When President Barack Obama visited Hanoi in May 2016, I was the US ambassador to Vietnam. So I had the honor of riding from the airport to the JW Marriott in the president’s limousine, affectionately called “The Beast.” I could tell immediately during our forty-minute ride that President Obama had absorbed all of his briefing papers and much more. He did not need to discuss talking points or the purpose of each meeting. He already knew what he needed to accomplish. Instead he sought a deeper understanding of the broad context in which his visit was taking place.
The president asked questions that ranged from “What changes are taking place in Vietnamese society?” to “What is the citizen’s relationship to Vietnamese authorities, especially to the police? What forces drive Vietnam’s rapid urbanization? What motivates Vietnam’s young people?”
I answered each question as thoughtfully as I could, and I was glad I not only had expertise in Vietnam but also in Indonesia, where the president had spent part of his childhood, so that I could draw a few comparisons. President Obama wanted to dig beneath the surface and achieve as much as possible during this three-day trip.
As we neared the hotel, he asked, “Are you here with your family?” He was offering an opening, and I took it. “We’re a typical American family,” I replied. “My husband is black, I’m white, and our children are brown.” The president laughed and said, “You’d make a good Benetton ad.” He asked to meet our family, and Clayton and I were happy to oblige.
Before the president departed for Hồ Chí Minh City on Air Force One, Clayton and I brought our kids to his hotel. We waited with a select few others for our chance to see the president.
The photographers had set up special lights, and the room was hot. Our one- and two-year-old kids weren’t patient, and the moment the president arrived, our son staged a full-on meltdown as only a two-year-old can, thrashing and screaming on the floor. Unfazed, President Obama asked his staff for two gifts, small blue boxes emblazoned with the seal of the president of the United States. When he rattled them (chocolate was inside), our son was transfixed. His tears dried quickly, the president threw his arms around both dads’ shoulders, and the photographer snapped a picture.
In that cherished photo, the wetness in our son’s eyes is barely visible. He has a gentle smile, brought out not by his parents but by the president of the United States.
Later, I asked the president, “How did you do it?”
“I’m the baby whisperer,” he laughed.
I said, “I think being a dad is far harder than being an ambassador.”
The president agreed. “Being a dad is harder than being president. But you’re in a high-maintenance stage right now,” he added. “When the kids get to be six or so, that’s when the sweet spot begins. It lasts until around age twelve, and then it gets harder again.”
I smiled, happy to receive wise father-to-father advice from President Obama.
A few weeks later, a young man visiting the residence asked if I would take a selfie with him, a common occurrence. Later, he wrote to tell me that he had returned to his conservative, rural home province and shared the photo with his father. When he told his father that I was gay, his father replied, “That’s not possible. The American ambassador could not be gay.”
The young man then showed his father the photo of my family with President Obama. At that moment, the young man wrote, his father began the journey toward acceptance of his own gay son.
Interested in this story? Ted Osius’s book, “Nothing Is Impossible: America’s Reconciliation with Vietnam,” with a Foreword by John Kerry, will be published in October 2021 in English by Rutgers University Press. If you want to receive further information about the book - including special bonuses - please visit www.tedosius.com and sign up with your email address.