I look briefly in the rearview mirror as I barrel down the Stevenson Expressway, weaving in and out of traffic and trying desperately to recall the words of my driver's ed teacher at Downers Grove South. 10 & 2 on the wheel, smooth and steady acceleration, no sudden braking. What Mrs. O'Brien didn't train us for were the police lights flashing in my rearview mirror and SUVs with the back door open, Secret Service agents with huge semiautomatic weapons pointed out the back window towards me. Agents that wouldn't hesitate in a second to shoot me if I made a wrong move.
We dodged in and out of traffic aggressively on the highway; local police cutting a path with sirens blazing, Secret Service protecting the motorcade from drivers that didn't pull over. At moments, it felt like being on the precipice of history. I was driving with the First Lady of the United States in the final days of the 2012 election. A couple sharp swerves through traffic brought me back to reality, and the immediate task at hand became paramount as we race through an opening in the fence and headed for the tarmac at Midway Airport.
It all started fairly innocuously-- mentioning to a friend and fellow musician who worked for the White House that I'd love to help out if they ever needed a volunteer. He's one of the tireless staffers that makes sure all the logistics are set for politicians as they travel around the world. Giant American flags in the background, hay bales in farming communities, and the nuts and bolts of putting together rallies and events, working behind the scenes. As a radio producer, perpetually immersed in minutiae-- these are definitely my kind of people.
Sure enough, a few weeks later, the call came for an background check and mysterious meeting point. It wasn't long before I was hurtling down the highway in an official White House motorcade.
Luckily, there were no fender-benders, and a week later, and the call came again. This time, the stakes were higher. Election Day. All of the Obamas were in town, along with the Vice President and a huge security and political apparatus. The day's events went by in a flash, driving back and forth between their house in Hyde Park and various hotels downtown.
But amidst the day's work, I got another cryptic message: come upstairs to one of the conference rooms. Surrounded by curtains, Fox News showing people going to ballot boxes around the country, there was an air of tense calm. Suddenly the TV was turned off, and in walked Michelle Obama! One of the people I admire most, who perpetually seems to rise above the fray of politics to be a moral compass for the country.
My mind raced. What do I do? Shake her hand? Is that allowed? Where were the guys with the guns? Luckily, she gave me a big hug and a smile... and all was right with the world.
"You're the right height!" she joked. I knew being tall would come in handy. We chatted a little, took a picture, and I even got a parting hug.
Later that night, the election results came in, and Obama had won. As White House staffers cheered and hugged, security remained stoic, always professional. The feeling of elation was in the air as preparations were made for a triumphant motorcade to McCormick Place. Traffic was blocked on Lake Shore Drive, and we emerged from Lower Wacker Drive. It was an amazing feeling, driving with our newly re-elected President past beautiful Lake Michigan on the left and skyscrapers on my right. Down the streets of my Chicago, with a hometown President I completely believed in.
As I write this now, I'm sitting on the marble steps of the Lincoln Memorial, with the sun setting on the pointed spire of the Lincoln Memorial and the dome of the Capitol building beyond. It's been four years since that rainy November day when I drove with President Obama and his family in Chicago. I can't help but think that he's one of the people I admire most, approaching one of the world's most difficult jobs with humor, class and intelligence. The feeling of pulling with President Obama into McCormick Place for his victory speech is unforgettable. Even from outside, we could hear the cheers as we arrived, kicking off a celebration for the ages.
I don't think anything will match the energy and excitement I felt for Obama in 2012 and particularly in 2008, but I'm thrilled to be able to take part again, casting a vote for the first woman president with my 5-year old daughter, on what promises to be another historic day.