1 THE TIP-OFF
The day I met the future president I was wearing the first suit my father ever gave me. A gray Hugo Boss at least a size too big, sloppy and untailored. I paired it with a nondescript beige tie and brown Kenneth Cole squared-toe lace-up shoes. I was twenty-three years old, fresh out of Duke University. I thought I looked sharp.
It was December 2005. I had been home killing time for a month in Fayetteville, North Carolina, where my parents lived. I was playing round after round of golf while waiting to see if I was going to have a professional sports career (either in NFL Europe or Arena Football, where I could get more experience before hopefully joining the Dallas Cowboys). I was also considering applying for a position at Goldman Sachs. Mostly, I was honing my short game.
My mother, Lynette Love, no fan of idleness, told me I needed a
contingency plan beyond pro sports and high finance. “Do something more productive with your time,” she scolded as I loafed around her house.
“I’ve dropped ten strokes off my game!” I shot back, teasing. “I don’t know how to be more productive than that.”
My mom didn’t laugh. And her point was well taken. I wasn’t Tiger Woods. Or a retiree. Duly chastened, I sent my résumé to a friend, Alan Hogan, a mentor of a basketball teammate, Andre Buchner, who was close with Sean Richardson, chief of staff to Representative Patrick Kennedy, explaining I might be looking for an internship on Capitol Hill. Not long after, I received a call from Pete Rouse, then chief of staff for Senator Barack Obama. Rouse, I would come to appreciate, was a man of vast experience and abundant talent. He had been chief of staff to Senator Tom Daschle when Daschle was majority leader; around D.C., Pete was known as the 101st senator. My résumé had been forwarded to him because I was young, into sports, African-American, and I’d graduated with a political science degree from Duke.
I knew about Senator Obama. He was the only African-American in the U.S. Senate at the time, and it boggled my mind that 1 percent of the United States Senate was representing 19 percent of America’s population. I’d seen his rousing speech at the Democratic National Convention in 2004. And I’d read his book Dreams from My Father, in which he plumbed the personal psychology of race in a way I’d not seen discussed before. The parts of the book that addressed Obama’s experiences as a black student at an overwhelmingly white, privileged private high school felt as if they had been written just for me.
My family was solidly middle class. Both of my parents went to college at North Carolina Central University, where they met, and at their encouragement I’d attended a private high school that was predominantly well off and Caucasian. So my basketball teammates in the Amateur Athletic League (AAU) constantly gave me grief as the guy who spent more time with whites than blacks on and off the court.
All of my African-American friends who went to public schools saw me as soft. Uncool. Rather than the Fresh Prince, I was the Carlton. And while my prep school friends lived in giant houses and drove luxury cars, my family could barely afford tuition—we were on tuition assistance, and even that was a struggle—and we lived on the other side of town. I felt caught between two worlds: I came from one side, and I wasn’t genuinely invited into the other. I was part of both worlds, but didn’t fit either mold. After reading Dreams, I realized I wasn’t the only person of color who felt that way, who’d been struggling with identity, unsure of where he fit.
On the phone, I told Rouse that Senator Obama’s book had spoken to me.
“What do you want to do?” he asked.
“I’ll do anything,” I replied.
He invited me to D.C.
* * *
I’d been to Washington in May 2001, after Duke won the NCAA Championship. We’d been covered in the media extensively, as every NCAA Championship basketball team has been before and since. Back on campus we were minor celebrities, and now we were in the nation’s capital to, among other things, meet the President. Needless to say, it was not your usual introduction to Washington, and my mind was in a thousand places at once.
Our team visited the Pentagon and toured the White House. I remember it was a hot and humid day as we all stood in the Rose Garden sweating in our suits. I was the only one who’d brought a handkerchief, and I passed it around to the guys while we waited for President Bush to show up to welcome us to the White House.
Bush eventually came out, posed, and was very polite. He congratulated us, and that was that. I never thought for a second that
I was standing in the place of my future employment. What I remembered most about D.C., if I’m honest, was a very brief glimpse of the Oval Office, the unpleasant temperature, and how disgusting my handkerchief was after several teammates used it to mop their brows.
When I arrived on a cold winter day in 2005 for the interview with the senator’s office, however, it was a different story. I was mesmerized by the federal city. Everything felt so seductively foreign to me. The architecture. The pace. Driving into town felt like being a toddler walking into a toy store. Or buying a new gadget and pushing all the buttons at once. I was overwhelmed, breathless with excitement. Playing hoops for sold-out crowds at Cameron Indoor Stadium or in front of a hundred thousand hand-chopping Florida State University Seminole fans should have prepared me, but the grandness of the city was something completely different.
Which is probably why I crashed the car.
I’d borrowed my father’s Volvo S80 to make the drive. I’d never driven in the city before. And though it was a minor fender-bender, a Jeep coming into my lane and hitting the side of my car, I tried not to think of it as a bad omen. (Or of what I was going to tell my dad.)
Senator Obama couldn’t meet with me the first day, so I ended up staying overnight with a friend. The next day, I took the Metro over to the Capitol to meet with David Katz, then a personal assistant to the senator. Stepping into the Hart Senate Office Building only reinforced the exhilaration I was already feeling. The place was massive, chock-full of business-attired people rushing past, looking like they were consumed with purpose. There were metal detectors and security guards and men and women in suits and shiny shoes talking in eager, agitated voices into their phones, or to each other. The very air itself seemed heavy with ambition, and as I inhaled it, I realized right then I wanted to be a part of the mix.
