Despite living in the Washington, D.C. area for almost twenty years, an invitation to The White House is always special even if you’ve been before. Last week I went to the White House for the third time where my two day visit involved spending a glorious fall day planting basil, peppers, green beans, and sweet potatoes in the White House Kitchen Garden alongside Debra Eschmeyer, Executive Director of Let’s Move! and Senior Policy Advisor for Nutrition Policy, members of the National Park Service, and other volunteers before sitting down with First Lady Michelle Obama the next day.
Yes. I got to sit down for a conversation with Michelle Obama herself.
Prior to the visit, I did what any good reporter would do. I prepared for meeting Mrs. Obama by reading the latest news about Let’s Move and the White House Kitchen Garden, queried my audience for their gardening questions, and practiced deep breathing to calm my nerves to avoid being too fan-girl nervous upon sharing the same air space with the First Lady of the United States.
But despite the coveted invite to one of the most exclusive residences in the United States to sit down with an icon, visiting Michelle Obama was refreshingly real and like visiting the house of a very good friend.
Why Interviewing Michelle Obama Felt Like Seeing a Good Friend
Start by Ringing the Doorbell
Just as you would ring the doorbell at a friend’s house to announce your arrival, the same is true at the White House. The smart doorbell at the White House gates isn’t too different from my own. When you push the button, it activates audio and contains an embedded security camera to provide a video feed. The only difference is that the Secret Service answers Mrs. Obama’s door and you’ll need to pass your driver’s license or passport to them on a sliding tray to get a badge that lets you inside.
With driver’s license and press badge in hand, the rest is much like TSA security proceedings. Watches, cell phones, and keys go in a tray to be put on the belt along with your purse, backpack, etc.
Just don’t put your press badge in the tray. You’ll need to scan that to get through the turnstile. Even though I made that mistake the first day, I sure didn’t the next day!
And once you get through security, you may or not be able to walk to the house by yourself. On past visits, I’ve walked pass Press Row (where the major networks have their equipment set up for those great shots with the White House in the background) and waited in the White House Briefing Room. This time I met my group and we waited for a Secret Service escort.
Get a Dog Greeting
When people come to our house, they tend to meet our pets first. If you come to the back door, you’re likely to be greeted by our trio of backyard chickens (aka feathered security detail) and Oliver, our 8 year old Yellow Labrador. Oliver may or may not bark at you but he will definitely give you the sniff test, hoping you brought him a cupcake. Or a steak.
I have to say the First Dogs are much better behaved.
While it was a gorgeous fall day, we were kept in a holding area past the Press Briefing Room right at the side of the house. This was my view.
Beautiful when looking up but otherwise, a not-so-pretty part of the house. I likened this spot to the one (ok, many) embarrassing part(s) of my house that I hope no one really notices when they visit.
But I was quickly distracted by the appearance of Sunny and Bo, the First Dogs. The much-admired Portuguese Water Dogs came sauntering out of the doors off-leash with their handler and my contact for this visit saying, “We hear you’ve been waiting awhile so I thought I’d bring you some visitors.”
And in an instant I was smitten. Sunny and Bo were friendly, fluffy, oh-so well behaved, and absolutely willing to take a selfie!
The surprise appearance of Sunny and Bo was like the cherry on top of what I knew would already be a great day.
Also? It caused Oliver to give me a full sniff test upon returning home to figure out where I was and who I had been playing with during my time away.
Pass the Time by Admiring the Décor While You Wait
Sometimes friends aren’t ready when you come by to meet them and you’re left looking around their house trying not to pass the time by snooping too much while they run back upstairs to get ready.
This is how I felt once we were inside the White House. I got a quick peek at the famed corridor flanked by the Rose Garden that’s the location of many famous photos of current and past presidents walking with The Oval Office in the distance, then being ushered through the Center Hall where portraits of former First Ladies hang, past the Diplomatic Reception Room, up the stairs to the grand Entrance Hall, and into the Family Dining Room where our interview was to take place. I wanted to stop and linger in these places to absorb their history but didn’t want to be too nosy either.
Once we were upstairs in the Family Dining Room and the doors behind us closed, I took a moment to soak in the details of the room before pulling out my camera to capture the details.
The stately Federal chest with a modern silver tea set.
A china cabinet holding the Obama’s pattern with place settings from past presidents.
The neatly arranged table bearing place cards for each of us and spots set with White House note paper, pens, and water glasses that sat on glass coasters lined with a ruffle paper edged ones bearing the presidential seal.
This was no ordinary dining room but it felt warm, comfortable, and friendly. The only way you could tell that we were nervous was by the quiet that overtook the room as we were waiting for Mrs. Obama to enter.
Greet Each Other with Hugs
With each door that opened, we wondered if it could be her until it was. There she was. Tall, graceful, and even more stunningly beautiful in real life, Michelle Obama could be incredibly intimidating if she hadn’t been so warm as she welcomed us into her home.
I wasn’t sure what the protocol was for meeting Michelle. Handshake? Move into a hug and risk getting separated by her security detail? Luckily those ahead of me worked out the kinks although no Secret Service intervention was necessary.
As a true hostess does, she greeted each and every one of us with a hug and a kiss on the check, while thanking us for coming. She even complimented me on my necklace before we posed for a photo. No selfies necessary!
Catch Up Over Great Food
A get together with a friend is always better over tasty food and Michelle didn’t disappoint. In a corner of the room sat a gold rimmed china plate with yellow squash and zucchini quiche rectangle and veggie bundles wrapped in the thinnest of cucumber slices with a dollop of herbed yogurt on top. The only difference was that these tasty morsels were made by Ina Garten, The Barefoot Contessa herself, using vegetables from the White House Kitchen Garden.
Like Michelle, I love using seasonal produce from my garden and sharing the bounty with guests. I just wish I had Ina to help in my kitchen! And note the stack of cocktail napkins bearing the presidential seal fanned out next to the delectable treats.
Acknowledge Your Time Together was Short but Wonderful and Good for the Soul
Seated around the table with our place cards, White House note paper with a basic ballpoint pen beside it, and water glasses upon fancy coasters, Michelle welcomed us and reiterated how glad she was that we could join her.
For the next hour, we had a lovely conversation about the many successes of the Let’s Move initiative, the future of the White House Kitchen Garden, and how we, as parents, are effective change makers when we begin by changing things about our own lives. Through our conversation she talked about the importance of being good role models for our kids, acknowledging our good habits while trying to change the bad, and starting small, rather than being overwhelmed by the magnitude of the big picture.
As I sat across from Michelle, I spent the entire hour we had together completely mesmerized as she spoke. Not only was she eloquent and passionate but her words resonated with me. Like so many other parents, I’m a mom who tries to be the best role model I can be for my kids. I know I’m not perfect but I know that I can create effective change by starting in my personal universe that begins at home with my family first.
Just as time with a good friend can validate the good job that you’re doing but also provides food for thought, Michelle did just that. Our conversation was like a pat on the back. We talked about the tough challenges that families face around food in our country like wanting healthier school lunches, trying to cook more and eat out less but feeling like there’s never enough time in the day, food deserts, etc. These challenges were certainly acknowledged as difficult challenges that we face as parents but at the same time, they’re also not insurmountable if we start small with the things we have the power to change
When my time with Michelle came to an end, I had to take a moment to acknowledge that 1) I was in the same room as the First Lady of the United States, 2) she loved my necklace and told me “I have to get on that” when I described my blog and what I write about, and 3) my time with her was good for my soul because it provided a much needed perspective on parenting.
And whether or not that perspective comes from Michelle Obama or a good friend, it’s one that each and every one of us needs from time to time.