It was no one's fault but mine, so I told him: "Senator, I was the one who wrote the flawed pool report." I wanted him to know that, but I was also curious to see how he would react. He looked at me and said he appreciated that I had 'fessed up. Changing the subject, he asked me about my hat. I wear a big floppy hat on sunny days, and he had seen it at an outdoor news conference.
"I use it to block the sun," I said.
Does the brim cover your ears? Obama asked.
"Well, my ears," I said.
He drew back and laughed. You're making fun of my ears?! he said.
I told him our family has had medical issues with the sun. He quietly took that in. I wasn't expecting any empathy -- and didn't need any -- but I felt surprised nonetheless that he evinced little or no interest. It seemed like a chance to make a human connection, if he wanted one.
In any case, I held out my fist. He looked quizzically at it for a second, then realized what I was doing.
"That's what I'm talking about!" he said. We fist-bumped, and he moved on. The animation he showed in that instant surprised me; it doesn't seem that he lets himself laugh much.
There was another moment not long ago when I tried to wrest from Obama some display of personality.
Amy Chozick, a Wall Street Journal reporter, was wearing a new engagement ring. I told Obama's staff members they should send him back to take a look. A few minutes before takeoff my seatmate, Jeff Zeleny of the New York Times, nudged me: "He's coming back." I looked up and there he was, hovering over Chozick, clucking about her "rock."
He turned to our row. Just for fun and to see what he might say, I held out the $200 wedding ring I'd purchased four years ago at a chain jewelry store in a Sacramento mall.
What do you think of this ring, Senator? I asked.
He looked at it for a few beats. No reaction. He was back in robo-candidate mode.
Zeleny then asked him about a recent debate. Obama chided him for asking the question, then eased back to his seat at the front of the plane without answering. I later asked Douglass if Obama understood I was joking. She assured me he did.
First Clinton, then John McCain made the argument that Obama is someone we don't really know. Obama's supporters counter that we have his record in the U.S. and Illinois senates, two memoirs that reveal his inner thinking and a vast trove of public speaking. Ironically, those of us who were sent out to take his measure in person can't offer much help in answering who he is, or if he is ready. The barriers set in place between us and him were just too great.