notes, I called a reporter for my local paper back home, who had been expecting me. We spoke for about an hour and I replayed the meeting again. Then I walked back to the hotel, bookless. Jen and I changed clothes to do some sightseeing and meet some friends for dinner.
For the rest of the afternoon I had that feeling one gets after a verbal altercation with someone. Hours afterwards I was still slapping my forehead and exclaiming- “Oh! I shoulda said that!” I would’ve liked to tell him I listened to The Audacity of Hope (twice) while I was walking, I’d also lived near Harvard Square, thanks for getting us out of Iraq, and congrats on the Osama Bin Laden mission. I would’ve liked to ask him what it’s like to accept the Nobel Peace Prize, and what Stephen Hawking and the Dalai Lama are really like in person. I would’ve liked to swap stories from the small towns in southern Illinois we knew in common, such as Red Bud and Metropolis (somewhere on the Internet there’s a photo of a young Senator Obama hamming akimbo under the World’s Largest Superman statue).
But even if I had just one minute with Mr. Obama, I would’ve been happy to know that the books were in his hands, I had his assurance he’d read them and they’d be preserved for the future. I had accomplished what I’d set out to do. The other fourteen minutes were just presidential gravy.
I stayed in Washington, D.C. for three more days. Jen and I went to the Russell Building to personally thank my intrepid advocate from Sen. Kerry’s office who originally got my foot in the door of the White House. Afterwards I hung out with Lisa, Michelle and Nadine, friends who lived in the city; I got my first-ever, much-needed massage from a M.T. in Alexandria; toured the Library of Congress and the National Geographic Museum; strolled around the National Mall, visited the Lincoln Memorial (one of my favorites), and saw the newly-dedicated Martin Luther King Memorial. On Sunday afternoon I flew from Baltimore to Boston and on Monday I returned to work.
So now that it’s over, where are the books?
Serendipitously, the books were just what the president needed to resolve a situation of utmost import with which he’d been struggling for some time. See, there’s this antique table with a wobbly leg in the basement of the White House, and it turns out the journals are just the right size to jam under the leg and prop it up. Balance achieved, national crisis averted!
Or… Two of the leather bound notebooks sit on his desk, and at the end of a long day, he leans back, kicks his feet up, and flips through the leaves. He stops on a page and asks himself, “What did I do to help this elderly couple in Wyoming who are facing bankruptcy? What can I do to make things easier for this woman in Delaware who is struggling to afford a decent school for her autistic son?”
The other two volumes sit on his nightstand, where before going to sleep, he and Michelle open up to a random page and read there’s a family in Kentucky who prays for them nightly, learn there’s a father in New York who owes his mother an apology for doubting her belief there would ever be a Black president, and maybe even take the advice of a certain straight-shooting woman in Nevada who recommends sex as “a great stress reliever.”
At least, that’s where I’d like to think the books sit. But in reality, I have no way of knowing where they are. Will the president even open them? Obviously I can’t stand over his shoulder and make sure he looks at every page. It’s documented that he reads ten letters each day, which are culled by his staff from the general mail pile. (It’s less well-known that he and Mrs. Obama sometimes send personal checks to help Americans who have written particularly poignant messages). Thus, I’d like to think that he will. But one of the many lessons I learned while walking across America was recognizing which things are in my control, and which things aren’t. What the President of the United States reads is very much not in my control. Nevertheless, I believe I carried out my task; I personally delivered the books into his hands. How he chooses to use them now is out of my hands.
To me, what’s important isn’t just where the journals are now, but where they will be. Someday I’d like to take my grandchildren to the Smithsonian Institute or to the Barack Obama Presidential Library and let them feel my books in their hands and hear the voices of the people their grandfather had met around the country. When they ask how I met their grandmother, I can both tell them how we met during my walk, and show them why I walked.
And who knows? Perhaps centuries from now, an inquisitive archivist will be searching through the stacks for President Obama’s birth certificate (haha) and happen upon these books on a dusty shelf and recognize them for what they are – the hopes, wishes, worries, prayers and desires of Americans facing the uncertainty of the early 21st century. Imagine if we had missives like this from the late 1700’s, visions of what our new nation could be, not from just the wealthy white male landowners, but also from everyday Founding People, regardless of race, gender or class.
Looking back, I did something that had never before been accomplished: I crossed a nation on foot and brought the peoples’ voices to their leader. In New York City I met a man, paralyzed from the neck down, who dictated his message in whisper. I took his words, along with the message of thousands of other people who wouldn’t have had the opportunity, and put their words directly in the hands of the leader of the free world. I’m not one to gasconade, but I’m a little proud I served my country in this way.
In the future, maybe people will learn our America was and is a great nation. It’s a nation whose elected leaders are willing to sit and listen to the opinions of their constituents. It’s a nation which rewards those who work hard and never surrender their goals. Where the president is willing to meet a regular guy not because he’s the biggest donor, but because he did something unique and for others. Where the strong are willing to step up and carry the burden for the elderly, the young, and the sick. It’s a land where people take time to help a traveler with just a backpack. And where instead of cynicism and bickering, it’s optimism, understanding, unity, helpfulness and a can-do attitude that gets things done.
This story is dedicated to those who helped me immensely but didn’t get to see the conclusion of the walk: Mr. William Coble of Wyoming, Mr. Don Huff of Iowa, Mrs. Josephine Mirabelli of Utah, Jennifer Rybert of Georgia, and Becky Grutell of Nebraska, who kindly offered a stranger shelter from the road; Mr. Ted Paluk, my Scout Master; Betty Lillystrom of the Worcester Telegram & Gazette; Mr. James Casello and Mr. Stanley Stachelek, my uncles; and especially Mrs. Rita Hill, my mother, who worked two jobs to make sure I had the best education, clean clothes, and of course, good shoes. More than anything, I wish she could have seen her son sitting and swapping stories with the President of the United States.