Monday, October 31, 2011

"Dinner with Barack" Winners Dish On Their Date With President Obama

From The Liberty Tavern: Details on the Presidential table talk, the menu, the very bad dessert decision, and the guest who named his child "Maxwell Barack"...
UPDATE, Jan. 6, 2012: CLICK TO READ: Second "Dinner with Barack" contest turns into lunch
UPDATE, Nov. 27, 2011: Campaign releases 5 new videos from the first "Dinner with Barack"
The four citizens who won Obama for America's first "Dinner with Barack" contest dined with President Obama last Thursday at The Liberty Tavern in Arlington, VA. The gang, all donors to the President's 2012 re-election effort, have spent the ensuing days dishing to media outlets about their heady, rare date with the Eater in Chief. The President's culinary comrades were, from left in the above photo Ken Knight of Chandler, Ariz; Wendi Smith of Croyden, Ind; Casey Helbling of Minneapolis, Minn; and Juanita Martinez of Brighton, Colo. Each comes from a state that is crucial for the President's success in 2012.

All had to sign releases agreeing to be used in future Campaign promotions. Over the weekend, Campaign HQ put out the first "official" statements from the "lucky folks" ("wonderful!" "exciting!"). There was also a promise of "more from our Dinner with Barack winners in the coming weeks." But before the dishing, the menu.

The Liberty Tavern creates seasonal, regional American cuisine, and the casually dressed President Obama enjoyed the "Harpoon Caught Swordfish," which is regularly featured on the menu. It's served "Portuguese style," accompanied by white beans, sweet peppers, lamb sausage escarole, and Littleneck clam sauce ($22). He also had the Tavern Salad, which is field greens with breakfast radish and red wine vinaigrette ($6). No wine for the President: He washed down dinner with iced tea.

Executive Chef Liam LaCivita also created some Presidential treats that aren't on the menu: He kicked the dinner off with an Obama Foodie Homage, delivering a special appetizer of five mini Chicago-style Hot Dogs topped with the mandatory green relish. The President loves his Chicago Dogs: In July, he settled an NBA bet with a Univision reporter with a big box of the authentic goodies sent from Chicago to Miami headquarters. The Dogs were also featured at the annual White House Congressional Picnic in 2010.

Dinner winners decline dessert...
The foursome, astonishingly, declined the President's offer of dessert, apparently not realizing that this would extend their time with Mr. Obama. The rapid-fire dinner was just 70 minutes long, a quickie for a President who frequently has dinners outside the White House that last two to three hours. Mr. Obama arrived at the restaurant at 6:48 PM and was rolling homeward in his motorcade by 7:58 PM. Helbling, the Minneapolis winner, publicly bemoaned the bad decision on Twitter. (Above: Helbling and the President)

"The president offered us dessert at the end of the meal... None of us wanted it-what was I thinking! #DinnerWithBarack," Helbling tweeted.

"We got back in the van and all of us were kicking ourselves and probably will for the rest of our lives," Helbling later told US News & World Report. "We couldn't believe it; we had all turned down dessert with Barack Obama."

The dinner conversation...
Helbling, a tech entrepreneur who runs a company called Software for Good, is such a big Obama enthusiast that he named one of his children "Maxwell Barack," he said, and revealed that the dinner conversation focused on "critical veterans, education, and economic issues." In his statement for BarackObama.com, he said the dinner "really blows your mind when you think about it."

Perhaps that's because the President revealed some deep secrets about White House life?

"I learned Obama's not a real early riser; he gets up at seven and then goes to the gym before reporting to the office," Helbling told USNWR. "And, he is rarely awaken from sleep for emergencies. The last time he had to go to the situation room in the middle of the night was when the Japanese earthquake was going on."

"The most memorable part was when he talked about his day & at 630 going upstairs to have dinner w/Michelle and kids. I could relate," (sic) was another tweet from Helbling.

Helbling also tweeted about the dinner to his hometown chief, Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak, who not uncoincidentally, since Minnesota is a crucial electoral state, was last week one of the eight Mayors invited to attend First Lady Obama's food desert summit in Chicago.

