President Obama and I waved to each other on a recent afternoon.
We weren’t exactly on equal terms. He was looking through the tinted protective-glass window of his limousine as it sped by at some 40 to 50 miles an hour along Claiborne Avenue, a main thoroughfare into downtownNew Orleans that intersects our street, Burdette. I was standing on the curb squinting at the shadow waving at me from behind the window.
I had an inkling he might be on the way when I looked out my front window about 4 o’clock and saw the neighbors in the corner house on their front stoop, other neighbors scattered along the curb and a policeman who had parked his car against a barricade the end of our street. I had put three and one together: the crowd, an Air Force helicopter that had been circling for half an hour or more, and a report earlier that for a day or so police barriers had been stacked up at nearby intersection, plus a story in the morning blat that Obama was to open the annual meeting of the Urban League that evening with a speech, led me to the conclusion that the president could be passing at any moment. I went outside.
A squad of police motorcycles went by. The next door neighbor said an earlier group had sounded like a roll of thunder when it passed. Then came more cycles, some black limos, and then the president’s. I walked to the curb and waved, he waved, and the limo disappeared around the bend to the right, heading just six blocks away, to a home on Audubon Boulevard where some people who would be excluded from his planned tax cut were gathered to hear him ask for for campaign donations (Did he use that age-old plea for Mardi Gras favors, “Throw me somethin’, mister”?).
When the motorcade was going through—and before, I’m sure, none but official cars and motorcycles were allowed on the three lanes of Claiborne going southeast, into downtown. Outward bound traffic in the lanes on the other side of the median, was at a standstill. Within 15 or 20 minutes after the motorcade had passed, the drivers going home were able to pick up speed. But no cars were in the near lanes.
On Burdette, drivers trying to get across the median or turn right were backed up behind the barrier and a few drivers got out only to be told by the policeman that they could not get past. Why the police had not put a barrier at the other end of the street, at Neron Place, I do not know. If they had, drivers would have been able to get to an outlet open to them. But the police and the men who dig up the streets to repair sewer pipes and gas lines never seem to think that far ahead.
A half hour or more after the motorcade had passed, the officer moved the barrier to the median strip and began motioning cars through. It had been almost an hour since I waved Godspeed to the president. Perhaps Mr. Obama would have made his pitch and left for a less exclusive fundraiser at the House of Blues, in the French Quarter.
Almost immediately after the barrier disappeared,, some few drivers made it across Claiborne or turned right. But a flood of cars that must have been dammed somewhere back along Claiborne, perhaps behind Carrollton Avenue, a major street three blocks away, were let loose and soon clogged all three lanes. And in keeping with one of the customs of this city that prides itself on Southern hospitality, when they stopped, they blocked the crossing so that no cars could get out of Burdette.
In hardly any time, traffic was moving normally. Rush hour was over, and only a few cars were speeding in each direction.
The thought occurred that the president, on his return to the airport after his speech to the Urban League, would travel on the Interstate when few cars would be heading west.
Behind him, those Urban League members (who, the next morning’s newspaper reported, received him ecstatically) would have a happy memory to tell and retell for the rest of their days. Some rush hour drivers on Claiborne would have resentments that they might take out at the polls, though Louisiana will go Republican anyway. Others of those drivers would simply forget the inconvenience.
Me? I have his wave captured in my mind’s eye.
An historical footnote:
The episode reminded me of the last time I saw a president in a motorcade.
It was June 23, 1969.
I was in Washington that day. I had served two weeks of Army Reserve duty at Edgewood Arsenal, Maryland, in early June, and afterwards I spent a week or so in the capital doing research at the Library of Congress.
On the 23rd, Warren Burger was to be sworn in as Chief Justice of the United States, succeeding Earl Warren, The Washington Post had reported that morning, so I walked the few blocks along First Street N.E. from the Library to the Supreme Court to gawk at the invited guests as they arrived. It was a gorgeous June day, warm and sunny.
A number of individuals went up the long flight of marble stairs to the building, but none I recognized. Then a black limousine pulled up, a liveried driver got out and opened the rear door on the passenger’s side, unfurled a large black umbrella and held it over the door as a chunky man exited. It was FBI director J. Edgar Hoover. The chauffeur held the umbrella over him and the two walked slowly up the steps.
Sometime during my wait, while the ceremony was going on inside, I had heard that President Nixon was there, but that his limo had entered the building’s garage on the Second Street N.E. side. I walked around back and stood on the sidewalk near the garage exit to try to catch a glimpse of him.
I was rewarded by seeing the president’s car come out of the garage and make a right turn in front of me. It moved only slightly while the motorcade came together, so for a few moments I found myself face to face with Richard Nixon. He smiled and held up a hand in a regal gesture.
I looked like the sort of young man the president would like. I was 32, clean-shaven, my military haircut still close-cropped, and I was neatly dressed—I might even have had a jacket and tie on for my work at the Library of Congress. I was not at all like those unwashed, bearded, and long-haired Vietnam-war protestors in filthy clothes that Nixon despised.
He appeared startled, then, when I stared back at him, unsmiling, and held up my hand, forefinger and middle finger in a “V,” and pushed the gesture toward his face. His smile disappeared, but he kept looking at me, as in disbelief, and then the motorcade started and he was gone.
A Secret Service agent had been standing just to my left and, I’m sure, had had his eye on me. When the motorcade started, he did a right face in front of me and stepped hard on my foot.
My left foot.