BY SAMUEL PICCOLO
Special to the VOICE
When President Barack Obama left the White House, Pete Souza (@petesouza) got a new Instagram account. His old one (@petesouza44) was locked by the government.
Peter J. Souza was the Chief Official White House Photographer for President Obama, and @petesouza44 was been archived by the National Archives and Records Administration. The last photos posted to @petesouza44, before 12 noon on January 20 2017, were of the President and his family in the White House.
The first photos posted to @petesouza, after 12 noon on the same day, are of the ex-President leaving Washington––looking out of the helicopter window one last time at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. It is captioned, simply, “Farewell.”
There will come a time when President Obama is shown this photograph by a journalist or a late-night host and asked to recount what was going through his mind as it was taken. He will also likely write about it in the obligatory presidential memoir. His thoughts will be characteristically profound. But the comments on this picture from the general public are equally interesting.
Some were simple in their emotion—“You will be greatly missed”—while others were more evocative —“This photo breaks my heart. It’s like the parents who got divorced and the children are left with the abusive parent. Love him so much!”
This sadness is understandable, since the American people were, as Souza put it, saying “Farewell” to their President just as much as he is bidding adieu to them. Many had measured parts of their lives by the White House’s occupants.
Yolanda Wisher, the poet laureate of Philadelphia, wrote of how Barack Obama was the “personal President” of her son Theo, conceived in the weeks before the inauguration in 2008.
“Theo has only known Barack Obama as his President…It’s hard to let go.”
Wisher’s musings were surely influenced by her opinion of the man that replaced Obama, but there is an element of wistfulness, too.
Barack Obama had been president for eight years; her son was eight years old when Obama left office. Even if Obama had been replaced by someone more virtuous than Donald Trump, this new president would not have been Theo’s.
Barack Obama was obviously not my personal president in the same way that he was Theo’s, but his election in 2008 was the time at which I began to really pay attention to the world. I was in Grade 8 then, and discussions of the matter with my parents and in school planted a certain curiosity about the world before I left elementary school.
Four years later I again caught election fever, and it was this interest that made me realize that I should be entering university to study politics—curing me of the affliction that earlier led me to believe medicine was the appropriate path.
Obama’s departure from office and my then-impending departure from university made it evident to me how naive my previous convictions about the truths of political life were.
I once read of a character, “As he grew older, he realized time passed not just for everyone else, but for himself, too.”
That we are better at noticing time passing for others than for ourselves should not be surprising.
We inhabit our own bodies, and when things change it is usually in a manner so gradual that we barely take notice. Most days of our lives we look into the bathroom mirror and see more or less the same face that was there yesterday.
Often it is only through particularly jarring moments (such as the departure of a president) that we are able to note a distinction between who we were and who we’ve become. This is why these moments can be so overwhelming.
I have never met Obama, but I have been close. During his state visit to Ottawa in 2015 I was working as a parliamentary guide. I was inside Centre Block when he arrived and saw him walk around with the Prime Minister.
It was a surreal day. There were Navy SEALs in the river and snipers on rooftops, drones overhead and more security personnel than can be comfortably imagined. The nuclear football was there, though I didn’t see it. The building was all clotted-up with people—premiers and mayors and actors and radio personalities. I have never seen a place vibrate quite like Centre Block did then.
At the time, I compared the day after to when the carnival has left town, leaving only curly fries smeared along flattened grass.
But that’s not quite right––it was as if a carnival had been surgically removed and the earth sutured without scarring. There was no evidence, the next day, that anything out of the ordinary had happened. Tourists, as ever. Children skipping on the free world’s footprints, as ever.
The same thing for us guides, that summer. For four months our security passes allowed us inside, past the guards, past the line, past the eager envious eyes of those trying to get in. But these passes had an expiration date. On the sixth of September we turned them in and walked out, back to before.
When we have no choice but to say goodbye, when we have to think about what has happened and pull out something that matters, in these moments when time thins, we are allowed a moment to look at what was there.
We see a president who did his best. We see a White House and a nation that were made better by his presence. We will see a parliament vibrating on a June morning and slumbering on a September evening. We will see a tattered shirt. We will see ourselves growing old. And we will arrange it all and archive it as best we can. ♦