"He was very thankful for your early support!" Helbling tweeted to Rybak, and also tweeted "tonight at #DinnerWithBarack President Obama mentioned how great of a guy you are!"

"Cool!" the Mayor tweeted back, and asked what the President ate.

Mr. Obama tossed his own tweet into the mix after the dinner.

"This dinner is important because I'm only president thanks to the work of millions of Americans like the four I just met. —BO," the President wrote on @BarackObama.

A big security detail...
Ken Knight, 48, of Chandler, Arizona, is a mail carrier with a route in Tempe, and it was his mother's $10 donation in his name that got him to the dinner, he told Arizona Central. Knight said he was worried that his "colorful past" might kill his chances of meeting the President. The dinner winners had to pass background checks, and Knight said he is a recovering alcoholic, almost five years sober, and "admits to past use of a few illegal substances that he feared would negatively influence the Campaign's decision about selecting him."

Nope: Knight, who bills himself as extremely liberal and a longtime Obama supporter, got in. The President and his guests ate in an upstairs dining room in the restaurant, and unlike at many other Presidential dinners, there were no other patrons present. There were, however, many members of the President's security detail.

"There were dozens of Secret Service, but they made it really calm and casual for us. It wasn't as crazy as you might think. It was a lot of fun," Knight told Arizona's KTAR radio.

Still, Knight was dubious when he first got the call from Campaign officials saying that he'd won, which occurred in July.

"They said they needed to run a background check and asked for my Social Security number and birth date," Knight said. "I thought it was a scam. They spent the next 10 minutes trying to convince me of who they where." He finally set his suspicions aside and gave them his information.

The Dinner Winners' statements put out by Campaign HQ...
There was no "official statement" released from Knight, but the three other winners were quoted as follows on BarackObama.com, which titled the blogpost "This Is The President Of The United States Sitting Next to Me." (Above: The surprisingly low res photo tweeted by Campaign HQ)

Juanita Martinez, who is a retired teacher: "It was wonderful, delicious, exciting. I don’t have the words. I had the swordfish, and they had the best dinner rolls. The President was so eager to meet us. He asked about our states and our families. Every now and then I had to take a moment and think, ‘This is the President of the United States sitting next to me.’"

Wendi Smith, who is a retired professor and artist: "It was wonderful. There was all this anticipation, and the whole day was spent in preparation for our dinner, so all of us were anxious and excited and our heart rates were way up there. But he came in and was just so wonderful at making us feel relaxed and calming us down. In the first few minutes we all went 'Oh, okay, we can do this.' He introduced himself to all of us and really listened to what we had to say. He made sure each one of us got to say something. He was very humble and modest and just exactly the guy I thought he was."

Casey Helbling: "He was a little shorter than I was expecting—I was expecting him to be really really tall for some reason. He was really charming and easy to talk to. And it was like we were just having a normal dinner, just a couple people sitting around a table having a meal talking about the issues. We were joking that it would have been a totally different vibe if we had just gone to the White House and met him in his office. We were completely wide open on questions—we could ask whatever we wanted. It was cool and down to earth, but he’s still the President—so it really blows your mind when you think about it."

The dinner fulfilled the first of two dinner contests held to drop cash into the President's 2012 war chest, and Thursday was the first time the names of the winners were revealed. Though the contest's Official Rules stated that their names would be posted online in July, it never happened; the Campaign ignored its own rules. The dinner was supposed to be "Dinner with Barack and Joe," and include Vice President Joe Biden, but on Thursday he was leading a Presidential Delegation to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, a condolence trip that was scheduled after the Crown Prince died. The Campaign promised that Biden would telephone the four winners.

The date of the second dinner has yet to be announced.

An AP video, shot during the less than 50 seconds the President's press pool was allowed in to observe the proceedings, before any food or drink was served:



The prize was worth $1,075...
In addition to the dinner, the winners received a round-trip coach-class airfare and one night's hotel stay as part of the prize. The Campaign pegged the "approximate retail value" of the package at $1,075, with the meal priced at $100, airfare at $700, and the hotel stay at $275. This is taxable income for the winners under IRS rules.

*Top photo by Getty-pool; second by Photo by Obama for America; Helbling photo by AP