The first time I met Barack Obama (
You ever sit next to a big electric motor running about 10,000 rpms?
That’s what it felt like sitting next to a young black man who’d just been elected the junior United States senator from Illinois.
It was early 2005, not long after then Senator Obama had been sworn into office in Washington DC as the first black senator from Illinois. He’d vaulted from being a little-known state senator from Chicago to the national stage with his speech to the 2004 Democratic national convention. That speech assured his victory in the November Illinois senatorial race.
At the time I was serving as a colonel in the Illinois Army National Guard, while practicing law in Belleville, Illinois, in my civilian career. The commanding general selected me as one of a half dozen or so officers to accompany him to Washington DC to provide a “state of the state briefing” to the National Guard Bureau and while there to our newly elected senator.
Although Senator Obama had spent eight years in the Illinois legislature, he had never served on a committee dealing with the Illinois National Guard and was not a veteran. The Illinois National Guard, like all state National Guards, made it a practice to maintain good relationships with both state and federal legislators.
Legislators appropriate the money to fund the National Guard and since more than ninety per cent of National Guard funding comes from the federal government, it is critical to the Guard’s readiness, both as a reserve to the Army and the Air Force and its state mission as an emergency response force for the governor, to have a good line of communication with legislators. Thus, we scheduled a meeting with Senator Obama and his staff in his Washington DC offices, as well as a reception for Senator Obama and Senator Durbin later that evening at the National Guard Museum.
Our newly appointed commanding general, who had little political experience, but a great military resume as a Vietnam Army Special Forces veteran, with both Purple Heart and Bronze Star medals, wanted to develop a relationship with and provide the young senator with background information on our mission.
Guided by one of our young officers, who had served in the Pentagon, and was familiar with the Capitol complex, we filed into the small conference room in our seldom-worn green dress uniforms. All of us far more less comfortable than we would have been in our camouflage battle uniforms.
His staff seated the half-dozen or so of us at a rectangular wooden conference table to await the senator’s arrival. He entered a few minutes later, hustling in from a Senate floor vote. We all stood. He motioned us to sit and sat down to my immediate left, across the table from our commanding general.
Seated next to him. I could virtually feel the humming of that electric motor emanating from his body. He was obviously a man with a lot to do and in a hurry to get it done.
The commanding general began his presentation. After a few words, the senator interrupted him to say: “What is it that I can do for you General?” The startled General replied: “Sir we just wanted to give you a background briefing on the Illinois National Guard and its capabilities.”
Senator Obama, a decade and a half younger than the general, pushed his chair back and said, “Don’t waste my time unless you’ve got an ask. The next time you’re here come back with an ask,” all while standing and leaving the room. No time to waste. An ask is Washington-speak for a request for legislation and usually involves federal funding for a project.
A few hours later we were all standing around the reception hall of the National Guard Museum nibbling cheese cubes and holding wine glasses when both Illinois senators entered the room. The formerly brusque young man spoke briefly and mingled with the soldiers, posing for photographs and shaking hands. A then-Air National Guard colonel, who would later be promoted to general and serve as my Assistant Adjutant General for Air, posed between the two United States senators for a quick photo. To this day he claims that he knew then that Senator Obama would become President Obama. That photo is one of his most prized mementos of his military career.
I would meet the Senator and later President several more times over the coming dozen years, including breaking bread with him in the White House when I was a newly-elected United States Congressman, but none of those was ever more impressive than that first meeting.
© William L. Enyart
Reflections from the River
Audio production: Tom Calhoun at www.paguytom.com