Editor’s Note: Veteran sports writer Brian Rickerd, who covered the University of Kentucky Wildcats basketball team all the way to the national championship, recently attended a ceremony at the White House where the president honored the team. Here are his recollections from having been in the same room with the most powerful man in the free world.
Close, as in maybe 50 feet in a ballroom just a little smaller than your average high school cafeteria, with 150 people or so.
It’s a difficult answer to articulate simply because the experience is so surreal.
For me, it was like this: In the blink of an eye, when Obama entered the East Room ballroom with UK coach John Calipari, it was like the magnitude of the president, the man, and the magnitude of the office he holds – as much as an outsider like me can understand – slammed me in the face.
Because there he is in person.
He’s not just some face on television or your computer screen or a voice on the radio. In those latter elements, it’s easy to look at the president as some kind of character in a play or a movie. Some of us see our president in those lights and the name calling begins, like all we can focus on is some plan or some policy or some personality trait – even physical appearance – we don’t agree with, instead of a human being who represents and cares about our country.
As cynical as I or anyone can be these days, I don’t believe anyone becomes President of the United States who doesn’t genuinely care about our country. I know there are people out there who will disagree with that. Maybe I’m wrong.
I tread cautiously on this turf because politics is at a low point in this generation. We’re so polarized around various political lines. Republicans and Democrats, in particular, seem to be fighting some kind of figurative Civil War these days.
What we really should be focusing on is how we can get where we want to be as a country. That’s the way it used to be.
Instead, the debate in politics has become so personal that we’ve narrowed our vision of the issues to such a degree that we often lose sight of anything close to a big picture.
When my invitation came to go to this reception at the White House, I was very cautious about telling people, even my friends, about it because in many cases I didn’t know where their political allegiances lie. So I feared some people might ridicule my enthusiasm for this experience.
I find that extremely sad.
I was not at the White House as a Democrat or Republican. I was there because I deeply respect the office of president. I was there because I’m proud to be American.
I’d have been just as proud to be there if the president was Mitt Romney or John McCain as I am with Obama. Because, for me, it’s about the office and those who choose to walk in the shoes of president.
There are a lot of rewards to being President of the Unites States, no doubt like money (though shamefully underpaid, in my book), fame, power, influence. But that all comes with a steep price … pressure we can’t possibly understand.
When President Obama walked into that room – the same room where I stood – I thought more than I ever have: What must it be like to be the president and carry that burden? How does one function knowing that at any second in time a decision may have to be made that could affect the fate not only of the United States but the world as well?
This meeting with Obama and the Wildcats, and some really well off UK fans, was relative fluff. I get it. Obama,or any other public official can handle a reception like this in his or her sleep. Presidents go through a lot of ceremonial experiences like this. Most days do not require life and death decisions.
But you never know when it could happen. President George W. Bush understands that better than any American president when he was talking to a class of school kids one minute in 2001 when an aid whispers in his ear that terrorists have bombed the World Trade Center.
What’s it like knowing that real life drama of the highest order can come at any time, and when it does, literally billions of people are looking at you? You have your countrymen and others, you have your staff, you have your family...but in moments of crisis, most of us do not look at any of those people. We look at you, Mr. President.
I find that all to be pretty heady stuff. And that’s what made my White House experience a transcendental deal for me.