By Ellen McCarthy
The Washington Post
Sunday, June 21, 2009
We swing our eyes around
as well as side to side
to see the world.
To choose, renounce,
this, or that --
call it a council between equals
call it love.
-- Alice Walker, "Beyond What"
The time for conforming, if there ever was one, had passed. Melody Barnes, at 40, had become too much herself to engage in shape-shifting for the sake of romance.
Besides, she was doing just fine. More than that -- she was a revered political staffer who spent nearly a decade as senior counsel to Sen. Edward Kennedy, a woman who painted watercolors and took acting classes in her spare time, whose curiosity about the world had only grown over the years. She was a woman who would come to serve as President Obama's domestic policy adviser, who never married but had a life rich with family and friends.
Among those many friends was Marland Buckner. They met in the late 1990s, when Buckner worked as chief of staff to Rep. Harold Ford Jr., and within a few years wound up in the same tightknit social circle of political types who'd often gather for barbecues, weekend trips and movie nights.
"I always remember thinking, when we got together, 'What a nice person,' " Barnes says of the man she married June 13 in front of a crowd that included Rahm Emanuel and Valerie Jarrett. "He was always the one who made sure everything was organized, and would make sure no one was stuck in the kitchen doing dishes."
But at the time, she didn't think much more than that. Nice guy. Just a friend.
When the group met in Annapolis for crabs by the bay on Labor Day weekend in 2007, Buckner was seated by Barnes, whom he'd known well for three years by then. Then he reached for a crab out of her pile.
"I was hungry . . . so I figured, 'I'll help myself,' " recalls Buckner, 42, who worked as a lobbyist for Microsoft before opening his own firm in February 2008. "And she -- well, there's really no other way to put this -- she threatened to stab me. With her knife."
"And I meant it," Barnes chimes in during a rare afternoon off from the White House.
"That was the spark," says Canadian-born Buckner, who was divorced in 2004. "She's this very gentle, kind person . . . but the look on her face when she said she would cut me demonstrated there was clearly more going on than what the wider world would've given me to understand."
He asked if they could have dinner, just the two of them.
A few weeks later, they sat across from each other at Brasserie Beck, talking for hours in a way they never had before, about their families, their faiths, their shared desire to make some positive impact on society.
"And it just kind of flowed from there," says Barnes, now 45. "I never wondered if he was going to call or if he was going to follow through."
By Thanksgiving they'd decided this was the real thing. "It was that easy, that instant. It was that -- and I think people misunderstand this word -- comfortable. And I don't mean comfortable as in boring," Barnes says. "But it felt like home."
If the sudden turn of events wasn't a complete shock to the couple, it was certainly a happy surprise to their friends. "We had one friend who said, in consecutive sentences, 'You and Melody?' 'You and Melody!' " recalls Buckner.
"It seems, for most people, like, 'If it was gonna happen, why didn't it happen years ago?' And I really think we both grew a lot over that time," says Barnes, who is stylish, lithe and composed. They grew into people who knew what they didn't want -- angst and melodrama -- and what they did: a true partnership, support for their individual goals.
So when, nine months into their relationship, Barnes joined the Obama campaign, it was with Buckner's encouragement. She'd be gone several days a week, stumping for Obama in Montana, Michigan, Missouri and the rest. Buckner was her dry cleaner, her chef, her travel agent and sounding board.
"What I so much need in a relationship that he provides is a place for intimacy and a place for vulnerability," she says, "but also a place for independence and space to grow."
Buckner proposed on Christmas Day, and last weekend 250 of their friends, family and colleagues gathered at the Peoples Congregational United Church of Christ to watch them wed. They chose, for the only reading, an Alice Walker poem that seemed the embodiment of their union:
We reach for destinies beyond
what we have come to know . . .
Shared. But inviolate.
No melting. No squeezing
into One . . . .
Declared husband and wife by the Rev. George B. Walker Jr., who'd become a friend to them both, the couple clutched each other and turned toward the balcony, beaming as a gospel choir appeared and joyfully ushered them out of the church. The day would be, Barnes said before the wedding, "a moment of answered prayer."
One rule was issued during the lush reception that followed at the Mellon Auditorium: no leaving early. Their guests -- including Washington notables John Podesta, Hilary Rosen, Mona Sutphen and Randi Weingarten -- were to celebrate late into the evening among the floating orchids and candlelight.
At 10 p.m. the dancing began. Emanuel, like a man about to turn into a pumpkin, slipped out the back. But the others followed orders, keeping the dance floor tightly packed and spilling out onto a third-story balcony lounge to sip cocktails by the glow of the illuminated Washington Monument.
Three days later Barnes would be back in the West Wing. Buckner insists he wouldn't want it any other way.
"All I want," he says, with a hand on the arm of his bride, "is for Melody to be Melody. How else could it be?"