I sat outside the cloakroom on a hard wooden bench, too stupid
to be nervous, just giddily eager, like a dog in cold weather. The senator emerged with Katz, who pointed at me. I stood up just as he approached.
“Hey, Reggie,” Obama said, extending his hand. “Thanks for taking the time.”
We shook hello, his demeanor formal, but friendly. He asked what I’d been doing with my life.
“Playing football,” I said, adding quickly, “I read your book. It was inspiring, thoughtful.”
“That’s great. Thank you.”
We stood there, eyeing each other. It felt less like a job interview than a sizing up. We both fell silent for a beat, as if we were trying to see who could be more low-key. Then he asked me a couple questions about myself. What mattered to me. What I wanted to do in the future. I didn’t have any answers. And I didn’t really pretend that I did. I said I was looking forward to learning about the political process, and he said that it was easier to try new things as a young man than when you are thirty-five.
“You think you might want to run for something someday, Reggie?” he asked, finally.
“No. Maybe. If somebody thinks I should.” I knew I sounded moronic. I could tell he was unimpressed. He looked me over one last time.
“Well, maybe we’ll work something out,” he said, then walked away, immediately directing his attention to something that actually mattered.
Man, did I suck. It was the worst interview I’d ever given. Maybe because it was the only interview I’d ever given, aside from trying out for the Duke basketball team, which hardly counted. I left the Hart building that day feeling pretty certain I wouldn’t be coming back to D.C. anytime soon.
* * *
If you had told me then that for the next six years I would spend most of my life crisscrossing the globe with Barack Obama, I would have thought you’d been dropped on your head as a child. And yet that is exactly what happened. He became my boss, and then the President of the United States, and I became what he dubbed his “iReggie,” his go-to source for all critical, nonpolitical information.
I was his DJ, his Kindle, his travel agent, his valet, his daughters’ basketball coach, his messenger, his punching bag, his alarm clock, his vending machine, his chief of stuff, his note passer, his spades partner, his party planner, his workout partner, his caterer, his small forward, his buffer, his gatekeeper, his surrogate son, and ultimately, improbably, luckily, his friend.
For the entirety of my stint in Washington, I was at the senator-then-president’s side for more hours a day than not. From dawn to what was often the middle of the night, I was a witness not only to history, but to a side of the man few got to see: an attentive father, a devoted husband, a trash-talking basketball player, a feisty card shark, a loyal and thoughtful friend with a wicked sense of humor. I also saw him in those early morning hours on the campaign trail when no one believed in him; eating lunch alone in the White House; flipping through a stack of magazines; shooting free throws in deserted small-town high school gymnasiums; taking a few moments to compose himself in the seconds before stepping onstage to be sworn in as the 44th President of the United States of America.
Being a personal assistant, a “bodyman,” is like taking a ball from half court and trying to heave it into the basket. You don’t know how it is really going to work out. Luckily, we grew close over time, and what originally seemed like a low percentage Hail Mary ended up being a more manageable job than I would have anticipated. Perhaps most surprisingly, we became friends, eventually even something close to family.
I carried snacks and the luggage, babysat for the children of world leaders, prepped the teleprompter and the operator, and handled a million other tasks that came up on the fly. Most of all, I listened. Gradually, I came to understand with one look from the President what sort of day lay ahead.
Because I was not part of the political process, in many ways I became the President’s touchstone for normalcy. His window onto the outside world. We played basketball together. (A lot of basketball.) We played cards. We debated the merits of Tony Parker and rehashed Mad Men plotlines. We watched ESPN. I was twenty-one years younger than him. We didn’t have a lot in common in terms of life experience, but what we did share was safe ground. I wasn’t going to question him about the economy or deliver bad news about the polls. And because of that, the time we spent together was unique. I was able to see through a rare window that others did not. I would occasionally let fly with an expletive when we talked. So did he. The subject was usually basketball.
* * *
Five days after my abysmal interview, Pete Rouse called me back. I would soon learn that not many things would get done without him. Rouse was my mentor and champion, as he was for many people on the Hill. He had a vision and game plan for me.
“You have good presence,” he said. “We want you to come to D.C. and grow with this team.”
I didn’t really know what he was talking about. And I told him as much.
“Are you sure?” I asked.
He said he was.
“I’m not certain I want to make a long-term commitment,” I said, backpedaling.
“That’s fine. We can start you at twenty-eight thousand.”
Not exactly what my fellow Duke graduates were earning at Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley. Not exactly NFL coin either.
“Do I get moving expenses? A signing bonus?”
I mulled over the offer, remembering the energy I’d felt when I visited Washington, remembering, too, how impressed I’d been with Senator Obama.
“When do I start?” I asked.
“Just get here by January.”
* * *
I took the position for many reasons, some more thought through than others. I liked the sense of working for a larger purpose I’d observed and felt when I was in D.C. Another thing stuck with me from that visit, too: the lack of racial diversity in America’s political system. I also knew that I wanted to work for someone I respected, admired, and could learn from. And Senator Barack Obama was that.
I had little inkling then of just how epic his impact would be, not only on this country, but on me as I grew into an adult. At his side, I would learn the key lessons of what makes a leader, a pioneer, a man. His example (combined with the examples set by my father and my coaches) led me down the path to adulthood. I would come of age in the course of this extraordinary journey.
I knew none of this, of course, when I said yes to the job. But I’d watched and rewatched the senator’s convention speech on YouTube. He reminded me of my pastor. He was a man of mettle and determination. He was going to change the political landscape.
And I was going to be there while he did.