SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)
(CNN)– When today's rare meeting of five presidents past, present and future takes place in the Oval Office, people around the world will be wondering what it must be like for the men who are members of that tiny and exalted club.
If history is any indication, the five men in the room are themselves occasionally filled with wonder at the thought of it all.
“I recall the first time Mrs. Nixon and I went to the White House,” Richard Nixon said.
He was telling me this during a period of my life when I had set out to try to visit all the then-living former presidents. The idea was to endeavor to find out what their view of the White House was once they were no longer residing there– once they, like the rest of us, were again on the outside. Citizens.
“I was a new congressman,” Nixon said. “And they had, as every president does at the beginning of every new Congress, a reception for all the members of Congress.
“And we had very little then. A congressman, incidentally– when I entered Congress, his salary was $12,500 a year. Which we thought then was not bad. But Mrs. Nixon, she scrimped and she bought a new dress to wear to the White House. A formal.
“She said to me, 'Well, this is going to be a little hard on the budget, but this may be the only time we'll ever be there.'”
A woman takes shelter from the snow under the Cloud Gate in Chicago's Millennium Park(Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
CHICAGO, Illinois (CNN)– On a sloppy, snowy, ice-covered day here, Barack Obama is making imminent plans to head for Hawaii, and thus end the long presidential transition period he has spent in Chicago.
What Obama leaves behind as he, with any luck, beats the weather out of here over the weekend is a town that on some level is still a little woozy over how his accomplishment– becoming the first Chicagoan in the nation's history to be elected president of the United States– has upended the city's natural political order.
On a recent evening, in a steakhouse near downtown, sitting deep in conversation at a table next to the wall were two men who kept drawing openly curious glances from the other customers during their entire meal. If this were Los Angeles, maybe Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston in a restaurant would have the magnetism to attract such star-struck stares; if this were New York, perhaps Derek Jeter and Matt Lauer would be the objects of such attention.
In Chicago, though, the men on the receiving ends of the stares were two brothers who probably wouldn't be recognized in most other towns: Bill Daley, attorney, business executive, former secretary of commerce, and his brother John, member of the Cook County Board of Commissioners. It was a table for four, and the pair of empty seats invited silent speculation from the other diners: Would a third Daley brother, the mayor, Richard M., be joining his family tonight? And the final empty chair, as it inevitably does at a Daley table, reminded anyone with a long enough memory of the man who wasn't there, but seemingly somehow always is: the late Richard J. Daley, father of the boys, mayor of mayors.
CHICAGO, Illinois (CNN) - These days, you have to wonder whether Barack Obama would like to retract those two words he ad-libbed at the very beginning of his victory speech in Grant Park - the two words that didn't appear in his prepared text.
Those two words seemed so innocuous at the time:
This week it would be hard to blame him if he is counting down the seconds until he can say goodbye to Chicago. "Change We Can Believe In" was an inspiring and highly successful campaign slogan, but this is a city that, in the ways that really count, never changes, and a man can grow old and embittered waiting for it to.
The legal and political questions whirling around the governor of Illinois, Rod Blagojevich, will play themselves out in time. The nation, most of whose citizens had never heard his name before this week, will eventually turn its attention to other news stories.
Award-winning writer Bob Greene rode CNN's Election Express across the country in the final weeks of the campaign before the Election Express parked in Chicago.
ABOARD THE CNN EXPRESS
CHICAGO, Illinois (CNN) - Well, that was quick.
On Election Night in Chicago, people in the immense crowd in Grant Park were talking about how the victory of Barack Obama might do the impossible: change forever the international political image of Illinois, make the world forget about the corruption that has for so long been associated with politics in the state, and particularly with politics in Chicago.
So much for that.
That was a warm and balmy November night in Grant Park - which in itself should have told you something: the shirtsleeves-in-November feeling had a when-pigs-fly quality to it - but this week there is sleet and wind and snow, a Chicago December week fit for neither man nor beast, which is to say: the usual, the expected. And in the federal courthouse just a few blocks from the Grant Park scene of civic pride and celebration, the weather had changed in more than the meteorological sense.
Scott Olson/Getty Images
ABOARD THE CNN EXPRESS
CHICAGO, Illinois (CNN)– You wonder if he's getting used to the sound of it yet.
“Mr. President-elect,” Hillary Clinton said to him this week, “thank you for this honor.”
You wonder if he has begun to take it in stride.
“Thank you, President-elect Obama, for the honor that you have bestowed upon me,” Eric Holder, nominated to be attorney general, said to him.
The election was not ancient history– four weeks ago today, when the Tuesday sun was still in the sky and the polling places were still open, the nation did not know for certain who would win the presidency.
But as Barack Obama introduced his national security team here this week, the words directed at him tumbled over each other:
“President-elect Obama, I am honored by your confidence in me,” Janet Napolitano said.
“I will be honored to serve President-elect Obama,” Robert Gates said.
Joe Biden, whether inadvertently or on purpose, skipped, on at least two occasions, the future-looking part of the phrase– he dropped the “elect.”
“Well, Mr. President,” Biden said, “you've assembled quite a team.”
