For newly inaugurated Barack Obama, only at the end of a late night was he able to fully appreciate the journey that led to the moment.

By Barack Obama
November 17, 2020
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Michelle and I attended a total of 10 inaugural balls that evening. Michelle was a chocolate-brown vision in her flowing white gown, and at our first stop I took her in my arms and spun her around and whispered silly things in her ear as we danced to a sublime rendition of “At Last” sung by Beyoncé. At the Commander in Chief’s Ball, we split up to dance with two charming and understandably nervous young members of our armed forces.

The other eight balls I’d be hard-pressed to remember.

By the time we got back to the White House, it was well past midnight. A party for our family and closest friends was still going strong in the East Room, with the Wynton Marsalis Quintet showing no signs of letting up. Twelve hours in high heels had taken a toll on Michelle’s feet, and since she had to get up an hour earlier than I did to get her hair done for another church service the next morning, I offered to stay and entertain our guests while she headed to bed.

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Just a few lights were on by the time I got upstairs. Michelle and the girls were asleep, the sound of night crews clearing dishes and breaking down tables and chairs barely audible from below. I realized I hadn’t been alone all day. For a moment I just stood there, looking up and down the enormous central hall, not yet certain of where each of the many doors led, taking in the crystal chandeliers and a baby grand piano, noticing a Monet on one wall, a Cézanne on another, pulling out some of the books on the shelf, examining small busts and artifacts and portraits of people I didn’t recognize.

My mind went back to the first time I had seen the White House, some 30 years ago, when as a young community organizer I had brought a group of students to Washington to lobby their congressman on a bill to increase student aid. The group of us had stood outside the gate along Pennsylvania Avenue, a few students mugging and taking pictures with disposable cameras. I remember staring up at the windows on the second floor, wondering if at that very moment someone might be looking down at us. I had tried to imagine what they might be thinking. Did they miss the rhythms of ordinary life? Were they lonely? Did they sometimes feel a jolt in their heart and wonder how it was that they had ended up where they were? 

I’d have my answer soon enough, I thought. Pulling off my tie, I walked slowly down the hall, turning off what lights remained on.

From A Promised Land by Barack Obama. Copyright © by Barack Obama. Reprinted with permission of Crown, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House.