By peculiar happenstance and more than a bit of ambition, on the Saturday following my 26th birthday, I found myself elected mayor of my hometown.
Kyle, Texas is a bustling community of nearly 50,000 people and an upstanding middle-class suburb of the tech-savvy and perennially-hip state capital of Austin, but when I was growing up it was nothing more than a poor farming and ranching pit stop along IH-35. Many of the streets downtown weren’t paved until the mid-90s, and we didn’t get our first traffic light until I was in college, but soon came the avalanche of new people and the conveniences that catered to them. It was during this breakneck transition into prominence and respectability that I got the bug for politics, winning a seat on city council in 2008, and becoming the mayor in 2010. It was the most unusual, stressful, and satisfying job I will ever have.
But this isn’t about how it all began. This is the story of how I ended it.
In January of 2014, hundreds of my elected peers and I traveled to Washington, D.C. for the US Conference of Mayors’ 82nd Annual Winter Meeting. Ostensibly, this three-day working conference is to trade best practices and lobby the powers-that-be for more money. It’s also a great drinking opportunity. This was my third year attending, but it was particularly special to me, as I would be using the trip as an excuse to meet with staff from the White House Presidential Personnel Office while I was in town. In less than five months I was due to slog through another election to secure a third term as mayor, but winning a spot in the Obama administration seemed to me like the better deal. It was the perfect ticket out of Texas, out of a re-election I wanted nothing to do with, and far away from the man who had just recently broken my heart.
The highlight of every winter meeting is an evening soirée at the White House. It’s a chance for mayors to mingle with cabinet members, hear a brief word of encouragement from the President and Vice President, and take gratuitous selfies in front of presidential portraits. Reagan and JFK seem to be the most popular.
I had one cabinet member in particular in my sights. I wanted, in my ambition, to reshape housing across America, creating denser, mixed-use communities that were environmentally and economically sustainable and home to everyone across the socio-economic spectrum. Also, I wanted a job, and the interview was the very next morning. After President Obama finished his remarks in the East Room, I spotted the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, Shaun Donovan, heading away from the President’s podium. What I wouldn’t have given to spend the whole night talking to him about housing policy! But this was a workday for the Secretary, and I was standing between him and the rest of his night. I couldn’t have spent more than 30 seconds listing off his own department’s accomplishments before I watched his eyes glaze over and list towards the back of the room, towards the doorway.
By the time you realize you’re boring someone, it’s usually too late. I couldn’t stop myself in time to switch the subject; I couldn’t even save face and apologize for taking up his time. His hand was on my right shoulder, ending our conversation.
“Please tell your mayor I said hello.”
He smiled; I tried to smile back.
“Uh, um… thanks.”
He walked away.
I had no witty comeback; I didn’t even have the wherewithal to get angry until long after he left the room. Instead I just went to the bar, ashamed of myself. He didn’t even look at my nametag.
There are drinks you order when you’re happy, when you’re feeling fancy, when you’re celebrating something. Then there are drinks you order when you want the world to swallow you up. But for me the answer to almost every occasion was bourbon. Lucky (or unluckily) for me, the White House was an open bar, and I could, if I so desired, drink bourbon and soda until I drowned.
There is something about the White House that lulls you into a false sense of ease when you enter it. It’s decidedly not a palace. Nor is it a billionaire’s modern mansion built for shock and awe of its guests. Grand Southern House is a better title. The kind of house one visits on a long weekend away from college with a roommate you suddenly understand is from a very wealthy, old Virginian family who may or may not have had a hand in the revolution. So confident and everlasting is this house’s status at the pinnacle of all things that it need not waste time on open concept kitchens, new curtains, or imported Italian marble – her old red brick pavers and aging magnolia trees say all that they need to. The walls themselves feel relaxed in their maturity.
But it’s not a family house. The walls aren’t really relaxed, they’re hiding steel beams and bulletproof glass. The bartender pouring me a third drink doesn’t live around the corner, working for the same family since he was a high school sophomore. This is the headquarters of our nation’s chief executive officer. I’m drinking like an idiot, living in a fantasy world, and any moment the CEO’s staff is going to realize what a useless interloper I am, and escort me away from the important people. What an insignificant, tiny chieftain I am, drinking away in his headquarters like I own the place. This is what happens when I spiral into shame. This is what happens when someone walks right through me.
Somewhere midway through the 4th bourbon I decided to kick myself out. I can’t remember holding a conversation with anyone during this period, though I may have tried to break into a few conversations already underway, somewhat unsuccessfully. By the time you realize you’re drunk, it’s almost always too late.
