I was idly checking my Wilson Center e-mail over coffee on a Friday morning when I noticed this little item in my inbox: “Invitation to a Director’s Forum with Barack Obama.”
I thought I’d misread the subject – surely Barack Obama, future leader of the free world, wouldn’t be coming to my workplace on Tuesday. I’d just been talking to a friend the night before about wanting to see Obama before I left DC (one of the sad realities of not living in a swing state is the fact that you really don’t get to see a whole lot of politicians besides Mike Huckabee).
But the fact that he was coming to the Wilson Center to deliver a major speech about Iraq and national security seemed a little too good to be true. In retrospect, it absolutely makes sense, because former Democratic congressman Lee Hamilton, the vice chair of the 9/11 Commission, is the director of the Center, and because the academically oriented Wilson Center is the perfect place to deliver a speech about policy.
So Tuesday morning, I interrupted the clockwork morning routine I have with my two roommates – one has to be at work at 8:30, one at 9, and I usually roll in between 9:30 and 10, so we’ve figured out the kitchen/bathroom/closet situation accordingly – because I certainly wanted to be early to the event. Over my bowl of oatmeal I read the Times op-ed Obama had published detailing his plan for Iraq withdrawal.
When I arrived around 8:45 in the atrium of the Reagan Building (the Wilson Center shares this behemoth with a variety of other organizations), the line was already out the door. I told an Obama volunteer I was with the Wilson Center, hoping this would allow me to skip the line – happily, it did. In fact, my status as an intern – the lowliest of all lowly creatures on the DC totem pole – allowed me to be seated just a few rows away from the stage. I saved seats for my intern friends who weren’t quite as gung-ho as I was about beating the rush, contemplating how cushy it felt to see a major political candidate while not suffering near heat exhaustion or standing for four numbing hours.
The sign affixed to Obama’s podium announced – instead of the usual sunny slogan – this stern all-caps statement: JUDGMENT TO LEAD. We watched about 10 different people test the mics and teleprompters as the minutes ticked by. Two hours and one coffee break later, Obama came out alongside Lee Hamilton, who introduced him briefly (“the junior senator from Illinois … author … community organizer”). Even the older, staid, suit-wearing members of the audience had slight fan geek-out moments as Obama took the stage.
Everyone composed themselves as Obama began his solemn, 5,602-word (thanks, Slate) speech about the need for a new foreign policy, particularly with regard to Iraq and Afghanistan. He outlined five policy goals he wants to accomplish as president, including ending the “tyranny of oil” and rehabilitating America’s international standing.
As I listened to him elaborate on this last point, I remembered what a speaker had said at a recent CSIS Africa event – specifically, that electing Obama would have an incredibly positive impact upon America’s legitimacy and influence in sub-Saharan Africa. Hearing that, I remember being truly excited about the prospect of an Obama presidency for the first time (after all, I was pulling for Hillary in the primaries). Listening to his speech on Tuesday absolutely reinforced that feeling for me.
Obama finished to a standing ovation, and while I thought he’d leave the stage immediately (there was no question-and-answer) he leaned over and began shaking hands with audience members in the front row. Before I knew it, I’d been shoved toward the front, my hand extended. Obama took it with a smile as I blurted: “Excellent speech.”
“Thank you,” he replied. “And how are you?”
I scurried off to avoid saying anything inane. Talking with a couple of interns about the incredible event to which we’d been witness, I remarked that I wasn’t sure if I’d heard the words “change” or “hope” once.
“No,” countered another intern, “but I definitely heard the word ‘different.’ ”