Carol Felsenthal
On politics

My Neighbor’s Surprise Meeting With Obama at Piccolo Sogno

While in town for four Sunday fundraisers, the president sees a woman who hosted one of his first fundraisers as a Senate candidate, and demonstrates character and memory that runs counter to his icy image.

Piccolo Sogno barack obama
Barack Obama meets with a small group of supporters after arriving in Chicago for several fundraisers.

 

Obama’s image as aloof and cold is increasing carved in stone, helped along by New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd who has made it a theme of her Obama coverage, most recently in Sunday’s offering.

I had heard on the news on Saturday that President Obama would be dining at a restaurant here on Saturday night in advance of four Sunday fundraisers.  I wasn’t surprised to hear that he and his friends were headed to Piccolo Sogno Due, a coolly elegant, expensive Italian restaurant on North Clark Street.

Sunday morning walking my dog, I ran into my next-door neighbor, Lynne Gaza, and she mentioned that she and two friends were dining there when she noticed “several men in grey suits, hanging around, and then there were more of those men, with wires in their ears, along with 10 or 15 journalists/cameramen. 

“And then in walked Barack.”  He was accompanied, she continued, by Valerie Jarrett and two couples whom she didn’t recognize.  

Lynne, who is in her 60s, recently widowed, has a far greater than average interest in politics: a long-time friendship, for example, with Carol Moseley Braun, but, as she puts it, “I am nowhere near the big leagues for influence or fund raising.  I am an older woman with no big time connections.” 

She hadn’t seen Obama for years, she says, and if she gave him money she promises it was an extremely modest amount, so she was surprised when, “He took one look and obviously recognized me.” Being an outspoken sort, Lynne stood up and said, “Get over here and give me a hug.”  He did. They spoke for a few minutes, she introduced him to her friends, Mary and Maureen,  and other diners wondered if she was famous.

Later on a restroom break, Lynne ran into Valerie Jarrett, who told her that Barack told her that Lynne had given him one of his first fundraisers—eight years ago, a Sunday afternoon “coffee” at her Lincoln Park home, 15 people there; she raised about $4,000 for the state senator.

She tells me that she first met Obama that year at an event in Hyde Park when he was considering a run for the U.S. Senate, after he badly lost his 2000 primary race against U.S. Congressman Bobby Rush. She recalls maybe six people there.  “I found myself sitting on the stairs with this young man, talking about what issues he might face with the Daley machine because of his unsuccessful run against Rush.”

At the time of the Gaza coffee, Obama was running way behind Blair Hull, where he would have remained had the press not gotten hold of Hull’s messy divorce records. 

As luck would have it—and it was luck—Obama won the nomination and he was about to become, as he himself put it, “a rock star.” 

At that point, there was a wrap up party at the Hyatt,” Lynne recalls, “probably a thousand people were there, along with every television channel, and a host of journalists and cameramen…. As he was leaving… he saw my husband and me. We were probably 30 feet away from him. It appeared he spoke to his bodyguards, saying something like `Just a minute,’ and he turned and moved in our direction.  It must have taken him 5-10 minutes to get to us because everyone wanted to get a hug or a handshake…. He came to us, shook my husband’s hand and gave me a hug, and said, `Thanks.  I wouldn’t be here without you guys.’”

She remains puzzled by his icy image. “Now we can have differing viewpoints on his presidency,” Lynne says, “but one thing is abundantly clear:  He’s a kind person with a splendid memory.” 

She adds that these “small stories… are just that; small stories. However, those insights, when added together, reveal a man… [with] a very gracious manner” who is “warm and friendly.” As a writer of biography, I agree that it’s the little things that reveal character, not, in Obama’s case, the speeches about his concern for all Americans, rather than the interactions that won’t play that night on CNN or ABC, such as the one he had Saturday night at a Chicago restaurant with my neighbor.

 

Photograph: Chicago Tribune

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