The Chronicle Review

Dinners With the President

White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy

September 25, 2016

In the early evening of June 30, 2009, I joined eight other historians in the White House’s Red Room for drinks and conversation while we awaited the arrival of President Barack Obama. Shortly after 7 p.m. the president walked in, alone and unannounced, an athletic spring in his step, and began shaking hands around the room. He thanked each of us for accepting his invitation to dinner. Then he said simply, "OK, everybody, let’s eat," and ushered us across the hall into the Family Dining Room, an elegant but intimate space just off the much larger State Dining Room. There we were joined by a handful of White House aides, including Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel.

I had seen candidate Obama speak at Howard University but had not met him in person before that evening. I was struck by how little difference there was between his public and private personae. In both settings he was affable and unpretentious, while also decidedly reserved — "no-drama Obama." But on this occasion he did reveal a puckish side. When I mentioned a mutual friend who was one of his earliest supporters, and said we had known each other for nearly 50 years, he looked at me in mock astonishment and said, "Really? She looks a lot better than you." And as we were taking our seats he poked fun at the solemn historical notes about the table’s chinaware printed inside our place cards. Like an awestruck rube in a swank restaurant, he flipped over his plate to check out the hallmark.

I was able to attend four such "historians’ dinners" that the president convened over the next five years. They were all working occasions where serious discussion began as soon as we settled into our chairs. Twice on warm evenings, the president doffed his suit jacket, loosened his tie, unbuttoned his cuffs (no links), rolled up his sleeves, and invited us to do the same. He typically ate sparingly and swiftly, and as far as I could see, drank nothing at all, not even water.

At that initial gathering, after a forkful or two of salad, he quickly got down to business by asking each of us "to say something about this moment in history." He added that if we did not speak up, he — a former law professor — would call on us individually.

That moment, of course, was a time of acute crisis, near the fearsome nadir of what came to be called the Great Recession. Several of us drew a comparison with the 1930s, noting that the Great Depression had set the stage for the sweeping reforms of the New Deal, and that the present crisis was likewise a time of opportunity as well as danger.

Emanuel confirmed something that he had said just after the November election, that "you never want a serious crisis to go to waste." He and the president clearly aspired to achieve a truly transformational presidency, one whose record of accomplishment would invite comparison with FDR’s. But when one of us noted that the present crisis was not yet grave enough to stimulate change on the scale of the New Deal, Emanuel pretended to gag, stuck out his tongue, rolled his eyes, and yanked his necktie up over his head like a noose, as if to say, "This crisis is plenty bad enough for me!"

Several of the themes that dominated that first dinner recurred on most of the subsequent occasions. The president was consistently more interested in hearing about how his predecessors had handled the nuts and bolts of managing basic presidential business — "How did LBJ get that bill passed?" "How did Ronald Reagan campaign for re-election in 1984?" — than in hearing us pontificate about the grand architectures and dynamics that defined historical eras — or even about how historians judged presidential legacies.

Barack Obama was constantly appraising President Obama as he would any other historical actor.
The theme that preoccupied us more than any other concerned messaging. Conceding that he was "not a sound-bite kinda guy," the president repeatedly spoke of his difficulty in finding some trope or slogan or simple narrative that would convey the consistency and coherence of his various initiatives. In an odd figure of speech, he remarked that he could feel "mechanically" the holistic integrity of his several ambitions for the country, but that neither he nor his speechwriters had found the "poetry" to describe the whole that comprised the parts. More than a little plaintively, he looked around the table and said, "You guys are good at stories, so give us some."

Domestic policy and politics — in his first term, notably health-care, energy, and environmental issues — preoccupied him more than international affairs, which at the early dinners we discussed only infrequently, and then generally off the record. But in 2011, after one of several conversations about his frustrations with legislative gridlock and his fruitless search for a Republican version of Tip O’Neill — the Democratic Speaker of the House with whom Reagan had an effective working relationship — Obama said that if divided government persisted into his second term, "I guess I’ll be doing a lot of foreign policy."

In every session around that table, the president projected a rare kind of unswaggering self-confidence that allowed for the admission of ignorance and perplexity without embarrassment, and welcomed views different from his own. He also displayed a no less rare — maybe even slightly eerie — knack for talking about himself with an arm’s-length detachment. I formed the strong impression that Barack Obama was constantly appraising President Obama as he would any other historical actor, to the understanding of which he brought formidable gifts of observation and analysis.

The president’s conversational style is fluent, swift, assured. Only once did I see him pause and grope for the right words. Asked how these dinner conversations might have value for him, he reflected at uncharacteristic length and finally said, "By helping me find a way to discuss inequality without being accused of inciting class warfare."

True to predictions, the second-term dinners turned more toward foreign policy. China loomed large. At one point, while discussing the bold China policies of Richard Nixon, the president said, "That guy was really dark." Then, with a virtual wink, he predicted that "unlike some of my predecessors," his own foreign-policy legacy would be that "I didn’t make any big mistakes."

That emphasis on prudence and restraint seemed a far cry from the transformative aspirations that had been so exuberantly voiced at our first gathering, some five years before. Maybe we historians should have tried to explain earlier that even for the most richly gifted presidents, history is the great chastener.

David M. Kennedy is a professor of history emeritus at Stanford University.