by Kevin Hamilton, SCA VP for Communications
On April 21, 2009 – barely three months after his inauguration – Barack Obama planted native trees with SCA volunteers at Washington, D.C.’s Kenilworth Aquatic Garden, an event that would mark his first Earth Day as president. Mr. Obama brought some friends, too, including First Lady Michelle Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and his wife, Dr. Jill Biden, and former President Bill Clinton. They had all just witnessed the president sign into law the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act, and now it was their turn to serve. As we approach the historic 50th Earth Day, here’s how I recapped SCA’s POTUS-plus moment, 11 years ago…
11:15 a.m. Arrive at Kenilworth with other SCA staff and 12 local volunteers. The event isn’t scheduled to begin until 5:00, just as thunderstorms are expected to hit the capital. At the moment it’s sunny and quite warm. My blue SCA ﬂeece vest, the uniform du jour for our big photo op, is…unforgiving.
11:50 a.m. We meet the two advance guys from the White House, Mike and Mark. They look younger than our volunteers. Nice and easy-going, their physical resemblance is magnified by their near-matching outfits of wrinkled blue shirts and khakis. The suits, they assure us, will be here soon.
12:12 p.m. As a great blue heron glides over the marsh, squeals and shrieks erupt. Two crew members will assist each VIP at the tree planting and Mike has just revealed their assignments. Once everyone returns to Earth, Mike conducts a walk-through. SCA staffers are cast as understudies for the guests of honor. I get to play POTUS. We use make-believe shovels to plant make-believe trees; no one else hears a make-believe band play “Hail to the Chief.”
1:40 p.m. Is that rain? Plan B, if needed, is to shove everyone into a cramped, steamy greenhouse to transplant some tiny saplings. Mark says they’ll make the call by four o’clock.
2:07 p.m. From out of nowhere, a big black GMC Yukon appears. Secret Service. We’re instructed to leave the premises while the park is secured. Outside, I ask some of the students what it’ll be like going to school tomorrow. They try to shrug it off at first but quickly recognize the absurdity of the notion. One suggests he may need to get an agent. Another plans to make-up with his girlfriend: no one was permitted to tell their friends of their Top Secret Earth Day mission and she’s not pleased with her boyfriend’s disappearance.
3:10 p.m. Secret Service calls us together to check names against their list and “wand” us with a metal detector. Tim, the presiding agent, looks all-business in his brown pinstripe suit and shades, but jokes about how this is “no big deal.” As each of us is cleared, he hands us little metal orange pins to signal our status. “Wear it on your clothing where it can be easily seen,” he states, “and whatever you do, don’t lose it.”
3:12 p.m. I lose it. I’d clipped the pin to my shirt pocket but when I grabbed my ringing cell phone it somehow dislodged. After a brief search, I locate the pin — in my pocket. I attach it to my ﬂeece vest. Seems hotter than ever now.
3:34 p.m. One of the Secret Service guys brings over his search dog. “Can I pet him?” someone asks and the agent replies “Oh sure, he’s a sweetheart.” In an instant, everyone’s reaching out and the shepherd starts wagging his tail and rolling on the ground, soaking up the attention. The hound’s name is Barry. Hey, isn’t that what they used to call…?
4:10 p.m. The sun’s still shining and Secret Service says the tree planting is on. No Plan B. They announce we can now go back into the park but note the President is running early, thus so must we. Site prep will have to be done quickly. The crew begins to run – but not to the site. To the bathrooms. It’s been a while.
4:16 p.m. We reach the planting site and no one can believe what they see. The big black Yukon has been through the area and left two deep, massive, ugly scars in the muddy surface. Mike seems in shock. His photo op is ruined. But the SCAs quickly grab shovels, fill in the trenches, and cover them over with brush. It’s cosmetic but it works.
4:45 p.m. Here they come. President Obama has been briefed on his SCA team and, with a smile, bellows, “Where’s Chris? Where’s Brenda?” President Clinton finds his crew and drapes his arms around their necks. They’ve come from the bill signing, sans jackets and ties, but still in dress pants and shoes. The Vice President has changed into a golf shirt. The First Lady is wearing a jacket. Dr. Biden is in hot pink UGGs. SCA’s Amchat Edwards gives a quick environmental lesson and everyone is ready to go to work.
4:58 p.m. Former President Clinton has a fundraiser tonight and limited time, so President Obama offers to let him plant the first tree. “Let’s see what you got, Clinton,” POTUS says. The former President digs into the goopy soil and gives his crewmates some pointers. “I’m a redneck, I used to do this all the time,” he explains. “That’s why I got into politics, so I wouldn’t have to get my hands dirty.”
5:10 p.m. President Obama is ruining his shoes, an attractive (and likely expensive) pair of black loafers. SCA volunteer Brenda Lopez jokingly scolds him for his footwear and Obama retorts that “someone forgot my boots!” But soon his Eastern Red Bud is in the ground and upright, and the President admonishes the First Lady for not making enough headway on her River Birch. “Our tree is a lot bigger than yours!” she replies, to which the President answers, “Oh, a little trash talk!”
5:14 p.m. First Lady Michelle Obama’s got her jacket off now, and the famed biceps are on full display. The shovel looks like a jackhammer in her hands. She’s the real deal.
5:27 p.m. The trees are in, the SCAs give the President an oﬃcial SCA ﬂeece vest and he graciously puts it on while telling the crew he is proud of them and thankful for their service. Mrs. Obama says she’s impressed by the students’ knowledge and commitment. They wave their goodbyes, and as Secret Service tries to sweep everyone back to their vehicles, Vice President Biden lives up to his reputation by staying behind and telling some stories.
5:41 p.m. The event is over. Someone pulls out a cell phone and finds news coverage already posted. Everyone gathers around and laughs at footage of themselves. They trade stories of who-said-what. They can’t believe it. The guy who didn’t tell his girlfriend is calling her to finally share his clandestine details. She doesn’t answer.
6:10 p.m. The heavens open and dump all they’ve got. Rain. Lightning. Hail. But none for the Chief. He’s long gone. Mission accomplished.