The most interesting lunch in the political world took place Monday at the White House, though officials said the chat between President Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton was more personal than professional.
The president and his former secretary of state “have developed not just a strong working relationship, but also a genuine friendship,” said White House spokesman Josh Earnest.
“So,” he added, “it’s largely friendship that’s on the agenda for the lunch today.”
Obama invited the former rival-turned-top-aide to a private lunch that took place on an outside patio near the Oval Office.
It had taken him a few tries to pick up the phone. “Call her,” Michelle had said patiently. “You never talk anymore.” He shrugged. Twisted his mouth wryly.
“I had a reason to talk to her before. We were working on a project together. It’ll sound stupid if I just call her to hang out.”
Michelle put a hand on his shoulder. “She is your friend, you know. People like you.”
He ducked. “You have to say that.”
“I get to say that. I wouldn’t say it if it wasn’t true. Remember that time she told the president of Latvia she thought you were smart and cool? And how usually with presidents, they’re either smart or cool, but not both?”
“She didn’t have to say that. She said it because she’s your friend.”
“So are you going to call her?”
“What if she doesn’t want to hang out with me?”
“She’s not going to say that.”
“I never heard from Janet Napolitano after she left. Not once. Not even on my birthday. And I gave those tins of popcorn, the ones with the three different flavors, you know, the ones with cheese and caramel and butter all in the different compartments, to everyone. And she didn’t say anything.”
“Hillary isn’t Janet.”
“What if she’s busy?”
Michelle’s hand found his own. “Barack.” She pressed the phone into his nerveless fingers.
It was only 10:40. Much too early to be getting ready for lunch. “Hil, it’s a ten-minute drive,” Bill had drawled patiently over coffee that morning. “Don’t overthink this.”
“I’m not overthinking this.”
Bill raised an eyebrow over the Post. “How many pantsuits have you tried on so far?”
She looked away. “It’s a Monday. I always like to try on each of my pantsuits on Monday. Helps set the tone for the week.”
He smiled at her, and the smile was both gentle and arch, and she hated it. “Bill. This is serious.”
“I’m being serious. Very serious. See how serious I look?” He drew his features into such a clownish exaggeration of sorrow that she couldn’t help but laugh.
“I mean it. I don’t–I don’t have a lot of friends.”
“You have plenty of friends.”
“I have colleagues. I have kids who make Tumblrs about me. I have well-wishers. That’s not the same.”
“You have me.”
“I know I have you.”
“And you’d better keep me, too.”
“Bill, will you drive me there?” He set down the paper. “I know it’s stupid. And I know you’re supposed to read Marcus Aurelius to the Beckham kids this afternoon, but it would mean a lot to me.”
Bill reached across the table and squeezed her hand. His fingers froze on her wrist. His eyes went soft and tender. “You’re still wearing the friendship bracelet he made you after the inauguration?”
Hillary tilted her chin up, counting the seconds until the tears receded. Just a few seconds. Shook her head. All better. “I just want him to know that I still remember.”
Bill smiled and went back to the paper. After a few minutes of silence, he set it down and looked at her. “Hillary,” he said, “do you want me to drive you over there now?”
He smiled again. “I’ll wait for you in the car.”
Outdoors was a stupid place for lunch. Kids eat lunch outdoors. She’s going to think I wanted to have a stupid Sound of Music-style stupid kids stupid outdoor picnic, Barack thought as he crossed the lawn. He spied a familiar pantsuit-clad figure by the South Gate. I just want one friend. That’s not so much to ask, is it?
“Hillary,” he heard himself saying eagerly, “I’m so glad you came.” He reached out to shake hands, then stopped.
The bracelet she wore on her wrist matched his own.