Wednesday, January 11, 2012

French Fries With The Leader Of The Free World: Behind The Scenes At "Dinner with Barack"

Presidential lunchmate Kathie Toigo dishes on what it's like being flown to Washington by the President's Campaign operation to be filmed, fork in hand, discussing hope and the middle class with the Eater in Chief...
Exactly what President Obama ate when he had lunch last Friday at DC's Scion restaurant with the winners of Obama for America's "Dinner with Barack" contest was put under strict embargo by the White House. But now it can be told: In keeping with his reputation as the most beef-loving President ever, Mr. Obama enjoyed a cheeseburger and fries. That's the news from Kathie Toigo, one of the four lucky citizens who joined the President. In a full debriefing with Obama Foodorama, Toigo discussed everything from the menu to how it feels being a newly minted OFA spokesman, fashion tips from Campaign staff, and what she thinks of the President's security detail. Lunch, Toigo said, was akin to "winning the lottery," though she was almost too nervous to take one of the French fries the President graciously offered. (Above: The President, his fries, and winner Val Grossmann)

Under orders from Obama for America staffers, Toigo, 64, an early childhood special needs teacher flown in by the Campaign from the tiny rural town of Yerington, Nevada, wasn't even allowed to tell friends that she'd won the contest until after the hour-long lunch at the Asian-esque DuPont Circle eatery was over. (Above: Toigo greeting the President, as fellow winner Scott Zoebisch looks on)

"We couldn't say anything to anybody because of security," Toigo said. "It was very hard."

She found out where she'd be dining with the President on the morning she was taken in an OFA van to Scion. Toigo made a $10 donation during the fundraising quarter that ended Sept. 30, 2011, not even thinking about winning the dinner contest, she said. She was randomly selected, she insisted, and had to pass a background check.

At lunch, Toigo was seated directly across the table from the President. Though she shook the Candidate's hand during a 2008 campaign event in her home state, she was still nervous, she said. The President, who leaned on his elbows, his shirtsleeves rolled up as he chatted, helped everyone relax, in part by joking about his ears: Kids "think I look like a cartoon character with the big ears and everything," the President confided.

"The President said he was going to order first because he didn't want us to feel hesitant," Toigo said.

He did, and his cheeseburger was accompanied by a spinach salad and iced tea. Toigo praised the Eater in Chief for putting everyone at ease by joking about--what else?--food.

"I ordered the Winter Salad, and then when it was time for the next guy to order, the President leaned in and said 'you're going to need more than a salad,'" Toigo recalled, laughing.

When lunch arrived--served personally by the two sisters who co-own Scion, which was closed for business so OFA could film the lunch conversation--the President inspected everyone's plates, and commented that Toigo's salad, which starred four cheesy croutons, looked "tasty." The President also offered to share what his wife has dubbed her favorite food.

"He offered us some of his French fries, and I thought, this is the leader of the free world, giving us his fries," Toigo said. "He's very considerate."

Still, worries continued, though Toigo billed herself as "usually calm."

"You're thinking about your fork falling out of your hand," Toigo said. "I got a little shaky feeling for a few moments, thinking, what do I say? And I was thinking, am I going to be able to eat anything?"

On becoming a spokesperson for the campaign...
Toigo is now what she said OFA calls a "Regular American" spokesperson for the Campaign, and being filmed and photographed made her nervous, too. In addition to the OFA video and still photo teams on hand, the President's press pool rushed in to snap some footage before lunch was served. Toigio was hardly aware of their presence, however, since the President went on talking to his guests, ignoring his media chroniclers. (Above: Toigo and the President, beside Grossmann; video equipment is in the background)

"For me, being in the limelight, I'm not really comfortable," Toigo said. "But I am excited about telling people what a great experience it was."

She's doing swell so far. On Tuesday, Toigo became the first of the President's lunchmates to be featured on OFA's blog, and she repeated Presidential messaging when debriefing with Obama Foodorama.

