Barack Obama: a grand politician and a gracious guest | columns | Hindustan Times
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Barack Obama: a grand politician and a gracious guest

On Friday, I moderated the Hindustan Times Leadership Summit session with Barack Obama and discovered that beyond being a brilliant speaker and a very intelligent man, he’s also truly special because of the little things he remembers and makes a point of speaking about.

columns Updated: Dec 02, 2017 18:58 IST
Barack Obama, former president of the US, in conversation with Karan Thapar during the Hindustan Times Leadership Summit in New Delhi on Friday
Barack Obama, former president of the US, in conversation with Karan Thapar during the Hindustan Times Leadership Summit in New Delhi on Friday (Sanchit Khanna/HT PHOTO)

In Mummy’s heyday in the 20s and 30s, the opening line of one of the hit numbers of that period was: I’ve danced with a man, who’s danced with a girl, who’s danced with the Prince of Wales”. This weekend I feel a bit like that!

On Friday, I moderated the Hindustan Times Leadership Summit session with Barack Obama and discovered that beyond being a brilliant speaker and a very intelligent man, he’s also truly special because of the little things he remembers and makes a point of speaking about. Grand politicians usually have no time for such niceties. Obama, who’s amongst the greatest of them all, is different.

I was introduced to him before the formal session. A few people were invited for what was quaintly called “a handshake reception”. Luckily, I was one of them.

Each of us got a chance to be photographed with Barack Obama. This is one of the chores celebrities are required to perform and usually do so with their impatience and irritation discernable. But not Barack Obama. He had a sentence or two for every one of the 90 people. He had never met any of us but he made every single person feel special.

“Oh dear”, he said, as we shook hands and he noticed I was wearing a tie. “You’re moderating the session and I’ve just realised I should have worn a tie as well. Is that okay? Or have I made a foolish mistake?”

Once the session got underway I discovered another side of this rather special man. There were a few questions he would have preferred not to be asked but his response was to joke about that and then proceed to give a seemingly full answer until you discovered he had deflected the subject and spoken about something quite different.

I’ve interviewed several heads of government and you can see the lines on their face twitching or the steely look glazing their eyes as you probe a subject they don’t feel comfortable with. That wasn’t the case with Barack Obama. If anything, he would smile each time I trod on awkward territory. Once, perhaps, his eyebrows rose but it was a gesture of comic exasperation which appealed to the audience.

The coup de grace was when the mikes failed and Obama was caught half way through a joke about cooking dal. To be stopped just before your punchline can be exasperating. But not for Barack Obama.

He took it with a smile and said: “This sort of thing has happened so often I’ve got quite used to it. I’ve had the lights fail, members of the audience faint and even the stage collapse. What sort of experience have you had?”

Not as quick-witted as the former American President, I couldn’t even make up an amusing story. So we chatted about Theresa May’s misfortunes at the Conservative Party conference in September when a coughing fit came over her and she barely finished her speech.

“Wasn’t that awful? Obama said. “My heart went out. There’s nothing worse than a politician all prepped to speak suddenly finding they can’t get their voice out.” And he laughed silently.

It’s unlikely any of us will meet Barack Obama again. Yet few will forget the enormous impact he made and I’m delighted I can tell stories about our conversation. The song from the 20s ends with the words “Glory, glory, Hallelujah! I’m the luckiest of females!” Change the sex and that could be me!

The views expressed are personal