On a superficial level, what went down today at the White House was a standard-issue, by-the-script ceremony honoring another professional sports champion at the seat of American power. The president made some remarks. The team gave him a personalized jersey. They all smiled for the cameras. The players departed and tweeted from the bus on their way to the airport about how cool an experience it was.
But circumstances being what they were, and the times being what they are, this was no normal ceremony. For beginners, those were the Chicago Cubs, still adorable and still adored by vast swaths of the nation – not to mention the West Wing – gathered there in the East Room on Monday afternoon. And that was President Barack Obama, a South Side Chicagoan and avowed White Sox fan, gushing about the attributes of the rival North Siders standing behind him.
And these are the final days of the Obama administration – Monday’s ceremony being his final official event – with the scaffolding and wooden stands already constructed a few steps from the White House for Donald Trump’s inauguration Friday. It had taken the Cubs 108 years to win a World Series title, and it took Obama about two seconds to break out the what-took-you-so-long jokes.
“They said this day would never come,” Obama said, opening his remarks, as the crowd roared with laughter. “Here is something none of my predecessors ever got to say: Welcome to the White House, the World Series champion Chicago Cubs. … It took you long enough. And I’ve only got four days left.”
This was also Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and Obama, the country’s first African American president, used that occasion to note that “there is a direct line from Jackie Robinson to me standing here.”
Diffusing the awkwardness of the Cubs-White Sox rivalry – with first lady Michelle Obama, as her husband noted, being a die-hard Cubs fan – was child’s play compared with the potential political tension. Though Trump’s name was never mentioned, his impending presence hovered over the ceremony. The Ricketts family, which owns the Cubs, is itself a political melting pot, with Todd Ricketts, Trump’s choice for deputy commerce secretary, flanking Obama on one side, and sister Laura Ricketts, a major fundraiser for Hillary Clinton this election cycle, on the other side.
In the audience were Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, D, Obama’s former chief of staff, as well as Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., and at least two Democratic congressmen from Illinois. In the front row, former top Obama campaign strategist and senior adviser David Axelrod – wearing a T-shirt beneath his suit jacket reading, “Bryant-Rizzo 2016: Make Chicago Great Again” – sat beaming as he regarded third baseman Kris Bryant and first baseman Anthony Rizzo in the flesh.
“There were a lot of sick days around here during the playoffs,” Obama said, citing an unnamed staff member who called in sick and then was seen on TV being interviewed about the Cubs from a bar.
Breaking with the tradition of visiting the White House on the team’s next scheduled trip to Washington the following season, the Ricketts family had pushed through the Cubs’ visit to squeeze it in before Obama left office – piggybacking it onto the team’s fan festival in Chicago over the weekend. All but a handful of Cubs players attended, with starting pitchers Jake Arrieta, Jon Lester and John Lackey among the notable absences.
Obama attacked the political awkwardness with humor. Speaking of Cubs General Manager Theo Epstein, who has now helped end an 86-year World Series drought for the Boston Red Sox and a 108-year drought for the Cubs, Obama managed to score a direct hit against his own party’s national committee.
“He takes the reins of an organization that’s wandering in the wilderness and he delivers them to the promised land,” Obama said, then added the punchline: “I’ve talked to him about being DNC chair.”
Moments later, Epstein said the Cubs had granted Obama a “midnight pardon” for all his “indiscretions as a baseball fan.” The Cubs also gave Obama a handful of gifts, including a lifetime pass to Wrigley Field – “non-transferrable,” Obama noted, examining the pass – and one of the “W” flags that flies at Wrigley after a Cubs win, autographed by all the members of the team. Obama did, however, decline to put on the “44” Cubs jersey with which he was presented – Chicago pride only going so far.
At the end of his remarks, Epstein pointedly thanked Obama for his “tremendous presidency” and for “the dignity and integrity with which you’ve served the country the past eight years.”
And at the end of what may have been the most extraordinary of the dozens of these ceremonies Obama has hosted, the outgoing president shook hands and posed for pictures, and the whole room broke into a spontaneous chorus of “Go, Cubs, Go.”
(c) 2017, The Washington Post · Dave Sheinin