Serving With Honor
8 years ago, I quit a comfortable job at Google for a newly defined role at the White House. I sold all my stock, spent 15 consecutive weeks commuting via the redeye to DC from San Francisco, and ultimately moved my family to DC. I started a job in the worst possible conditions: the financial crisis was deteriorating quickly, the auto industry was on the verge of collapse, we were in two wars and critical challenges such as climate change and healthcare were largely ignored. The work was challenging and the hours were insane. At times, it felt like running a marathon blindfolded, with sandbags attached to our legs, with everyone booing. And yet, it was the honor and privilege of a lifetime.
As we look back at the historic presidency of Barack Obama, I thought I would share a special memory. It wasn’t fancy or famous, but in a simple private instant, showed the true character of our 44th President.
In July, 2009, I staffed President Obama when he gave one of his first interviews to an African publication, AllAfrica. The interviewer and his crew had exactly 7 minutes for the interview. Their pride and excitement were palpable. The Blue Room had been set up for hours and everything was perfectly prepared when the President walked in. The President warmly greeted the team and the interview started promptly on time. Yet a few minutes into the interview, one of the lightbulbs from the set burst and everyone in the room scrambled, especially Secret Service. The AllAfrica team scrambled to fix the set. Sweat poured down the face of the journalist as the crew worked furiously to replace the equipment. I swear I could see the poor man’s heart beating through his suit. It was as if the interview of his lifetime burst alongside the lightbulb.
As much as I empathized with the AllAfrica team, my job was to keep the President on time. I started to tell the AllAfrica crew we had 2 minutes remaining but before I could say anything, President Obama calmly told the journalist and the team to take their time. This interview was important and he would honor his full commitment.
President Obama’s words and calm demeanor extinguished the anxiety in the room instantly and we proceeded with the interview. The few minutes he shared meant the world to the AllAfrica team and ultimately the millions of people who watched the interview.
As his presidency winds to a close, I find myself reflecting on this memory. In this Blue Room moment, President Obama demonstrated the core values that I believe will come to define his legacy: grace, honor, focus, empathy, and respect. Perhaps Michelle Obama said it best: “being President doesn’t change who you are, it reveals who you are.” I have no doubt that history will show Barack Obama to be the most important President of my lifetime.
Thank you, President Obama, for your intellect, your grace, and perhaps most importantly, for setting the highest bar to which all of our leaders should aspire. The American people deserve no less.