President Obama reunited with veteran who inspired him
By Karen Tumulty, Updated: Tuesday, January 22, 5:56 PM
Five years ago, there had been a chance encounter in an Austin elevator between a Vietnam veteran and a future commander in chief. For the rest of the campaign, the candidate would carry the military patch that the stranger gave him that day.
On Tuesday, Earl Smith met Barack Obama again — this time, in the Oval Office.
The 68-year-old former infantryman gave the president a salute, and Obama returned it.
Over the years, the gift of that military patch had taken on an almost mythic significance among the Obama inner circle.
Obama carried it among about a dozen similar tokens that people had pressed upon him during the 2008 campaign, and he told aides that it was a reminder of why he had run for president in the first place.
His top adviser Valerie Jarrett would frequently mention it in commencement addresses as a symbol of the hopes that ordinary Americans have in their president.
But they were never aware of the man’s name — much less the story of resilience that was woven into his military patch — until The Washington Post uncovered it.
Smith, who is director of security at the Hyatt Regency in the Texas capital, was also astonished to learn of the impression he had made on Obama.
Once the Obama team learned his identity, Smith was invited to attend the president’s swearing-in Monday. He was featured in an Inauguration Day segment on the “Today” show.
And on the day after that, he was invited to meet Obama again.
Jarrett and Eric Whitaker, Obama friends who had also been aboard the elevator that day, joined them in the Oval Office.
“They talked about their meeting, and the president said to Earl how much it had meant to him at the time, and how he enjoyed reading [The Washington Post] story about Earl,” Jarrett said. “He said to Earl, ‘I learned more about you, and my respect for you grew.’ ”
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