10:29 am Oct. 18, 2012
"I miss all the fun stuff," Michelle Obama lamented to a couple hundred people who had packed into the low-lit sanctuary of 538 Park last night. "They just pull me in."
The first lady had taken the stage, a few minutes before 6:30, and just after the evening's big performance, which featured a dozen actors who had portrayed the president or first lady—on television or film—reading some classic, and not-so-classic, selections about America.
"Everybody goes, 'You’ve got a great event. This person is going to be there!'" the first lady went on. "And I’m like, am I going to be there? 'No, actually, you’re going to miss everything.' So was the case tonight."
The crowd laughed.
As the pool reporter for the event, I missed the performance too; the White House handlers pulled me in just as the first lady took the stage, but while I was holding in the foyer I could hear the booming voice of James Earl Jones, announcing the various actors. According to a program that was later given to me by an attendee, Jones read the first selection "I Hear America Singing," by Walt Whitman.
As I waited, Mike Nichols, the legendary director who staged last night's event, was chatting with some campaign staffers, and at one point, Chris Rock bounded up the stairs past me. I asked him what he thought of the debate.
"I thought it was amaaazing," Rock said, peering down from above me. "Go Yankees."
Rock, who played the president in 2003's Head of State, with Bernie Mac, (slogan: "The only thing white is the house") read part of Take Me Out, a 2002 play by Richard Greenberg.
That was one of the new selections mixed in among some classics.
Sam Waterston read from Life on the Mississippi, and Jeffrey Wright from Long Day's Journey Into Night by Eugene O'Neill. Cynthia Nixon read The Matchmaker by Thorton Wilder.
Some were more recent: Geena Davis read "69 Cents," a Gary Shteyngart remembrance published in the New Yorker in 2007 and Cherry Jones read from Beloved by Toni Morrison.
Blair Underwood read from In the Wine Time, by Ed Bullins, and Sigourney Weaver read Stove-Top Stuffing by Margalit Fox.
After the performance, all the actors watched the first lady from an upstairs balcony.
She wore a black dress and the lighting was low, with a giant pipe organ towering behind her, and two bars illuminated by candlelight on either side.
She delivered a variation on her stump speech, with the usual mentions of her personal story, and issues like the auto bailout and health care, with only a couple passing mentions of the fiery debate that had taken place the night before at Hofstra University.
"What truly made me fall in love with Barack Obama is what you all saw last night, what you all have seen for three and a half years. You have seen his character, his decency and honesty," she said.
She said she loved her husband's devotion to his family, "especially the women in his life."
And she almost referenced the Big Bird thing.
"We believe in keeping our priorities straight," she said. "And we all know good and well that cutting 'Sesame Street' is no way to balance our budget. Short-changing our kids is not how we tackle our deficit."
Later she told the story of a 101-year-old woman whom she had met on the trail, who said she remembered Teddy Roosevelt.
"She said, 'Let me tell you something, you tell the president that they gave him a heck of a time, too,'" Obama recounted, adding, "she told me to tell the President to go into that debate and give him something."
She encouraged supporters to volunteer in swing states or for phone banks, and to keep giving to the campaign.
"We need you to keep on writing those checks," she said to laughs. "If you haven’t maxed out, max out! If you’ve got friends who haven’t maxed out, get them to max out. Get them. Find them. We still have time."
After the event, French television reporters stopped attendees on their way out to ask how much they had given, and about their role in presidential politics.
Blair Underwood wandered out later, and said the debates were "combative" when I asked about them. He and a companion speculated about the first lady's political future, and Underwood wondered aloud about Hillary Clinton.