Commentary

Game day at the White House

A once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to watch the Super Bowl with the president

Originally Published: February 7, 2011
By Michael Wilbon | ESPN.com

WASHINGTON -- There were Terrible Towels being waved and what appeared to be a Cheesehead or two. The folks in the Packers jerseys seemed to be clustered at one end, quite a few tables away from people wearing Steelers jerseys, most of them seated a safe distance away in what amounted to a neutral corner. The room -- purported to be the largest in the White House, the East Room, the one with the Gilbert Stuart-painted portrait of George Washington that was saved from the 1814 fire -- was filled with people and, yes, cheering.

Super Bowl Sunday has surpassed New Year's Eve as the No. 1 at-home party day of the year in America, and is now the second-fattest day on the calendar, trailing only Thanksgiving. Tens of thousands (at least) of Super Bowl parties were thrown across the nation this year, but it's hard for me to imagine a cooler Super Bowl party than this one, if for no other reason than it was the only one in the country hosted by the president of the United States and the first lady. (It's the only one that had the stunning Jennifer Lopez in attendance, too, but that's another story.)

If you're looking for that TMZ moment, a revelation of Charlie Sheen getting drunk and turning the East Room into a piano bar or Tareq and Michaele Salahi slipping past security and sitting next to President and Mrs. Obama, stop reading right now. There wasn't even a confrontation between the Steelers and Packers fans, nothing salacious or awkward or anything worthy of YouTube. And if the conservative talking heads don't believe that when they take exception to whatever they think went on, as they inevitably will, tough spit.

It was a Super Bowl party with nothing untoward to report, with probably a couple of hundred guests eating and drinking and looking at HD flat screens spaced the length of the room. In an interview with Bill O'Reilly that aired earlier in the day, President Obama made clear that he'd be the host with the most until the game got serious, and then he was going to get locked into the proceedings. And the president pretty much kept his promise. A half-hour before the game, he and Mrs. Obama received their guests in the Blue Room, the oval-shaped state room often used for receiving lines.

Then, as is appropriate for any gathering of that many people for the occasion of watching a sporting event, we walked with great purpose to the buffet. (I promised Michelle Beadle I would tell her about the menu, so here goes: no guacamole that I saw, but perhaps the best cheeseburgers I've had in five years. Not that there weren't salads and all the healthy green stuff you'd expect would be served in the White House, but let me repeat: perhaps the best cheeseburgers I've had in five years. Isn't that mandatory fare for a Super Bowl party, cheeseburgers? Oh yes, and chicken wings.)

Anyway, for those of us who have lived in greater Washington, D.C., for a while, a traditional local obsession is finding out who attended what White House functions. The Washington Post, my employer for 30 years, would publish the guest lists for state dinners, and I've seen people nearly come to tears because so-and-so was invited and they weren't, a Washington peculiarity with which I've never come to terms.

It was a complete non-secret around town that the beautiful and talented Jennifer Lopez and the beautiful and talented Marc Anthony were going to be in attendance and -- again, sorry for those trolling for gossip -- they couldn't have been friendlier and more engaging. Anthony, like a good many people in the room (starting with the party's host), is well-versed in sports, period, any and all of them. He could hold his own in any barber-shop conversation.

But it wasn't a Hollywood room. There were members of the current administration in attendance, and a great many of the people, present company included, are Chicagoans, South Side most of them. So it should come as no surprise that much of the conversation at a number of tables was Chicago-centric. Jay Cutler: Was he really hurt in the game against the Packers, or maybe not so much? Was it permissible for Chicagoans, given how much we hate the Cheeseheads, to root for the Packers to beat the Steelers? And with football officially ending, could we just fast-forward to Derrick Rose and how much we love him and pretty much everything about him?

The President and First Lady, especially during breaks in the game, were like a bride and groom at their wedding reception, slipping easily from table to table to greet their guests, something they surely do a couple of hundred times a year. The Cheeseheads and the folks waving the Terrible Towels couldn't possibly have detected any bias or presidential rooting interest. President Obama, remember, appointed Steelers owner Dan Rooney, a Republican turned key supporter, as U.S. ambassador to Ireland. On the other hand, one of the party guests who introduced himself to me was Jim Doyle, the former governor of Wisconsin. With his beloved Bears eliminated, the president had no need to declare any feelings. A whole lot of folks who began the evening in neutrality ended it rooting for one side or another, or at least for a close game. But you couldn't read anything in the president's actions.

The best thing for any party is a close game featuring a comeback. A couple of turnovers and one last potential game-winning drive just make it tense and loud, even in the White House.

I'd never been to a Super Bowl party of any kind in my life. I covered 19 consecutive Super Bowls for The Washington Post from 1987 through 2006, meaning I attended each and every game. That ended in 2007, when I began working the NBA pregame shows on ABC every Sunday in the winter/spring, duties that gave me just enough time to scramble to my hotel room and watch the big game in my preferred way, which is to say in total solitude. Even when I was a kid, I wanted to watch the game and hear the broadcast in its entirety, not socialize with kids in the dorm or family members or neighbors who had varying degrees of interest in the actual game. So no Super Bowl parties, none, ever … until Sunday.

I met Barack Obama years ago, first in Chicago at a reception and then with Charles Barkley when I was helping organize and edit Barkley's second book, "Who's Afraid of a Large Black Man?" Obama was about to run for the U.S. Senate and he was extraordinarily generous with us, granting Barkley and me time to talk, mostly about race and politics.

We talked about sports as much as anything that day, about sports and education, sports and labor, sports and civic passions. And over the years, the senator and then the president made time to talk with me about sporting issues of all kinds, including how a guy from the South Side (me) could chose the Cubs over the White Sox. Turns out that's one of the few places the president and I have a fundamental disagreement.

Obama is hardly the first U.S. president with a sweet tooth for sports. We're at five straight: Reagan, Bush, Clinton, Bush, Obama. But Obama's capacity for, passion for and range of knowledge is greater than any of the others. His ability to tie the issues of the day as they relate to sports to other cultural happenings is fascinating.

When one of the president's lieutenants called last week to invite me (and my "PTI" co-host Tony Kornheiser) to attend the Super Bowl party, there was precious little time spent figuring out how to change my Sunday around. That phone call doesn't come every day, maybe not a second time ever. That it came from a president who calls the same plot of land where I grew up home, whose wife grew up in an adjacent neighborhood at exactly the same time, whose friends in a great many cases are my friends, made it even more desirable.

And if I heard very little of the Packers-Steelers broadcast and paid less attention to the details of Sunday's game than I've liked to in years past … well, that's exactly why God created TiVo.

Michael Wilbon is a featured columnist for ESPN.com and ESPNChicago.com. He is the longtime co-host of "Pardon the Interruption" on ESPN, and appears on the "NBA Sunday Countdown" pregame show on ABC in addition to ESPN. Over the course of three decades with The Washington Post, Wilbon earned a reputation as one of the nation's most respected sports journalists.

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Pardon the Interruption co-host
Michael Wilbon is a featured columnist for ESPN.com and ESPNChicago.com. He is the longtime co-host of "Pardon the Interruption" on ESPN and appears on the "NBA Sunday Countdown" pregame show on ABC, in addition to ESPN. You can follow him on Twitter: @RealMikeWilbon