POWER FORWARD: My Presidential Education
By Reggie Love
Simon & Schuster. 213 pp. $26
On April 26, 2007, Reggie Love seriously annoyed Barack Obama.
Love had been the senator and presidential candidate’s personal aide, or “bodyman,” for just a few months, and on a flight with Obama from Miami to Columbia, S.C., for a primary debate, Love realized that he’d left Obama’s briefcase in Florida in the back of a Secret Service Suburban. “I knew instantly it was about as big a mistake as I could possibly have made,” Love writes. “And I’d just made it.”
These are the stakes involved in Love’s memoir of his years working for Obama on the campaign trail and in the White House. National security does not hang in the balance, weighty political dilemmas are not resolved. Instead, forgotten luggage and the occasional missing taquitos provide the drama. Yet those stories are worth telling, and this book is worth reading, for the perspectives Love provides, intentionally or not, on his boss.
“Power Forward” is that rare Washington memoir in which the author is not the central character and does not pretend to be. Love understands that he is interesting almost entirely because of his proximity to Obama — because he has the insights into a man’s character that can be gleaned only when you’ve misplaced the briefcase containing his debate notes.
Love came to the job haphazardly. A basketball and football star at Duke, he was idling at his parents’ North Carolina home after graduation, playing golf and hoping to make a pro football roster, when his mother snapped at him, “Do something more productive with your time.” So Love sent a résumé to a friend on Capitol Hill and eventually got a call from Pete Rouse, chief of staff for Obama’s Senate office. It was 2005, and Obama was still basking in the glow from his 2004 Democratic National Convention speech. Despite a wretched interview — when Obama asked if Love might ever run for office, he responded: “No. Maybe. If somebody thinks I should” — Rouse called him back to offer a staff assistant job at $28,000 a year. “Not exactly NFL coin,” Love thought, but he took it. After impressing in the mailroom and setting up Rouse’s Bluetooth, Love became Obama’s personal aide.
What does a bodyman do? Dubbed Obama’s “chief of stuff” in the news media, Love explains the job like this: “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, his friend.”
Early-morning workouts, food and, yes, basketball helped bring them together. They e-mailed each other stat lines from top NBA point guards (the president liked the Spurs’ Tony Parker, while Love rooted for the Clippers’ Chris Paul) and played hoops with local citizens during the campaign. During a game against New Hampshire firefighters, Obama approached Love and told him to ease up a little bit. “Reggie, we want to win,” Obama said. “But we also want to win their support.”
Love’s political analysis is not exactly riveting. After Obama drew big crowds at the 2007 Harkin Steak Fry in Iowa, for instance, “I remember thinking then, for the first time, Barack Obama will win this state!” And he explains that after some early stumbles, “we stopped paying attention to the pundits who counted us out.” Great.
Similarly, the author’s worshipful impressions of Obama reveal little. “Senator Obama was a man of the people and he never turned his back on an opportunity to hear another point of view,” Love writes early on, and his opinions grow no more revealing and no less dutiful over time.
But what Love knows is more interesting than what he thinks, and the small moments he shares can be charming and memorable: The excitement of the White House curator when he took Obama, the first family and Love on a five-hour exploration of the residence on their first weekend there. The time Charles Barkley randomly called Obama during a Las Vegas campaign stop. “Hey man, I’m in town for Bill Russell’s fantasy camp,” he said. “Let’s hang out!” (Obama turned to his staffers and joked, “Let’s just take tomorrow off and go to the Cheetah Club.”) And Love lists the good-luck charms supporters would hand Obama on the trail: “Poker chips. Patches from their military service. Rosaries. Thimbles with sayings carved on them. Rocks from the beach. Hankies from their grandmothers. Obama kept them all. He stored these collected charms and trinkets in a bowl, and he would turn to them for silent encouragement on dark days.” This passage told me more than any analysis of “political momentum” ever could.
Love, who left the White House for business school in 2011, doesn’t mind laughing at himself. He recounts, for instance, the time Obama walked in on him when Love had an, ahem, overnight guest at a campaign hotel. When the senator noticed the companion — “in bed, covers pulled to her throat, mortified,” Love recalls — he quickly apologized and left the room. Not a bad anecdote, though the one I kept waiting for was Love catching Obama sneaking a smoke. (If it ever happened, readers don’t catch a whiff of it.)
“Power Forward” is not only a political memoir. Interspersed throughout are scenes from Love’s basketball days playing for the legendary Mike Krzyzewski at Duke, so the chapters often end, tediously, with a Reggie Love life lesson melding the two worlds. “In politics, as in life, there are no easy plays.” Or: “Seasons are long and so are careers, relationships, and lifetimes. Don’t be afraid to pass the ball.” And every once in a while there is a complete metaphor breakdown: “Politics is a dance to a song that never ends. Those who excel at what is truly a blood sport are those who eat, sleep, and breathe the beast.”
No one will buy the book for such sentences. And in a very “This Town” move, “Power Forward” has no index, so almost-famous Washingtonians will have to skim carefully to see if they’re mentioned. But its real value is showing Obama up close, watching him react in those fleeting moments that never make headlines.
Which brings us back to the missing briefcase. “Hey, Reg, where’s my bag?” Obama asked when they landed in Columbia. When Love explained, Obama was not pleased. “ ‘You left my briefcase in Florida,’ he stated, incredulous.” Later that day, Obama sat a terrified Love down at the campaign field office. “Listen, Reggie, I think you’re a great guy,” the senator began. “But if you’re not up to doing this job, I can get someone else to do it. You have one job. And if I have to worry about all this stuff, then you’re not making it easy for me to do my job.” Love apologized and promised it would never happen again. “I couldn’t undo my mistake,” Love writes. “He just needed to decide if he could trust me. Which, thankfully, he did.”
Obama gave his assistant another chance when it would have been simple to fire him. That says something about the man. But Love mentions something else about the incident — one of the reasons Obama was upset about the briefcase — which also reveals plenty about the candidate’s sense of self. “At this point in time, Obama was still very much about carrying his own belongings,” Love writes. “He didn’t like to exit a plane not holding anything. He would say, ‘JFK carried his own bags.’ ”
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