The Obamas were having dinner in the White House: sparkling silver, gleaming napery, the pleasant clink of glassware and forks on plates. It was, for once, a family dinner, with no senators from Georgia or Mississippi telling Sambo jokes, no French diplomats sneering at the tuna-noodle casserole and canned peas.
Present were the President’s wife, Michelle, his two daughters and his mother-in-law, Marian Robinson. The President spoke. “Listen, Michelle, this is the second time this week we’ve had pork chops. I never liked pork chops back to when I was a kid in Hawaii. Out there pork chops were considered poor folks food.”
“The chef figures we’re black, we must like pork chops,” Michelle said.
“Well, tell him no matter what color I am, I don’t like pork chops. The next thing you know he’ll be serving us barbecued ribs and collard greens.”
“Collard greens are good for you,” Michelle said. “They’re full of minerals.”
“I don’t care what they’re full of. If I need more minerals I can eat some Congressperson’s heart. They’re mostly made of stone.”
“Barack,” Mrs. Robinson said. “The children.”
The President gave his mother-in-law a look. “It’s about time they learned some of these things. I spend all day trying to persuade some bomb-thrower from Afghanistan who’s still sore about the Suez Canal not to bomb London, and then I come home to some honky chef deciding I ought to eat soul food. I’m President of the United States, for Chrissake. How about a little Boeuf en Daube or Supreme de Volaille?
His mother-in-law raised her eyes from the casserole to look at the President. “If any of your old pals back in Chicago discovered you were eating stuff like Boeuf en Daube instead of steak and hash browns they’d run you out of town. You’d better stick to pork chops. It makes the honkies think you know your place.”
“I do know my place. It’s in the Oval Office, which half of those honkies have never heard of because they can’t read well enough to get through the New York Post, a not insurmountable task.”
“Barack,” Michelle said, “if you want to be re-elected you’d better lay off the press.”
“The New York Post wouldn’t support me if I were Jesus Christ incarnate. The only blacks they like are seven feet tall and can sink a jumper from center court.”
“Barack,” Mrs. Robinson said, “you’ve got to learn to be more patient with the reporters. They can’t help being who they are.”
“Mom,” said Michelle, “let Barack handle it. He’s been dealing with newspaper people for forty years.”
The President’s mother-in-law sniffed. “I don’t see any reporters falling all over themselves to get exclusive interviews. I should think he’d want some advice.”
“If Barack needs advice, I’ll give it to him,” Michelle Obama said.
“Mom,” the President said, “you have to ignore some of these things. It’s like what Bush said when he was caught lying about Iraq—it’s just politics. You’re right, though—I have to learn to be more patient. Half of those reporters are sore because they aren’t Philip Roth, and the other half are sore because they still have to write the wedding notes instead of a weekly column for The New York Times.” He looked around the table. “I don’t want to talk about the press. We’re having a nice dinner. Let’s try to have a civilized conversation. What did you kids do in school today?”
“We’re reading ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin.’ It’s about—”
“I know what it’s about. The honkies win again. What else have you been reading?”
“‘Huckleberry Finn.’ Our teacher says it’s a very famous book.”
President Obama scowled. “Where the hell did they get this teacher from? The Ku Klux Klan? Next it’ll be ‘Uncle Remus.’”
“Don’t be unfair, Barack. She’s only doing her job. I’ve met her. She’s very nice. She’s from Mississippi.”
“I might have known. A cracker.”
“Actually, Barack,” Michelle said, “she’s black.”
“She’s black and she’s making the kids read ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’? You must be kidding.”
“Barack, I thought we were going to be race neutral.”
“I’m trying to be race neutral, but every time I try to stay away from racial politics some honky like Newt Gingrich says I’m a Socialist.”
“He isn’t being racist, Barack. That’s just his way.”
“Some way,” the President said, pushing aside the asparagus with his fork. “Even Romney said he was zany.”
“He wouldn’t be the first zany president we’ve had. What about Bush the Second? He won two terms. Americans like zany presidents. Clinton was pretty zany, if you ask me.”
The President’s mother-in-law tapped her fork on her plate. “Barack, don’t you think you’re getting a littler paranoid about this? Everybody isn’t out to get you.”
“Name one.” the President said.
There was a brief silence. Michelle Obama looked at her daughters. “Girls, you haven’t eaten your asparagus. You can’t just eat the pork chops. You need some vegetables.”
“Daddy isn’t eating his asparagus.”
The President’s mouth formed a grim line. “Girls, do what your mother says.”
“How come you don’t have to do what she says?”
“I’m President of the United States. I don’t have to do what anyone says.”
“What about Senator Gingrich?”
“Him least of all,” the President said.
“Our teacher said he made you cut taxes for the rich. She said it served you right, what business is it of yours how much money anyone makes? She says it’s a free country, why should millionaires pay more taxes than anyone else? What did they do wrong?”
“They should pay more taxes because they have more money, most of which is of questionable provenance, to put it politely.”
“Our teacher says anyone has a right to make as much money as they want. That’s the American way.”
The President turned to his wife. “Get these kids another teacher. See if you can find a Communist. That shouldn’t be hard. According to the Tea Party half the teachers in America are Communists.” He looked around. “Let’s get off this. What’s for dessert?”
Mrs. Robinson once again rapped on her plate with her fork. “Barack, you haven’t finished your asparagus.”
“Jesus,” the President said. “I have to make some phone calls. Hu Jintao wants to jack up taxes on imports from America again. I’d like to tell him that if they can’t make a car where the wheels don’t fall off after six thousand miles, that isn’t General Motors’ fault, but the State Department would raise hell with me. Where’s the butler?”
The butler came out of the kitchen. “Yes, sir?”
“What’s for dessert?”
“Rice pudding, sir.”
“Rice pudding?” the President said, his voice rising. “I’m President of the United States and I have to eat rice pudding for dessert?”
The butler looked at Michelle Obama. She said, “You’ve been putting on weight, Barack. I told the chef to cut back on the sweet desserts.”
“Jesus,” the President said again. He looked at the butler. “Send a nice piece of apple pie to the Oval Office.” He gestured at the asparagus. “You can take my plate.”
The butler didn’t move. “You haven’t finished your asparagus, sir.”
The President rose from his chair. “My God,” he said. “What do you think would happen to somebody who told Hu Jintao he had to finish his asparagus? Five minutes later he’d be on his way to a coal mine in Tibet.” The President flung his napkin onto the table. “When I get him on the phone I’m going to ask him what his secret is.” He looked at the butler. “I want a piece of apple pie in my office in two minutes.” He paused. “With ice cream.” He paused again. “Two scoops.” Then he stalked away.
By James Lincoln Collier