And, referring to that team:
“I have a long relationship, as the president does. . . .”
Biden wasn't talking about George W. Bush.
JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images
CHICAGO, Illinois (CNN)- For all the words that President-elect Barack Obama has spoken at news conferences here during the last several days, there are two specific words uttered by Obama this month that will resonate in town longer than any of the others.
Most of his recent words– appointments of White House advisers and staff members, discussions of his potential cabinet, analyses of the economy– have been, of necessity, on the dry and formal side.
Yet the two unforgettable words, at least in the ears of people who live around here, were spoken by Obama earlier in November. They were a combination of words that no winning presidential candidate in the history of the nation had used to greet his supporters on an Election Night.
You won't find the words in the prepared text of Obama's Election Night speech. They weren't included.
They were added by Obama himself at the last moment, and they were the first words he said in public as president-elect.
Check the tape– you'll find it:
CHICAGO, Illinois (CNN)– There were a couple of groups of guys in Chicago during the last seven days, all while the Barack Obama transition efforts were taking shape in a federal office building downtown.
One group of guys was gathered in room 1101 in the Sofitel Hotel near Rush Street. Their names were Charles Shenk, Bob Sirkus and Michael Stern; men in their early 60s, they were in town with their wives for a wedding, but the wives had gone out to lunch and had then gone shopping, whatever shopping now constitutes in this economy. The men weren’t budging from room 1101.
None of the three are political professionals, but all had been intensely, even passionately, interested in the presidential campaign; one of the men, utterly indifferent in past years to the electoral process, had surprised himself and his wife when, watching the Grant Park Election Night speech on television back in central Ohio, he began to cry because of the emotion of the historic moment.
On this day, in room 1101, he looked as if he might cry again. “Don’t drop it!” he wailed as an Ohio State receiver bobbled a pass attempt. He and his two friends– along with CNN Election Express producer Josh Rubin and I– were watching the Ohio State-Illinois football game together, and every time Josh and I attempted to discuss presidential transition team developments, the men shot us looks that made us think that if they could hit a “mute” button and silence us, they would.
MICHAEL GOTTSCHALK/AFP/Getty Images
CHICAGO, Illinois (CNN)– As Barack Obama marks time here and frets about the sinking economy before his move to the White House, he faces a peculiar and striking dilemma on the financial front:
The one segment of American business that is booming is the Barack Obama business.
Everything with his face or his name on it is flying off retail shelves. But he can’t take advantage of it– a president is not permitted to profit personally from the sale of his own image.
Yet a case can be made that, were Obama to take his name and likeness and sign their licensing rights over to U.S. industries that are in deep trouble, he might be able to save those corporations.
A joke, of course.
MICHAEL GOTTSCHALK/AFP/Getty Images
CHICAGO, Illinois (CNN)– Here’s the thing about honeymoons:
One of their defining aspects is that the rest of the world is supposed to leave you alone.
Chicago in November is hardly the place most honeymooners would choose for their little piece of paradise, but every incoming president is granted a honeymoon period, and for his, Barack Obama is here– either in his home on the South Side, or in his transition office downtown, where John McCain is scheduled to visit with him today.
A cold snap has hit the city– no surprise there: when historians someday look back upon Obama’s charmed political year of 2008, one of the eyebrow-raising facets will be that warm and balmy November Election Night scene in Grant Park; no one has that kind of good luck, but Obama did– and McCain’s friend Joe the Plumber might do well to come along with him here today, because by tonight there may be frozen pipes to deal with all over town.
Obama’s pre-White House honeymoon in Chicago has been festooned with several features most new presidents don’t receive, and each is symbolic of the unusual amount of goodwill with which he is taking office.
For one, the Topps trading card company– the people who first became famous for packaging baseball cards with brittle pink slabs of bubble gum, and wrapping them in waxy paper for sale to eager children– is issuing a series of Obama trading cards. The company that once sold colorful cardboard images of Moose Skowron and Minnie Minoso has determined that there is money to be made in the booming Barack Obama market– a good indicator that his appeal, at least for now, goes well beyond that of most political men.
Doug, Eric, and Vickie Stanton in Millennium Park (Josh Rubin/CNN)
CHICAGO, Illinois (CNN)– Mixed messages:
“I've always thought that Chicago is the number-one city in the world,” said Doug Stanton, 66, visiting from South Carolina.
“This should make even more people want to come and take a look,” said his wife, Vickie, 64.
“I was here in the mid-1990s, and Chicago felt like it was in a slump,” said their son, Eric, 36. “It feels different now. I think that this probably has something to do with it.”
The “this” he was talking about was the election of Barack Obama, of Chicago, to the presidency. After months of rolling through different cities just about every day, our bus is now lingering in one place: Millennium Park, in downtown Chicago. We're here for the transition, because Obama, most of the time, is here.
Which is the message the world is receiving: Chicago, home of Obama, is now the political home of all things powerful and urgent.
There is another message this week, though, being heard more quietly even as visitors to Chicago talk about the high spirits of these pre-inauguration days.
“As the president-elect himself announced last Friday. . .,” the tinny, distant voice said through the telephone receiver.