The White House is a marvelous place, but I didn’t have much wonder left in me as I wobbled out of the state dining room, down the cross hall towards the grand north entrance used by so many presidents and heads of state before me. A tiny sense of respect seeped in as I passed the Marine band playing in the entrance hall. I paused to straighten myself; no one should walk out that door as anything less than a lady. In the moment I couldn’t help but soak in a last few memories – this could be my last trip as mayor of Kyle, my last trip to Washington, D.C. – I may never be back here again, back in this grand southern house hiding so perfectly the mechanisms of State. I listened to the band play, heard glasses clinking, and waved goodbye to the Bill Clinton portrait so cheekily placed above the red swan love seat. From the corner of my eye I saw a swarm of men in suits laughing and causing a commotion in the East Room. A moment’s hesitation…
I decided leaving could wait a little longer.
My first visit to the White House was a few years earlier. It was a standard tour, the one you line up for on 15th Street NW, with nothing but your ticket, driver’s license, and car keys in hand. No purses, no cell phones, no cameras allowed. You walk the halls on a temporary plastic runner, and everything past the runner is roped off. You can see the White House, you can walk inside the White House, but you can’t touch it. The tour lasts about half an hour, and that’s if you take it slow and linger in the halls. The wait on 15th street was probably longer. You leave feeling like a stranger, momentary allowed to drop in on someone else’s much more interesting and storied life.
Years later, on that night in January, there were no plastic runners, no roped off rooms, no hawkeyed docents waiting to catch us misbehaving. I could sit on the 200-year-old settee in the Blue Room, touch the mantle under which Abraham Lincoln’s portrait hung, put my nose to the glass and stare out onto the South Lawn, but I still felt like a stranger, and my own self-worth was quietly, gently urging me to go. I even considered bagging the upcoming interview altogether; I didn’t belong in places like this. But thankfully, like many people who’ve fallen into politics, curiosity got the best of me.
I tiptoed towards the East Room feeling like a kid wandering into their parents’ cocktail party. Forty mayors, all dressed in blue and black suits, all hooting and cackling in unison, took up half the room. In the center of the gaggle one of them had mounted a chair so as to better address the crowd.
“At least someone is drunker than I am.” I mumbled to no one in particular as I crept forward for a better look at which mayor had undoubtedly succeeded in out-drinking us all that night. Just as I crossed the threshold into the room, I stopped. The man in the suit crazy enough to commandeer a White House chair wasn’t a mayor at all. I don’t think he’d been drinking, either.
It was Joe Biden, and he was staring right at me.
The last thing I wanted was to be seen, to be found out as an interloper in this boys club at the center of the universe, but the Vice President didn’t seem like he was going to give me a choice. But then he smiled! He smiled, and winked, and didn’t need to say anything. Instead he nudged his head to beckon me into the circle, and in another beat he drew back his hands to the crowd of good ole’ boys surrounding him, and dove back into his sermon. And just like that I remembered who I was. I was a mayor again. My tiptoes turned into casual steps and then into nearly a saunter as I merged with the group and listened to the Vice President’s stories.
I expected to hear about his travels as VP, or perhaps his earlier Senate days, but instead he treated us to the best stories from his time as lowly county council member (or county commissioner, as they’re called back in Texas). If Shaun Donovan looked hurried and distracted that night, Joe Biden was the opposite. He talked about 1970s Delaware like it was the Wild West, and to us as if we were distant cousins of whom business and travel had kept him from seeing for years too long. Regrettably, I can’t remember much of the stories he told, but I remember the impression they made. He knew what it was to be a little chieftain like us, and he missed those days just as, despite the stress and petty traumas of the office, we all knew we’d miss one day too, and that this shared knowledge made us, for this one night, family.
I’m not sure how long I stood there in rapture of this man or the camaraderie that, with one nudge of the head, he so easily bade me into, but I suppose two hours must have passed from the Vice President’s original remarks onstage to my discovery of him perched on top of a chair, proselytizing about the good old days. President Obama was a welcoming and gracious host, but Joe Biden cherished us. If he’d had his way, we’d all have stayed up together ‘til morning.
I’m sure that this kind of behavior gets him into trouble every once in a while, if it doesn’t exhaust his staff every week. But that night I found it a complete, total revelation. Up until that moment I was under the impression that the more important you were, the quicker you’re allowed to leave and the less you had to pay attention to people like me. As mayor of the smallest town in the room that night, I sometimes found it impossible just to get the attention of my fellow mayors, never mind a full minute from a cabinet member. No one else in that room would have noticed if I had just peeped my head in for a moment and left. But Joe Biden noticed, and though it gained him no advantage he took the time to make sure I was exactly where I needed to be.
I don’t remember how late I lingered at the White House that night. I do know that at some point I looked down at my last drink, still half full, and I didn’t want to take another sip. I sat it down somewhere and then marched out the grand entrance hall into the cold January air. I had an interview the next morning, and decided I was going to nail it.
Thanks, Joe. By the time Donald Trump realizes what he’s up against, it will absolutely be too late.
Lucy Johnson is the former Mayor of Kyle, Texas and former Deputy Assistant Secretary for Rural Outreach at the US Department of Education
Photo: Gage Skidmore/ Wikimedia Commons