The line to get a picture taken with the president and first lady at White House holiday parties runs like clockwork. Marines systematically process a queue that’s about 250 couples deep over the course of roughly ninety minutes, ensuring that each attendee secures a pictorial keepsake of their executive encounter that is guaranteed to impress friends and family on whatever mantel it lands. Once they reach their photo destination, every guest and their plus-one write down their names on a card and hand them to their uniformed escort, who then advises them to walk stride-for-stride beside her or him approximately five paces until they hit the mark where they are announced to the first couple.
My plus-one—my comrade in arms Joe Sudbay—had agreed to come only after I had begged him. After witnessing the administration’s persistent reluctance to move forward on LGBT issues, Sudbay was no fan of Obama. And as a committed jean and fleece wearer, he was generally nauseated by the pomp and circumstance surrounding most Washington events. But I had insisted. This was the president we had poked and prodded and schemed about for two years to no avail. If we were going to leave the first half of his presidency empty handed on repeal, then at the very least, we should have a picture to memorialize our efforts.
Naturally, what one might say to the president during the only ten unscripted seconds you might ever be afforded with the leader of the free world is a question that weighs on people’s minds. Anyone who doesn’t arrive at the White House with clear intent for that fleeting moment usually solidifies their thinking during the thirty minutes it takes for them to trace the line that snakes around the ground floor corridor through to the Map Room before delivering its attendees to the Diplomatic Reception Room, where a picture of George Washington presides over a garland-laced, bulb-studded mantel flanked by two meticulously dressed Christmas trees.
As Joe and I discussed our options, I decided I’d revisit my request from the previous year for a one-on-one interview, which President Obama had yet to grant any reporter from an LGBT outlet. Joe, on the other hand, decided to simply say, “It’s great to see you again, Mr. President.” It may have sounded like an innocuous greeting, but Joe intended to remind the president of a memorable meeting they’d had a couple months earlier.
Joe had faced off with the president in October during a five-person blogger interview in which the president first intimated that his position on same-sex marriage was beginning to move in the direction of full equality. They were the first on-the-record questions Obama had taken from someone representing the LGBT constituency since he had become president, and Joe had handled it like a pro. To be sure, I had hoped for the distinction of being the first LGBT media member to fire a question or two at Obama after attending two years of briefings with press secretary Robert Gibbs and carving out a space for myself in the White House press corps. But in truth, Sudbay had been in a much better position to pressure the president, especially on same-sex marriage. Free from the constraints of presenting himself as a more dispassionate journalist, he was able to make a deeply personal appeal to the president on the matter of marriage equality. He was also in a committed relationship with a partner of four years, which helped fuel a certain personal urgency on the matter.
“Since you’ve become president, a lot has changed,” Joe began on October 27, 2010. “So I just really want to know, what is your position on same-sex marriage?” he implored. “People in our community are really desperate to know . . . And part of it is that you can’t be equal in this country if the very core of who you are as a person and the love—the person you love is not—if that relationship isn’t the same as everybody else’s.”
“I think it’s a fair question to ask. I think that I am a strong supporter of civil unions,” Obama said. “But I also think you’re right that attitudes evolve, including mine. And I think that it is an issue that I wrestle with and think about because I have a whole host of friends who are in gay partnerships.”
It was the first time the president had used the word “evolve” in relation to his stance on same-sex marriage. Obama aides who were in the room later described the exchange as “intense” specifically because Sudbay had offered up raw emotion. Perhaps they had become accustomed by then to people taking a more legalistic, separate-but-equal approach to probing President Obama’s marriage position.
My own suspicion was that President Obama went to that interview ready to make news on gay marriage simply by dropping the word “evolve.” It is, after all, a term politicians embrace as they prepare to reverse course on a previously held position. It also puts the public on notice that sooner or later, change is gonna come. Of course, the public’s response to that signal can also have bearing on just how soon or how late that change actually arrives.
