President Obama and I
As one brilliant White House chapter closes another, more sombre one opens, giving rise to trepidation and anxiety. Not surprisingly in the last few days and weeks we’ve had a deluge of analysis about President Barack Obama’s achievements and shortcomings.
I’m not going into the pluses and minuses in any great detail, although I would remind anyone who’ll listen that when Obama took over in 2008, the USA was in the grip of its worst financial crisis since the 1930’s; it was fighting two wars, in Afghanistan and Iraq; and the 9/11 mastermind Osama Bin Laden was playing a successful game of cat and mouse with the US military. On top of all that Obama’s presidency gave rise to the particularly pernicious and powerful anti-Obama cult, namely the Republican ‘Tea Party’. Obama wasn’t dealt a great hand to begin with.
Putting all that aside, my recollections of Barack Obama are personal. Deeply personal. They started on that most glorious election night on the 4th November 2008. OBV organised an election party at what was, I think , the old Cafe de Paris. Given we had no money, to this day I don’t know how we pulled it off. I think my colleague, the brilliant Winsome Cornish knew the owner of the club and asked him to give it to us for free. And being a good civic minded African he duly obliged.
Now, you have to remember this, the biggest US election party is always held at the US Embassy, but because of the antipathy towards the outgoing President George W Bush, American institutions were not seen as the go to places. As a result our ticket, to usher in this historic moment particularly from a Black perspective became the most sought after ticket in town.
The queue snaked around the door almost to Leicester Sq. Labour Government Cabinet members including Harriet Harman and Keith Vaz begged to get fast tracked into the party. We made them all wait along with everyone else. And they duly obliged.
The atmosphere inside the club was a mixture of dancehall energy and pulpit preaching. Everybody wanted to speak on the open mic. This was our time, our man and we were going to savour every moment. In the end we were thrown out the club before the official news came through around 4am in morning. But we all left incredibly elated that we’d danced and sang in this great new dawn.
After that euphoric evening I thought nothing could quite top that. Until I got an invitation from the US embassy to attend a speech , by President Obama, to address both Houses in Westminster Hall. This had rarely occurred previously - one time being South Africa’s President Nelson Mandela.
As instructed I duly arrived 45 minutes early on the 25th May 2011 at Westminster Hall . What happened next, I’ll never forget. As we entered the huge Westminster Hall seats were laid out as far as the eye could see: 600 MP’s another 600 plus peers and special guests. Those who couldn’t get a seat had to stand. They - like me - just wanted to be there.
When I saw the who’s who of the British establishment come to pay homage to Obama, I assumed I’d be in the back row, perhaps watching the procedure on a giant screen. But no. My hosts the US embassy ushered me from the back to the centre, then toward the front.
MP’s from all sides of the political divide were nudging each other, muttering, ‘Where’s Woolley going? ‘. Some sheepishly nodded towards me as if to ask, ‘what the hell are you doing, where do you think you’re going?'
As we got to the very front my host said, ‘Simon, come up the stairs please, on the stage where the President will be speaking.’ My mouth nearly hit the floor. As I looked around at my fellow guests on the stage I spied the Prime Minister David Cameron, former PMs’s Tony Blair and John Major, and half of the Cabinet. The only other Black person on the stage, on that day was Rev Rose Hudson, Chaplin to the Queen and the House.
As I sat with other US guests I didn’t recognise many people, although the first person to greet me was the Hollywood actor Tom Hanks. ‘Hey man, how you doing, ’ he said. ‘ Great day, eh?'; I think I probably grunted a star struck, ‘yes’, before taking my seat.
And then we waited and waited - and waited a little more. Finally, President Barak Obama came down the stairs to timultuous applause from the throng.
There he was centre stage at the heart of the British establishment, and they hanging on to his every word. He didn’t disappoint. During the next 45 minutes or so, he gave one of those masterful speeches, wooing his audience, heaping praise on the history of the two nations.
But then he stopped almost looking for the Black faces in the crowd to speak to us direct; Rev Rose Hudson, David Lammy, Diane Abbott, Adam Afriyie. Dawn Butler, Helen Grant, Oswald Boateng and myself.
He told us it was a great honour for him to be at the ‘mother of all Parliaments' addressing great guests, and he went on to say that: “and for the grandson of a Kenyan who served as a cook in the British Army to stand before you as President of the United States.”
This little anecdote was not just a history lesson for the both houses, it was also a nod to us. Obama sought to particularly mention his Kenyan Grandfather because he not only served for the British, but he also fought against the British to free his country from colonial rule. The history books show that Hussein Onyango Obama was imprisoned and tortured by the British.
President Obama of course was far too diplomatic to be undiplomatic, but he couldn’t let the moment go without any reference .
At the end of the speech President Obama looked over to me directly and nodded. It was that nod that only one Black person can give another. Thereafter, he was rushed by very senior politicians keen to touch the hand or cloth of the new messiah.
I didn’t join in the stampede for two reasons: First, I thought it was undignified. Grown men and women losing their self respect just to say I met Obama. Secondly, I distinctly remember an undercover agent seated directly behind with some kind of very big gun under his jacket. I thought for a second if I rush over to the President like the others, ‘trigger john’ behind me just might get the wrong idea.
So I just stood up, watched and savoured my man; the grandson of an enslaved African being lauded by what was overwhelmingly white, male politicians.
As I was taking it all in my phone rang. ‘Simon', my best friend yelled. 'You’re on BBC TV man, centre stage with the President.’ 'Yeah, I know’, I replied, as if these things happen all the time.
Thank you Mr President. Thank you for making us all so proud.
When you look at this picture look to the very far left!