Attending every powerful man or woman in Washington is a host of enablers. At the top of this class are clerks at the Supreme Court, legislative assistants on the Hill, and special assistants throughout the federal government. They have important work to do—overseeing schedules, providing counsel, relaying confidences from other bigwigs. But a large part of the job is managing the ego of the man or woman they serve, anticipating their boss’s needs, accepting his or her disdain, imparting bad news—rarely. Suffering these indignities is the price of proximity.
Among the coolest and most humbling of these gigs is the personal assistant to the President, better known as the “body man.” Invariably the young man (if Hillary is elected, the gender will change) makes sure the leader of the free world’s water is carbonated, not still; sees that his suits are pressed; and hustles him to his next meeting. Body men keep a low profile, endure a good share of abuse from a tired boss, and are granted a remarkable view of history.
Though essentially factotums, body men—who usually carry over from the presidential campaign—are political animals, climbers who graduate to fine business careers. Kris Engskov, one of Bill Clinton’s body men, is a Starbucks executive in London. Jared Weinstein, who worked for George W. Bush, runs a capital firm in New York. But because they tend to fade into the background after their presidential tenure is over, we rarely hear from them again.
Until now. Reggie Love, a body man from the 2008 presidential campaign through the first years of the Obama administration, has made headlines since leaving the White House in 2011, once revealing that he played spades with the President while Navy SEALs hunted Osama bin Laden in Pakistan.
Now Love has released a memoir, Power Forward: My Presidential Education. The title is a triple entendre, playing on Love’s athletic career (he played basketball and football at Duke and was briefly enlisted by the Green Bay Packers and Dallas Cowboys), his rise from middle-class kid to presidential body man, and his things-I’ve-learned counsel to the rest of us.
Much of the last of those three hits somewhere between Tony Robbins and a TED Talk. “Every day doesn’t end or start with a slam dunk,” Love consoles those of us who would settle for toothbrushing. His big finish aims to inspire: “ . . . I know there is no music as beautiful as the swish of a net, that there is nothing we can’t achieve, if we just stand tall, take the ball, and power forward.”
As White House memoirs go, Love’s isn’t scholarly hagiography, like Arthur Schlesinger’s JFK Oval Office account, A Thousand Days. It lacks the ungrateful barbs of George Stephanopoulos’s All Too Human, about the Clinton years. Love’s recollection is more akin to Ten Minutes From Normal by Karen Hughes, the longtime George W. Bush adviser, whose most mundane moments seem meant to impress, as when she shares how bizarre it is to be shopping for produce while taking a phone call from Secretary of State Colin Powell.
Love’s humblebrag comes one morning on the campaign trail, when Obama walks into his hotel room while the body man is entertaining a, um, guest. In Love’s telling, his date has the sheets up to her neck and Obama politely apologizes. Love, who seems to want us to know both how tight he is with the President and how he can score on the road, comes off as less modest.
Other tales speak piquantly of the longueurs of the job—watching the health-conscious President pick M&M’s out of his trail mix, nearly getting fired for misplacing Obama’s bag. At one stop, Love has tossed out the taquitos Obama is craving. Fortunately, the body man finds some at the next stop. “I earned some respect that day,” he writes.
J. Alfred Prufrock measured his life in coffee spoons. For the body man, it’s about sticks of meat and cheese.
The Case of the Missing Taquitos will be enough to tempt political junkies to buy this book. But a close reading offers a glimpse into Obama’s character as well. Love doesn’t get into it directly, but you can see why the two men became so close.
Yes, the President famously loves basketball and loves his guy Friday’s ability to talk hoops at all hours. The two share other bonds, however. Each went, with considerable financial aid, to private school—Obama to the prestigious Punahou School in Honolulu, Love to Providence Day School in Charlotte, North Carolina. Each went through a bad-boy phase before settling down.
This common history throws their differences into relief. As a basketball player at Duke, Love lived the life of a rock star. At Columbia, Obama was reclusive, by his own account, residing off campus in New York City’s then seedy Morningside Heights. I was a year behind him, Stephanopoulos a year ahead; neither we nor any of the future pols on campus I’ve since asked ever knew the President-to-be.
Love’s African-Americanness, too, must have appealed to Obama, in the same way eventual First Lady Michelle Robinson’s did. Love had none of the dreams-from-my-father angst that plagued “Barry” Obama as he grew up in Hawaii and Indonesia of mixed race and with multiple caregivers. Love’s touchstones were church, rootedness, and middle-class values: “. . . [T]he things that give me satisfaction don’t change. Sweet tea. . . . The stirring swell of a church choir. . . . My mother saying she’s proud of me. My father shooting hoops with me.”
Love emerged from that upbringing with a mix of hubris and modesty that’s simultaneously endearing and infuriating. To his credit, he’s quick to say he has screwed things up, from a DUI at Duke to being a jerk to flight attendants aboard the campaign charter. It’s a rather self-deprecating account for someone whose college years were rife with friends and hangers-on.
At times, he can appear blind to himself and the culture of Washington. At one point, Love invites friends to a DC bar to celebrate his birthday, but when word gets out, a crowd of nearly a thousand people shows up, desperate to touch a little power. Love is stunned by this throng.
He shouldn’t be, as he himself is a bit like the crashers. Had he not wanted to get close to Obama, Love’s followers wouldn’t be following him. But when it comes to his desire to cozy up to Obama, his candidness dissolves into “aw, shucks.”
Love—who left the White House before the President’s term ended (most body men do)—got an MBA from Wharton and is now a partner in Transatlantic Holdings, a financial holding company in DC. His ambition and smarts would likely have gotten him there anyway, together with his standing as a commanding athlete and his Duke degree. But his life has been supercharged by a superb ability to manage up and render himself indispensable. That makes Love a lot like the rest of us who harbor ambition and chirp, “Great idea, boss.” We’re all body men.