The first time I met Barack Obama was in early 2006, when he was still a U.S. senator.
He had come to Cincinnati to help out my husband, Sherrod Brown, in Sherrod’s campaign to join him in the Senate. I sat next to Obama during breakfast, before he took the stage. Almost immediately, our conversation turned to the isolation and rigor necessary for a writer’s life.
He was in the final edits for his second book, “The Audacity of Hope,” which would become a best-seller later that year and set the stage for his presidential race. What I remember most during our conversation was the look on his face, as well as the language he used, as he described his writing habits. A writer can usually tell when someone laying claim to the profession is faking it. Barack Obama was the real deal.
He talked about the quiet, anonymous space of air travel, when he could write without interruption. We commiserated about the challenge of finding that perfect word — and many times, there is that one perfect word — which too often eludes us writers until 3 in the morning, when we sit up like a sprung jackknife and claw in the dark for paper and a pen.
He asked about my writing habits and leaned in with the face of a person listening hard. I have little recollection of what I told him, beyond my sharing that I read everything out loud before hitting “send.” But I vividly recall sitting there listening to him and thinking, This is a man who loves the written word.
The New York Times’ chief book critic, Michiko Kakutani, recently interviewed Obama about how reading and writing fundamentally shaped him as a man and as a president.
“During his eight years in the White House — in a noisy era of information overload, extreme partisanship and knee-jerk reactions — books were a sustaining source of ideas and inspiration, and gave him a renewed appreciation for the complexities and ambiguities of the human condition.
“‘At a time when events move so quickly and so much information is transmitted,’ he said, reading gave him the ability to occasionally ‘slow down and get perspective’ and ‘the ability to get in somebody else’s shoes.’ These two things, he added, ‘have been invaluable to me. Whether they’ve made me a better president I can’t say. But what I can say is that they have allowed me to sort of maintain my balance during the course of eight years, because this is a place that comes at you hard and fast and doesn’t let up.'”
Obama offered titles of books that have moved or influenced him in some way and told Kakutani that he recently gave his elder daughter, Malia, a Kindle filled with books he wanted to share with her. Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s “One Hundred Years of Solitude” is one. “The Golden Notebook,” by Doris Lessing, is another. Maxine Hong Kingston’s “The Woman Warrior,” too.
I was fine, just fine, until I read about that Kindle.
For weeks now, I’ve been taking in the final round of coverage of this president and his family with a measured response. After every story, every video clip, I take a deep breath and move on.
This is part of what it means to live in America, I’ve reminded myself countless times since the election. Every presidency arrives with an expiration date. Eight years max and he — so far, always he — is out of there.
I have not always agreed with President Barack Obama, which is also part of what it means to live in America. We elect humans, not saints. There are bound to be disappointments.
Never, however, have I doubted Obama’s commitment to our country. Not once have I looked at him and worried about what the rest of the world must think of us for having elected him. I have trusted him to understand that his every move, his every word, reflects on all of us. If my working-class mother had lived to see President Obama, she would have said he knows how to represent.
Our president gave his teenage daughter a Kindle, and he filled it with books. That small yet enormous detail brings it home. There is no replacing this president, and what comes next is sinking in. The distance between what was and what will be seems so vast.
“Oh, well,” Brave Orchid says in “The Woman Warrior.” “We’re all under the same sky and walk the same earth; we’re alive together during the same moment.”
Connie Schultz is a syndicated columnist and an author.