I visited Barack Obama's house on St. Patrick's Day, so it was especially nice to have him in town earlier this week, during this most signficant of months for Memphis. Felt like we were exchanging visits, as friends across regions tend to do.
Whatever your political persuasion, President Obama's brief stay in the Bluff City — to deliver the keynote address at Booker T. Washington's commencement ceremony — must humanize the leader of the free world to some degree. It's one thing to see the U.S. president on a screen, to read about him in your favorite monthly magazine, or to have him among your Google alerts. It's quite another to see, read, or hear about him appearing at places (the Cook Convention Center), eating food (Rendezvous barbecue), or clogging roads (most of downtown and a portion of the 240 loop) that we Memphians experience on a daily basis. The president isn't merely representing us when he's sharing our collective neighborhood. He's among us, as U.S. presidents should be.
When my family visited the White House last March 17th (a significant date for this Irishman, as it was my father's birthday), we were among a few hundred other "guests" who went to the trouble of requesting permission to visit through their local congressmen. Steve Cohen's office was gracious and particular in adding us to the guest list on a day the fountain on the south lawn would be green (on orders from the First Lady). We were given a time to get in line, made aware nothing beyond our wallets and cell phones would be permitted inside the White House, and were even offered a smile by two or three of the dozens of security guards we passed on the way to the East Wing entrance. (Our one brush with power came at an iron gate about 100 yards from that entrance, when Secretary of the Treasury Timothy Geithner walked by and actually grinned at us as he held a phone to his ear. My dad, the economics professor, would surely have stopped him mid-stride.)
Seeing my young daughters stroll along White House hallways made a connection I never would have made had we not gone to the trouble of arranging the most carefully watched visit of our lives. I can picture them in the Green Room, where portraits of two presidents from Tennessee (Andrew Jackson and James K. Polk) made the room seem more than Irish. I can see them strolling through the East Room, home to countless press conferences and balls over the years. And I can picture my daughters in the grand dining room, an enormous portrait of Abraham Lincoln dominating the decor, as any image of Lincoln should. If a building can be "humanized," that visit to the White House two months ago did the trick for me.
Which brings me back to President Obama's stop in Memphis. Somehow, having walked where he's walked over the last two years, I felt familiar with the most famous guest Memphis will see this year. Having grown up with my father's mantra, "Remember who you are," guiding my life choices, I heard another voice when President Obama told the Booker T. Washington grads, "It's not where you are or what you are. It's who you are." Felt like I knew the man, and maybe he knew me.
Can't help but wonder if he prefers his barbecue wet or dry.