"The President told us that 'hope is when you keep working for something even when you think it's hard,'" Toigo said.

He also spoke about his dreams for his second term, and his efforts to strengthen the middle class; the President's other lunchmates were a firefighter, an Army Reserves veteran, and a US Postal Service employee, all, like Toigo, from battleground states for 2012: Georgia, North Carolina, and Colorado.

"I was impressed with how positive [the President] was about different things," Toigo said. "And by the fact that he said 'you keep trying to do what you think is important and will benefit the American people.'"

Campaign gives winners fashion tips for Presidential lunch, and filming in DC...
Campaign staff gave her tips on what to wear because she was going to be filmed, Toigo said, but despite all the photo action going on, which included video interviews with the four winners shot in the restaurant after the President departed, there were no make-up or hair services offered. Toigo was advised by staffers not to wear "anything fancy," and to think along the lines of "business casual." (Above: Toigo during the ordering)

"They said don't get dressed up," Toigo said. She spent a lot of time selecting her outfit, worrying about it all.

"I told them I hoped they'd use their best filters for the photos," Toigo joked. "Take away the lines and wrinkles."

Campaign staff also filmed her taking a walk by the White House, with her husband Tom Toigo, who traveled at their own expense with her to Washington. The couple didn't get to see the inside of the White House, however. It violates federal election rules for the sitting President to do campaign promotions from inside the Executive Mansion. It also causes GOP hysteria, as happened when Mr. Obama was accused of filming a "Dinner with Barack" promo video inside the White House.

The Campaign installed Toigo and her fellow winners at the Capital Hilton, which is just blocks from the White House, and she said the staffers coordinating the affair were all "wonderful." She's also now a big fan of the Secret Service; members of the President's security detail were of course hovering during the lunch, and Toigo was screened and checked as she entered the restaurant.

"It made me feel better about the President's safety," Toigo said. "We were all very impressed with the Secret Service."

How did dinner turn into lunch--er, "Dunch?"
As for how "Dinner with Barack," the centerpiece of OFA fundraising for much of 2011, turned into lunch? Campaign and White House staff wouldn't say last week why the dinner with the President was transformed into a midday meal. And Toigo said when she was first contacted by Campaign officials in November to tell her she'd won, the meal was dinner. That changed to lunch over the ensuing months, based on working the event into the President's schedule, she said. ObFo writer Marian Burros coined a term for a dinner-lunch long ago: "Dunch." Typically it takes place in the later afternoon.

Originally from Wisconsin, Toigo is the mother of two sons and a grandmother of one--with one more on the way--and she will be a swell surrogate for the campaign. She's even planning a reunion next year with her Presidential lunchmates, she said.

OFA today released the photos here; above, the President and Toigo are with the other winners, who are, from left, Bill Blackwelder, 31, of Fayetteville, North Carolina, a US Army Reserves veteran of the war in Afghanistan and horticulture student; Val Grossmann, 54, of Westminister, Colorado, a US Postal Service worker; and Scott Zoebisch, 34, of Atlanta, Georgia, a firefighter.

The President ate dinner with the four winners of the first "Dinner with Barack" contest in October of 2011, at The Liberty Tavern in Arlington, VA. Guests, somewhat coincidentally, also included a US Postal Service worker and two teachers. Click here for links to videos from the President's first dinner. The third Presidential dinner from the Campaign, "Dinner with Barack and Michelle," has not yet been scheduled.

Toigo's meal prize with the President had an assigned retail value of $1,150, which included her air fare and one-night hotel stay, taxable to the winners. All winners must sign releases agreeing to be used in campaign promotions, for which they are not remunerated.

Read OFA's blogpost "It Happened To Kathie."

Information: Scion is at 2100 P Street NW, Washington, DC, 20037. Phone: 202.833.8899.

*Photos by Christopher Dilts for Obama for America; lunch table photo with video equipment by AP/pool