The email came Tuesday, June 30.
“Apologies for the late notice,” the National Security Council press aide wrote. But could Paul Baumann meet with President Obama a few days later, prior to his meeting with the pope in Rome?
Baumann said he’d rearrange his schedule. No apology necessary.
The 1969 Staples graduate — now editor of Commonweal, the nation’s leading lay Catholic opinion journal — had no idea what to expect. Arriving at the West Wing of the White House last Thursday, he found 7 other religion journalists. Each would ask 1 question. They divided topics, to cover as much ground as possible.
After they were ushered into the Roosevelt Room, next to the Oval Office, the president entered. He greeted each person with a handshake, then sat at the middle of the conference table directly across from Baumann.
The intimate meeting lasted 45 minutes. During his turn Baumann — a star soccer player at Staples and Wesleyan University — asked how he could get an invitation to play basketball with the president. Obama laughed, and said Reggie Love — his assistant who won a national championship at Duke — would have to check out Baumann’s game.
Turning serious, Baumann asked about a group of pro-life and abortion rights activists that the administration has brought together to find common ground. Obama reiterated the key points of his Notre Dame commencement speech, saying that despite one level of “irreducible difference,” both sides can work together to reduce the number of abortions.
Baumann found the president to be “friendly, responsive, articulate, thoughtful, and eager to put people at ease. He was very comfortable talking about Catholic stuff, and very sincere when talking about religion generally. Aside from abortion and a few other issues, he ‘speaks Catholic’ well, especially when discussing social justice teachings.”
Baumann — who has a master of the arts of religion degree from Yale — adds: “He is quite aware that he has become something of a proxy figure, as either a villain or a hero, in the long-running battle between so-called liberal and so-called conservative Catholics.”
And, says Baumann, “I’d be happy to return to the Roosevelt Room any time. On even shorter notice.”