It’s the cold, not-quite-light morning of Tuesday, January 25. I’m at the Princeton Junction station, waiting for the 7 a.m. Amtrak express to Washington. Down to DC for a visit with Rep. Rush Holt and, as his guest, a ticket to President Obama’s State of the Union address tonight.
Of all the people to whom Congressman Holt might have offered one of the hottest tickets in Washington, why me? Perhaps partly because, as a campaign volunteer in the spring of 2008, I had made 6,000 calls for candidate Obama during the presidential primaries. Perhaps also partly because — after my retirement that year, at 60, from a partnership at a Manhattan-based strategic communications firm — I had formed a Princeton-based, pro-Obama phone bank whose 400 volunteers made 90,000 calls to Florida voters in the two months prior to Election Day. Two years later I interrupted my new life as an independent scholar (and my work on a book on Shakespeare’s sonnets), to volunteer again, this time as a recruiter and coordinator of volunteers on Rep. Holt’s successful re-election campaign.
When he greets me on Tuesday, Rush — with whom I had been on a first-name basis since my work on his recent campaign — says, “I tried to think of who would especially appreciate a chance to see the president speak in person, and I thought of you.” He is certainly right about that. Along with my work for candidate Obama in 2008, I recently formed a group called Friends of Obama Club of the United States, or FOCUS, that will focus on helping the president at the grassroots level: focusing public attention on actions and accomplishments of the president and his administration that need and deserve to be better known, better appreciated, and better understood; providing comment — in a reasoned, constructive, fact-based, non-polemical manner — on legislation and other topics of public interest and concern; and helping to lay the groundwork for the president’s re-election next year.
Between Shakespeare, FOCUS, and family responsibilities, I’m working (just like in my pre-retirement days) 16 or 18 hours a day. But it’s exhilarating, energizing. Other than my own reading and writing, I can’t imagine anything I’d rather work on than helping to ensure public support for, and the success of, the Obama presidency.
Boarding on schedule at 7 a.m., I reach Union Station at 9:40, walk toward and past the Capitol building, and arrive at 1214 Longworth at 10. My day begins with a tour of the Capitol conducted by two interns on Rush’s staff. After lunch in the Longworth cafeteria, Rush resurfaces and invites me to accompany him to the House chamber, where he votes on two or three measures while I watch from the visitors’ gallery. Later, after a photographer snaps us on the Capitol steps (the dome a popular backdrop), we cross the street to the Cannon building, where a regional news network is taping interviews, one of them with Rush.
With a couple of unspoken-for hours, I walk down to the National Air and Space Museum, a personal favorite, then back up to Longworth for one of the day’s highlights: a reception in ex-Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s offices for Democratic House members and their invited guests to the “SOTU” (Washington-speak for State of the Union), including two doctors and a nurse who helped save Gabrielle Giffords after the horror in Tucson.
At the reception, Rush introduces me (as he’s been doing all day) to several members of Congress including Rep. Pelosi, giving me a chance to say that I look forward in the not-distant future to her being addressed once again as Madam Speaker. “We’re working on it,” she replies.
Finally, it is time for the SOTU. By 8:45, I’ve again passed through security and taken my seat in Gallery 3. Much ado on the House floor, as representatives and senators mingle, greet one another, amble about. There’s Rush, directly below me. He looks up in my direction, sees me, and we exchange salutes. There’s Frank Lautenberg. Joe Lieberman. Charles Rangel. Henry Waxman. Patrick Leahy. John Kerry. Many more.
Before long, the justices of the Supreme Court file in, wearing their black judicial robes. Then the president’s cabinet — Hillary Clinton, Timothy Geithner, Janet Napolitano, Arne Duncan, Steven Chu, and the rest.
Then, at last, the president.
The message on the back of the visitor’s gallery ticket is quite explicit: remain seated, no applauding. But nobody in the gallery seems to know or care. We’re all on our feet, repeatedly, applauding along with those on the House floor, before and during the speech.
The applause continues as the president makes his way slowly from the back to the front of the chamber, shaking hands with the men, hugging and air-kissing the women. Finally, after handing copies of his speech to Speaker Boehner and Vice President Biden, he’s ready to begin.
We’ve all seen the speech, so I’ll forgo the details. My principal impressions: unlike his recent remarks in Tucson, the SOTU at no point left me teary-eyed (though like Mr. Boehner, I weep much too easily). Nor did it seek to do so. Although I was seeing it all directly, in person, it was also strangely impersonal — the distance from the visitor’s gallery to the president somehow less intimate than the tight shots of TV. But hey — I was there. A once-in-a-lifetime experience and, as such, unforgettable.
And it was a very good speech, about winning the future. A speech in which most Democrats, and even some Republicans, could find much to agree with, much to admire.
Sixty-two minutes later, it’s over. I wait for Rush outside the visitors’ gallery, from which we walk downstairs toward ground level. But instead of heading back into the tunnel leading to Longworth, Rush directs me out the door at the foot of the stairs. “Let’s wait here,” he says. “The president will be passing by on his way to his limousine.”
While we wait, Rush phones his mother, the remarkable, 97-year-old Helen Holt, to compare notes on the speech. (With its emphasis on education and innovation, he liked it a lot.) They talk for 10 minutes while I, trying my best not to eavesdrop, shiver nearby.
Finally, Michelle Obama, then the president, emerge, and as he moves along he shakes hands with four or five people gathered with us outside. The president is almost past us when Rush says something like “Mr. President, I’d like to introduce you to Roy Winnick, one of your biggest supporters.”
“I appreciate it,” the president replies, as we briefly shake hands. Then he proceeds to the waiting limo, and Rush and I begin the walk back to Longworth, stopping only when the president’s long motorcade passes by.
By 11, we’re back at Longworth. I collect my things and bid Rush good-bye, he remaining to do some more work, I leaving to catch a cab to my hotel.
I’m on the train now, heading back to Princeton, trying, to collect my thoughts. What did this experience mean? In part, it was a glimpse of business as usual in the nation’s capital. In part, about seeing Rush in action, getting a sense of his life as a Congressman (he loves it, he tells me, and has never regretted giving up the life of a practicing physicist and educator for public service).
As for the SOTU, it was partly about how a president deals with an electoral setback, by making pragmatic adjustments in his legislative priorities. Partly about reminding legislators on both sides of the aisle (an aisle many of them crossed in a post-Tucson show of national unity) and the general public that the challenges we face as a nation transcend party politics, and require not political bickering and gamesmanship but good-faith, collaborative effort to address major challenges and achieve genuine, long-term solutions.
In sum, based solely on my observation of one member of Congress and one sitting president, the State of the Union today seems very sound. Now, for me, it’s back to work on the Shakespeare book, and on getting FOCUS off the ground. Lots to do between now and 2012, when another presidential election will need to be won.
Editor’s note: Roy Winnick received a Ph.D. in English from Princeton in 1976 and was a Guggenheim Fellow in 1978-’79. As a graduate student, he co-authored volume three of the late Lawrance Thompson’s “official” biography of Robert Frost. Later he researched a biography of the American poet, playwright, journalist, teacher and public official Archibald MacLeish. From 1986 to 2008 Winnick was a partner at Kekst and Company, a strategic communications firm. He is now working on a study of anagrammatic wit in Shakespeare’s sonnets. He and his wife, Catherine Harper, live in Princeton.
Friends of Obama Club of the United States (FOCUS) will next meet on Saturday, February 12, at 10 a.m. at 14 Washington Road, Building 2, West Windsor. For more information E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org