In August of 2008, Cindy and I went back home to Hawaii, and went swimming with Barack Obama. The memory of that day remains vivid in my mind, and it's astonishing to think about how much has transpired since then. In those days, the air was charged with a sense of possibility. There seemed to be an overarching belief in that air that unity, progress, and positive change were not only attainable but also inevitable. The national landscape felt different; a shared vision for a better future brought people together, transcending divisions and differences.
Fast forward to the present, and it's undeniable that our nation has undergone significant changes. The political and social polarization that has taken root in recent years has reshaped the discourse and dynamics of our society. The unity that once felt within reach now seems to be eluding us, overshadowed by deep divisions and ideological clashes. Yet, amidst the current state of national polarization, I am reminded of the hope I held in 2008. While the landscape has shifted, I believe in the power of hope and the potential for positive change. We can foster open dialogue, empathy, and understanding, we can contribute to bridging the divides that currently separate many in America. That was my prayer years ago, and I fervently echo it today. Here’s what I wrote about swimming with Obama back in 2008:
Over a year ago, I bought an Obama bumper sticker from a vendor off 5th Ave in Manhattan. I gave it to one of the saintly widows of our church. I knew she would like it. A year later, while Obama was battling Clinton in the primaries, I got an email offering an Obama tee shirt with a donation to his campaign. I ordered one for my widow friend. But the tee shirt didn’t come. Each week at church, she would ask me for it. Each week I had nothing to give her.
I skipped out of town for a week of vacation in August. We had a family reunion in Hawaii. Sipping Coffee at Kimo Beans in Waikiki, I read in the Honolulu Advertiser that Obama had just arrived on Oahu at the same time as our family. I told my children, “I think I rode the public bus to school with Obama as a boy. I remember a black kid a few years younger, who was occasionally on my bus. He was noticeable for a few reasons. There were very few African Americans in the islands and most of them were dependents of low ranking military personnel. The black boy who road my bus got off at the very exclusive and pricey Punahou School. It was a conspicuous thing. I can’t be certain, but I think he was Barry Obama.”
"That's nice Dad," said Scott sarcastically, very under impressed with the possibility that his father may have been a bus buddy with Obama.
While on Oahu we showed our children our old Oahu haunts. Cindy and I took them to the homes where we had lived as kids. We shared with our boys some of our favorite beaches, vistas and restaurants. We carted our crew up Nuuanu, showed them my modest private school up the road from Punahou. We then went to one of our favorite mountain lookouts called the Pali. While standing at the site where King Kamehameha conquered Oahu and unified all the islands, my oldest son Grant nestled close to me and quietly said, “Look beside you at your best friend.”
I turned and saw Barack Obama on the other side of me, talking on his cell phone. He was by himself, five yards away. As I glanced around the lookout, only a few other people were there. Where were all the people looking out for Obama? We stood there for five or ten minutes, quietly glancing over at him, wondering who on the edges of the Pali Lookout was in his security detail. I was so enamored with the celebrity a few yards away that I had failed to realize his two daughters were standing right beside me. “Hi girls,” I finally said. “We are supporters of yours.” They stared blankly my way. “We support your father,” I continued. Since I bought a bumper sticker and tee shirt I thought I could say this with integrity. It was better than introducing myself as their dad's best friend. They looked at me like a stranger offering them candy.
I asked, “Did you go to Punahou today?” I figured since I was taking my kids to all my old hangouts, perhaps Barry was doing the same. They sparked up, with glistening eyes in response to my question.
It looked to me like Malia, (the little one) was starting to say, “Yes.” At the same time I heard the sound of a rushing wind behind me and noticed Sasha’s eyes grow large. (She’s the older sister). I glanced behind me and saw thirty or forty people of the paparazzi pounding the payment coming up the hill in a mighty wave. They were yelling, “There he is, he’s there. See his kids.”
I turned back to the children, but they had been whisked away, together with their father, around the corner and down the stairs to the second level of the lookout just below us. The massive intrusion of the media, into this family’s private vacation was so offensive, that I felt embarrassed and ashamed by my self-absorbed chit-chat with the girls. I had thought that maybe I would have an opportunity to privately speak with Barack on this historic mountaintop, but when the paparazzi popped in, my greatest wish was to give the man some space. We all felt this way. Blake, my son who loves photography, put his camera away. When a cute reporter bounced up to Grant, handed him her camera, and asked him to take some pictures with her and Barack in the background, he declined the offer. We all just wanted to give him space and let him have a nice private vacation like we were having.
Laying in bed that night, I did, however, wonder what I would have said if I had time with Barack on the mountaintop. What would I say if I bumped into him again?
The next morning we went early to Hanauma Bay to snorkel. After trekking down the long trail to the cliff shadowed beach, we walked across the sparsely populated early morning beach right past Barack Obama in his bathing suit. He was standing in a small group of his extended family. They were all getting snorkeling lessons from a very demonstrative local lifeguard speaking in Pigeon English. My family kept walking. I said, “Let’s set beach camp here.”
I sat down next to Barry, threw off my shirt and started to pretend like I was adjusting my snorkeling gear. I delayed my entrance into the water thinking I might have a chance to talk with him when he was free from his unnecessarily long lessons. I probably had a little red target spot on my forehead from a secret service rifle.
As I waited, I wondered once again what I would say. If I had an opportunity for a seaside chat with this man who could be president, would I ask him about the economy, faith and politics, health care, and the wars in the Middle East? Maybe I could ask him about energy and the stewardship of the earth, unborn babies and the abortion issue, the needs of the poor, the foreign assistance program of the country, our urban development, the infrastructure needs, or about college tuition and public service. Perhaps I would discuss the basketball games our schools played against one another back in the day, or maybe invite him to church if he ever made it to the Jersey Shore. What I decided I would say is, “I want my tee shirt!” I hadn’t gotten it for months and I was a little miffed. My widow friend, Peggy, was getting anxious.
I waited for a long time, but the pigeon description of all the colorful fish in the tropical bay was dragging on unmercifully. My family had by now been swimming for a long while. I finally plunged in without a Barack talk. He came in shortly after me. For about an hour, we snorkeled together: Barack, his family and me in one section of the bay water; my family without me, in another part. Beautiful fish everywhere! Not a shark in sight. Once when Barack and I both came up from the water, we took off our masks at the same time. Our eyes met and I almost said, “Can you send me my tee shirt?” I resisted the temptation. That would have been more obnoxious than the paparazzi. I soon found my way back to my own family. "Nice of you to join us," my boy Lane quipped.
I learned that evening on the nightly news that Obama went to many of the same spots as we did that day. When we were at Sandy's Beach for Surf, he had just left before us. Later that day he went to Pearl Harbor when we were out to dinner on the Harbor with Cindy’s parents. Repeatedly appearing near him, I felt like his Forest Gump.
Now that Barack Obama is to be our next President, it is doubtful that I will ever be so close, or have the opportunity to share in conversation, but I do pray that God keeps him safe, humble, wise and strong. May he soar with the eagles, and when he swims with the fish of all various sizes, shapes and colors - red fish and blue fish, white fish and black fish, green ones and yellow ones too - may God keep him from the sharks. And may he never become one. If I now had just one sentence to say to him personally, it would be “God bless you and God bless the United States of America." If I had a second sentence I'd tell him, “Thanks for the tee shirt.” It was waiting for me when I got back from Hawaii. My friend Peggy loves it.
(Regretfully, I relied on the paparazzi posts for most of these pictures. Cindy snapped this one with Peg)