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Jan. 20, 2021

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Obama the name-dropper in chief

Former president’s new book full of celebrity tales

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President Barack Obama, right, awards the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Oprah Winfrey in the East Room at the White House on Nov. 20, 2013, in Washington, D.C.
President Barack Obama, right, awards the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Oprah Winfrey in the East Room at the White House on Nov. 20, 2013, in Washington, D.C. (Win McNamee/Getty Images) Photo Gallery

When he was president, Barack Obama wasn’t known for shying away from brushes with fame — and that fact is obvious when you see how many celebrity names he casually drops in “A Promised Land.”

Obama’s new memoir covers his early political career and his first 21/2 years in the White House, closing with the killing of Osama bin Laden in May 2011.

Writing in the new book about the music series he and first lady Michelle Obama put in place at the White House, he invokes “household names like Stevie Wonder, Jennifer Lopez, and Justin Timberlake but also up-and-comers like Leon Bridges and living legends like B.B. King.”

Remembering the 2011 White House Correspondents Dinner, he mentions “making small talk while guests like Rupert Murdoch, Sean Penn, John Boehner, and Scarlett Johansson mingled over wine and overcooked steaks.”

He says he favored songs by Jay-Z and Eminem to get his head in the right place on debate days, with some audio help from Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Frank Sinatra. And Sammy Davis Jr. is mentioned when Obama recounts stories about inaugurations past. Does name-dropping the deceased even count? Let’s say it does.

Read on for glimpses into the Obamas’ star-studded life at the name-droppiest White House ever. All excerpts were penned by the former president.

Oprah Winfrey

Obama reflected on the time Winfrey spent working on his campaign for president.

“We had a few high-profile moments of our own, including a series of rallies with Oprah Winfrey, who’d become a friend and supporter, and was as wise, funny, and gracious on the trail as she was in person, attracting nearly thirty thousand people between two rallies in Iowa, another eighty-five hundred in New Hampshire, and almost thirty thousand in South Carolina. These gatherings were electric, pulling in the kind of new voters we most needed. (Many on my staff, it must be said, were starstruck around Oprah, with the predictable exception of Emily (Parcell, a campaign consultant); the only famous person she ever expressed an interest in meeting was Tim Russert.)”

Winfrey’s success on the campaign trail contributed to a 2018 flurry of speculation about whether she would run for president in 2020. She finally told a magazine that the process “would kill me.”

Earth, Wind & Fire

Shortly after taking the presidential reins, in February 2009, Obama welcomed the “September” and “Boogie Wonderland” hitmakers to the White House, where they rocked the room.

“Tasked with hosting the annual Governors Ball, Michelle had shaken up tradition by arranging to have Earth, Wind & Fire provide the entertainment, their horn-blasting R&B funk generating moves on the dance floor that I’d never thought I’d see out of a bipartisan gathering of middle-aged public officials.”

Meryl Streep

Obama talks about how he and Michelle, in an effort to make the White House more like “the people’s house,” began hosting small dinner parties where they would invite luminaries whose paths they had crossed and whom they wanted to know better. Oscar winner Streep was among the guests.

“Usually the dinners would last until well past midnight, full of wine-fueled conversations that inspired us (Toni Morrison at once regal and mischievous, describing her friendship with James Baldwin); instructed us (the co-chair of my Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, Dr. Eric Lander, describing the latest breakthroughs in genetic medicine); enchanted us (Meryl Streep leaning over to softly recite in Mandarin the lyrics to a song about clouds that she’d learned for a part years ago); and generally made me feel better about humanity’s prospects.”

Obama doesn’t name the song Streep recited but chances are it’s one she sings while riding in a car with co-star Liu Ye in 2007’s “Dark Matter.”

Bob Dylan

Obama also talked about their American Music concert series, which featured the “Blowin’ in the Wind” folk singer in February 2010.

“As for the actual concerts, they were absolutely electric. I can still picture Bob Dylan, with just a bassist, a piano player, and his guitar, tenderly reworking ‘The Times They Are a-Changin.’ ‘ When finished, he stepped off the stage, shook my hand, gave a little grin and bow in front of me and Michelle, and vanished without a word.”

Dylan would go on to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Obama in 2012.

Paul McCartney

Even Obama was excited to meet a Beatle.

“(T)here was the time Paul McCartney serenaded my wife with ‘Michelle.’ She laughed, a little embarrassed, as the rest of the audience applauded, and I wondered what Michelle’s parents would have said back in 1965, the year the song came out, if someone had knocked on the door of their South Side home and told them that someday the Beatle would be singing it to their daughter from a White House stage.”

That night, in June 2010, Obama awarded McCartney with the Library of Congress’ Gershwin Prize for Popular Song.

Beyonce

Beyonce helped the Obamas kick off both terms at the White House, starting with a performance at the first of his 2009 inaugural balls.

“Michelle and I attended a total of ten inaugural balls that evening. Michelle was a chocolate-brown vision in her flowing white gown, and at our first stop I took her in my arms and whispered silly things in her ear as we danced to a sublime rendition of ‘At Last’ sung by Beyonce. At the Commander in Chief’s ball, we split up to dance with two charming and understandably nervous young members of our armed forces. The other eight balls I’d be hard pressed to remember.”

Beyonce also sang the national anthem at Obama’s second inauguration, in January 2013, and performed at Michelle’s 50th birthday celebration.

Lin-Manuel Miranda

And, yeah, there was this playwright guy, with this crazy idea, in 2009. Perhaps Obama underestimated him?

“I remember a young playwright of Puerto Rican descent named Lin-Manuel Miranda, who told us in the photo line before an evening of poetry, music, and the spoken word that he planned to debut the first song of what he hoped would be a hip-hop musical on the life of America’s first Treasury secretary, Alexander Hamilton. We were politely encouraging but secretly skeptical, until he got up onstage and started dropping beats and the audience went absolutely nuts.”

Fortunately, the Obamas gave him a standing ovation that night.

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