Last week, President Obama called upon everyday citizens to take a larger role in our democracy. As he so often did throughout his presidency, Obama again chose the long view. He said, “[Our Democracy] needs you … over the full span of a lifetime. If you’re tired of arguing with strangers on the Internet, try talking with one of them in real life.”
The following is a pre-election story about what happened when two strangers who sit on opposite sides of the political aisle sat next to each other at a bar and talked face-to-face about America.
I met Brady at the bar of an Applebee’s in Monroe, Louisiana on the Friday before Labor Day 2016. Brady was a working man. He reminded me of my grandfather who worked his whole life in construction. There’s something matter-of-fact about people who use their hands to make a living. Brady was no exception.
When I sat down, Brady was typing on his smartphone. The rhythm of his exchanges resembled something of a familiar habit. My long week of client meetings culminated with a delayed flight, which ultimately left me stranded. I had no intentions of striking up conversation. However, as I opened the menu to pick out an all-American entree, Brady leaned over to talk to me.
Brady was a regular. The waitstaff called upon him by name and knew exactly what to serve. And I wasn’t special; this was a sort of weeknight routine. Brady liked to talk with people here because there was a good chance they’d be from out of town. Business travelers to Monroe have their choice of four hotels, three of them within walking distance of the Applebee’s.
We talked for three hours. Initially, the conversation was fairly benign. We talked about our work and shared stories about experiences around the country. Yet, with only 9 weeks until the general election, we eventually collided onto the topic of politics.
It became increasingly clear to Brady that we didn’t share many views. At one point, he raised his voice and cussed in frustration about President Obama. For a moment, I contemplated leaving, but I had nowhere to really go. Instead, I took a deep breath and replied, “It sounds like you’re angry. It’s okay to be angry.” My response disarmed him. When I asked him about the anger he spoke openly about being perceived or judged as a racist because he was a white male from a rural community and didn’t like President Obama. In all fairness, he didn’t seem to like Donald Trump very much either.
I said, “There’s a dark cloud over our country. We’re finally confronting some of the hard truths about our nation’s past and equally hard decisions lie ahead for a brighter future.” Using this context, I shared with Brady what I consider some of the most valuable exports from my time in the Rochester community: lessons about structural inequality and unconscious bias.
Toward the end of our conversation, Brady looked me in the eye.
“I get the feeling you like Barack Obama,” he inquired.
I simply replied, “I support the President.” What happened next continues to serve as a source of optimism amid even the most divisive times.
In a nearly astounded tone, Brady said, “Well, I don’t get it. I like you and what you have to say, but, you like Obama.”
I nodded to acknowledge Brady’s thought process and to encourage him to keep talking.
He continued, “So, you must see something in him that I don’t. And that gives me hope, because you seem to be doing some good things. Maybe [Obama] isn’t as bad as I think.”
Before I left for the night, Brady and I agreed on three things about the state of our nation:
- We both desired a more positive discourse about what actually works in America.
- To advance such a dialogue, we agreed on the need to stay open-minded.
- Lastly, we both celebrated one of America’s greatest attributes: its resilience.
To this day, I’m not sure if I persuaded Brady to vote for Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump or if I potentially changed his mind about President Obama. Yet, it hardly matters and it really isn’t the point. For me, this memory helps to reaffirm why I will continue to support President Obama and his legacy for generations to come. During his Farewell Address, he said,
Sometimes you’ll win. Sometimes you’ll lose. Presuming a reservoir of goodness in other people, that can be a risk, and there will be times when the process will disappoint you. But for those of us fortunate enough to have been a part of this work, and to see it up close, let me tell you, it can energize and inspire. And more often than not, your faith in America — and in Americans — will be confirmed.
At a time when I’m so often disappointed by our politics, who could have imagined inspiration to arise from a delayed flight, a couple of beers, and a stranger named Brady.