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The President’s Man

Monday, October 19, 2015

Reggie Love, a two-sport athlete at Duke and former 'body man' to President Obama, shared insights from his experiences on the athletic and political fields when he spoke as part of the Tisch College Distinguished Speaker Series.

Reggie Love, former body man to President Obama

If you’re looking for a bit of trivia to stump your friends, try this: Who has shared the court with NBA All-Stars, babysat a European head of state’s son, spent one-on-one time with Jay-Z, played for the Dallas Cowboys, and been the closest man on the planet to the President of the United States? The answer is Reggie Love, a former two-sport star at Duke and former personal aide to President Barack Obama, who last month added an admittedly less impressive item to his resume when he visited Tufts University as part of the Tisch College Distinguished Speaker Series.

Love spoke in conversation with Tisch College Dean Alan D. Solomont, who as former U.S. ambassador to Spain also used to report to President Obama. The event, presented in conjunction with Tufts Athletics and cosponsored by the Department of Political Science, drew a sizable audience that combined student-athletes and political junkies, and Love spoke about his experiences in both realms as well as the intersections between them.

Hard work on and off the court

An NCAA champion basketball player and a four-year starter at wide receiver, the lessons Love learned on the court and on the field—perseverance, teamwork, leadership, sacrifice—helped him rise from an intern in then-Senator Obama’s mailroom to the president’s ‘body’ man during the campaign and through the first three years of his presidency, a position the New York Times described as “shadow, caretaker, basketball buddy and roving diplomat.”

Love drew some parallels between his two famous ‘bosses,’ President Obama and legendary Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski. “There is something very special about the ability to inspire, to get people to believe they can do more than what they actually think they can do,” he said. “They get people to believe that there’s something that’s bigger than the individual, and that as part of a team, as part of a group, you can have more success.”

Love did, however, point out some notable differences, saying that while no schedule compares with that of a presidential candidate or of the leader of the free world, at least President Obama never made him run until he threw up after a disappointing performance.

The hard work and long hours, he says, were worth it. Love, who had always been passionate about education and equal opportunity, found his work alongside the President rewarding and instructive—in fact, he titled his memoir Power Forward: My Presidential Education. That education on complex policy issues, on the global economy, and on the levers of power, made the work exciting but also frustrating, a sentiment shared by many of the Tufts students in attendance and by so many young people across America in this current moment of hyperpartisanship.

“It’s hard to be in the public sector because you turn on the television and all you hear and read about is gridlock and how nothing is getting done,” said Love. “If you ever decide to get there and you realize how hard it is to actually put a coalition together, to get something done that’s impactful—the healthcare battle started in 2009 and we just got a final decision on it this year—it’s hard going into these things knowing that a lot of the issues and causes you want to work on and have impact on don’t happen overnight.”

But for those who are up to the challenge, Love said, politics and public service can be a uniquely rewarding experience and an unparalleled vehicle to effect change. “Sometimes it takes many years, and you don’t necessarily get the reward you want when you want it. And it takes a lot of patience, and a lot of guts, and a lot of hard work,” he said. “But if you’re up for it, and you go into it understanding potentially that’s how it works out, it’ll be an experience you can’t get any other place.”

Once-in-a-lifetime experiences

Fortunately for Love, working for the man with the country’s top job had its share of benefits to balance out the frustrations, and Love shared some of his favorite stories from life in the West Wing.

“Some of the experiences were amazing because they gave me new perspective and some of them were amazing because they were just cool,” confessed Love, like the time he hung out with Jay-Z in the Map Room before Beyoncé’s performance at the 2010 Mexico state dinner.

Another time, like an experienced sixth-man, he ‘subbed in’ for President Obama’s daughters Sasha and Malia and had dinner with then-French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s nine-year-old son. President Sarkozy gave Love a big hug the next time they saw each other: “I guess he raved so much to his father and mother afterward about all the things he got to see and talk about that Sarkozy now thinks of me as part of his family.”

Beyond the meetings with celebrities and world leaders that now serve as amusing anecdotes, Love’s time with the President had a profound impact on him and informed the way he approaches issues, conflicts and conversations. When a student asked how he handled disagreements with President Obama, Love said his strategy is to always ask a question. “Why do you look at it this way? Most people have some reasoning behind it, and he’s a very rational, reasonable person and will have a conversation with anyone that is rational and reasonable.”

Love has continued to practice and nurture this approach, and that he offered as a valuable piece of advice for young people who seek to make a difference in the world. “I challenge each of your to have the perspective and patience to have a conversation with someone outside your community and to continue that throughout your life.”