RD Interview: President Barack Obama

During a relaxed conversation with Reader’s Digest editor Liz Vaccariello, the president opens up about family, faith—and his favorite word.

from Reader's Digest Magazine | November 2012

RD Interview: President Barack ObamaAshley Gilbertson/VII
RD: You’ve said you’re very even-keeled. But everyone gets down from time to time. Do you have a strategy you use or a trick to get back up? Do you have a theme song, Mr. President? [Everyone laughs]

Obama: I will tell you that my kids will always yank me out of stuff. So we’re pretty religious about family dinner at 6:30. And the great thing about living above the store is no matter how busy I am, I can walk up—it takes a minute. I can sit down, spend an hour with the girls, and come back down and work. But it pulls me out of whatever my personal struggles or challenges are, and it’s one of the great things about being a parent. You’re always reminded, Oh, this isn’t about you. It’s about these kids, their lives, and how you make them better.
And then I’m a big believer in exercise. If I’m sort of in a funk, going out and just breaking a sweat, doing something. We have a little gym upstairs, and in addition to the usual equipment and the weights and the treadmill, there’s a little punching bag there … [Everyone laughs]

RD: I have some special Reader’s Digest questions for you.

Obama: One thing I should say is that my grandparents loved Reader’s Digest, so I grew up with it. When my grandfather got the Digest in the mail, he would insist on reading me the jokes. And he was a big collector of Reader’s Digest jokes.

RD: We’ve been around for 90 years, and almost from that first year, we regularly ran a feature called My Most Unforgettable Character. Outside your family, who is your most unforgettable character?

Obama: I visit Walter Reed every three months, and it’s always powerful seeing our young men and women coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan and some of them going through some devastating injuries. But the last time I was in Afghanistan, ten guys had just been hit with an IED. So I went to the hospital to visit them, and there was one guy who was completely knocked out. Face was all puffy, and he had a tube up his nose, and his eyes were shut. I just very softly said, “We’re so proud of you and appreciate everything you’ve done, and we’re thinking of you.” I was about to leave, and just as I’m about to leave, suddenly there’s rustling under the blanket, and his hand comes up just to shake my hand. The kid was probably 20, 21. And he never opened his eyes.

About two or three months later, I saw him at Walter Reed, and he was walking. He was with his dad from Maryland. I always remember him, not because he’s unusual but because he embodies what these guys and gals are doing for us every single day. I think we hung up a picture of that moment along the walls here somewhere, and everybody always stops and sees it because it really does capture what these folks are doing: protecting our freedom.

RD: We also have a popular column called Word Power. Many people around the world say they improve their vocabulary reading it. So what’s your favorite word in any language?

Obama: Grace. I love the word grace because I think it captures what we strive for in life. It’s not just an individual thing. It’s not just a matter of excellence or something you’ve achieved. It’s something internal to you, but it’s also something that’s given to you. It’s not just individual, but it has to do with your relationships with others. You know, those moments of grace that we have—grace notes that we have in our lives.

RD: You know our humor and that we popularized the phrase “laughter is the best medicine.”

Obama: It is. It’s true.

RD: So I wanted to ask you what your favorite joke is and ask you to tell it to me now.

Obama: I don’t know if this is my favorite joke, but it’s my most recent joke. This is a true story, but it’s also a good joke. And it’s fitting for the season: So my campaign manager is in some meeting, and this couple has brought their four-year-old son. Charming kid, full of energy, and clearly the parents were very proud of him. So somewhere in the room is a picture of me, and the parents, prompting him, say, “Who’s that?” The boy looks and says, “That’s Barack Obama.” And they say, “And what does Barack Obama do?” And he thinks for a second, and he says, “He approves this message.” [Everyone laughs]

RD: Thank you, Mr. President.

Obama: Oh, and I agree with you. I think the ones we love are always with us, and I can tell you that this interview gave my grandparents great pleasure.

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