It seemed likely that the White House wanted the news on Obama’s evolution to spread to their base in time for the upcoming midterms without drawing too much national attention too quickly. They probably bargained that the blogger interview would reach progressive activists but wouldn’t rise to the level of mainstream news—as in, no headlines would grace the covers of daily newspapers across the nation or traditional news outlets like the New York Times or USA Today. They bargained right. While the LGBT media and more niche sites like Huffington Post and Politico jumped on the fact that Obama’s barometer was moving on same-sex marriage, his shift didn’t seem to have a massive mainstream impact until a couple of months later.
But none of that undermined the importance of Joe Sudbay speaking his truth to the president face to face. Those moments—when a president actually hears something unadulterated and unfiltered by his aides from someone who’s willing to express real urgency and disappointment—are few and far between. Sudbay had also pressed Obama on “don’t ask, don’t tell,” but it was marriage that stole the spotlight. If the progressive blogger meeting was part of an effort to excite the Democratic base, it failed miserably. But whatever the administration’s intentions in setting up the interview, Sudbay had managed to make an impression on Obama.
So at the holiday party on December 7, when Joe settled upon saying, “It’s great to see you again, Mr. President,” it was a subtle reminder of the candid exchange they had shared a couple months earlier.
When Sudbay and I reached the Diplomatic Reception Room, our attendant marine announced us to the president and first lady. “This is Kerry Eleveld and her guest, Joe Sudbay.” I had been told to greet the president first as Joe spoke to Mrs. Obama before we switched, posed for the picture, and went on our merry way, surrendering our spaces to the next guests who would perform the same perfunctory ritual moments later.
“Hello, Mr. President. Happy Holidays,” I said, shaking the president’s hand and matching his wide, toothy, grin with one of my own. “I’d still like to do that sit-down with you I mentioned last year.” Not that I expected him to have any recollection of our previous year’s interaction, but I wanted to remind him that my request had been a year on the table.
“We need to do that,” he responded, picking up his head to scan the room for his deputy press secretary Bill Burton. “Where’s Bill at?” he added, hoping to make a note of it.
Burton didn’t materialize right away so, as scripted, I moved to the first lady. “Merry Christmas,” I said. “You know, seeing you is really the highlight of the evening. We see him all the time,” I joked, gesturing to the president, only half kidding. Mrs. Obama gave me a warm, earnest look that any Midwesterner would recognize.
“That’ll be our little secret,” she retorted playfully as we turned to take our places.
But as I pivoted to tuck myself between President Obama to my left and Joe to my right for our photo, I realized something had gone terribly awry. The president was glaring at Sudbay, wagging his index finger as he forcefully enumerated all the work he had put into passing the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” an effort that was currently stalled in the lame-duck session and looked almost certain to perish.
“I’ve done everything I said I would do,” the president was saying, referring to his last encounter with Joe in October, “and I still need the sixtieth vote. I got a thousand-page report, and I got the secretary of defense, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, and . . . ”
It was more than a little uncomfortable. Joe was frozen. And I suddenly found myself in the odd position of searching for something to say that could smooth the ruffled feathers of a man whom I had spent the past year admonishing and occasionally disparaging in the series of weekly columns I wrote alongside my regular reporting.
“It’s never enough, is it, Mr. President?” I said, looking up at him. The sound of my voice interrupted the president’s cadence. He glanced at me momentarily, seemingly a little annoyed by the reminder that other people were in the room. “No, it’s not,” he said. Then he turned back to Joe, took one more breath as if to reload for another round, and proclaimed, “We have to take this picture.” Obama turned on a dime and flashed a big cheesy grin. Poof, it was over.
Joe didn’t utter another word before we were summarily ushered out. He had simply greeted the president as planned and, as soon as they started shaking hands, Obama unloaded. The picture had been snapped so quickly after Obama turned that Sudbay’s hands were still held out in front of him—apparently ready to ward off the president—rather than around the backs of his neighbors like the rest of us. In the aftermath, I busily snapped shots of Joe’s ashen face and kept joking, “I can’t take you anywhere.” In truth, I, too, was stupefied. As we walked away from the White House, we kept recounting the scene to each other, trying to make sense of it.
Excerpted from Don't Tell Me to Wait: How the Fight for Gay Rights Changed America and Transformed Obama's Presidency by Kerry Eleveld (Basic Books, $26.99).