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Tuesday, April 13, 2021

For Obama’s last State of the Union, a Texas man who inspired him will be featured

For President Barack Obama’s last State of the Union address, some of the featured guests will say as much about the promise he offered to voters nearly a decade ago as what he’s done while in office.

Two people whose lives intersected with Obama during his first presidential campaign – Greenwood County, South Carolina, Council member Edith S. Childs, and Earl Smith, a security officer at the Hyatt Regency in Austin – will be sitting in the first lady’s box Tuesday night. Childs made her mark in June 2007, when she motivated a group of just 38 supporters in Greenwood with the call-and-response routine, “Fired up! Ready to go!” The chant became a fixture in Obama’s 2008 bid.

Smith’s connection with the president, by contrast, took years to come full circle. Smith first met the then-senator from Illinois at the Austin hotel in February 2008, where he was operating an elevator. The two men had crossed paths at different points during Obama’s three-day visit to the Texas capital; on the last day, Smith gave Obama a military patch that he had worn while serving with an artillery brigade in Vietnam that had sustained 10,041 casualties and received 13 Medals of Honor. Smith had kept the patch — embroidered with a screaming eagle — with him for 40 years. Obama carried it in his pocket for the rest of the campaign; he now keeps it in a box in his Chicago home and plans to donate it to his presidential library.

But Obama had lost track of Smith, and they only reconnected after The Washington Post published a January 2013 piece identifying the security officer. Smith, who had rebuilt his life after being pardoned in 1977 for a wrongful conviction, came to Obama’s second inauguration shortly after the article ran and met the president in the Oval Office.

In an interview Friday, White House senior adviser Valerie Jarrett said the fact that Childs and Smith – both of whom are African American – are attending the State of the Union this year “says that he stands on their shoulders, that to have the older generation believe in him and support him and sacrifice for him is what gives him the strength and the courage to do what he’s got to do.”

“The generational difference shows change doesn’t happen overnight,” said Jarrett, who called each of them to invite them to the speech. “It takes time.”

Guests of the first lady’s box at the State of the Union have always been highly symbolic, ever since President Ronald Reagan’s wife, Nancy, invited federal employee Lenny Skutnik to join her in 1982. Skutnik had gained national prominence less than two weeks earlier, after he swam in the frigid Potomac River to save an Air Florida passenger who was struggling to hold onto a lifeline after the flight crashed into the water. After that point, each president has made a point of inviting Americans from across the country to highlight particular policy priorities.

For this year’s speech, Michelle Obama will host 23 guests in her box overlooking the chamber – along with one empty seat, meant to represent the more than 30,000 Americans who die each year due to gun violence.

While Obama no longer represents the unifying figure to many Americans he did back in 2008, Smith and Childs still describe him in iconic terms.

“I still have high hopes, because Barack Obama could have done a whole lot more if they had the cooperation of Congress,” Childs said, adding that lawmakers “could have put on their blinders” and accepted him without regard to his race or party. “All and all, he’s still done a lot.”

Smith, who said at first he “wasn’t sure where I’d be sitting” during the speech at first, but said the fact that he had forged a personal connection with the president “was from the grace of God. That’s how I see it.” He added that he had never seen the patch once he put it in Obama’s hands, “and to be honest, it no longer belongs to me. It belongs to the American people.”

Childs, whom Jarrett said has “become the symbol of the power in each American to change our country,” is a more regular White House visitor than Smith. In addition to attending both of Obama’s inaugurations and two Christmas parties, she connected with Obama during the first visit he made to South Carolina as president, last March.

“Sometimes it just happens that way,” said Childs in an interview, adding she accepted Jarrett’s invitation without hesitation. “I’ve just been told I need to show up, and I will show up.”

“This year,” she added, “I won’t have to watch it on TV.”

Washington Post staff writer Alice Crites contributed to this report.

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