It's the least I can do for the man who once saved my life in 'Nam.
"Jim, I'll be frank," he told me that day in early July, 2015.
"I need a bodyguard."
I looked at his Secret Service detail standing nearby. Even behind their dark sunglasses I could tell they were looking everywhere but at me. I judge a man by whether he can look me in the eye or not. Also, by how many kicks to the head it would take to kill him.
"It's not what you think," Obama said, quickly.
I've usually found that when someone tells me it's not what I think, it's exactly what I think.
"I have 110% faith in my Secret Service," he continued, using a code we developed in 'Nam. There's no such thing as 110%, you see. "I'm scheduled to visit a federal prison. Now, if I was visiting a female penitentiary, I'd have no doubt they'd perform magnificently. Certain South American prostitutes will tell you how thorough they are performing body cavity searches, but in a men's prison, they might, oh, lose interest. Plus, let's face it, secret service agents aren't what you call street smart. They've learned to fight in a gym, not in the violent streets of Chicago or the jungles of Viet Nam."
Leave it to Obama to turn a simple request into a speech.
"How many of you have killed a man?" he said to his detail, throwing the question out there.
Not one of them raised their hand.
"You don't need to ask, B.O.," I told him, purposely using the nickname he used to go by when we were both members of the elite FERRET Force Five. It bonded us. "If you need me, I'm there."
I offered him my hand. He took it, looking me straight in the eye.
And that's how I found myself in El Reno Federal Correction Institution in Oklahoma with the Commander in Chief. In another lifetime, the prisoners I saw would have instead been my comrade in arms, but, without a draft, their only option was a life of crime in the poverty-stricken ghettos they were born in. To a man, the prisoners all looked at me with burning stares and mad dog glares. I smiled to myself. These guys would require a lot of kicks to the head. Maybe more than I had.
"And what are you in for, my friend?" Obama asked one prisoner who was lifting weights. This prisoner looked like he came in as Clark Kent, but was determined to leave as Superman.
"Nothing, your honor," he answered.
"You don't have to call me 'your honor,' son," Obama told him. "'Mr. President' will do just fine."
"They convicted me of beating a man to death with my shoe, but I didn't do it. Heck, it wasn't even my shoe."
The president looked at him in surprise.
"Are you telling me you're innocent and they still put you in prison?"
"That's right, your honor. Honest."
Obama turned angrily to the head of his secret service detail.
"Johnson, I want you to get this man's name. No innocent man will be illegally incarcerated as long as I'm president."
Just then, Obama saw a group of men kneeling on their prayer rugs, praying in the direction of Mecca. He turned to Johnson.
"Are those men Muslim?" he asked.
"Yes, Mr. President," Johnson answered.
"I want them released just on general principle."
He turned to another prisoner.
"What are you in here for?"
"They said I killed my wife."
"And you didn't?"
"Columbian drug dealers, sir."
"Your wife was Columbian?"
"Then why would Columbian drug dealers kill her?"
"That's what makes it such a mystery!"
Obama turned to a third.
"How about you, sir?" he asked. "Are you innocent, too?"
"Yes, sir," the prisoner said, putting away his shiv. "We're all innocent."
"What?" Obama sputtered. "All of you?"
All the prisoners within earshot nodded gravely.
"Well," the president said, " that is unacceptable. Innocent men will not be wrongly imprisoned under the Obama administration, I can guarantee you that."
He stood up on a bench, much like he used to do in his neighborhood organizing days, and got the attention of all the prisoners.
"Is there anyone here," his voice rang out like a bullhorn, "who is guilty?"
No one answered.
"Johnson," Obama called out. "Get their names."
"All of them?"
"All of them!"
"There's one, Mr. President," I said, reaching up to touch Obama's elbow to get his attention.
"One what?" he asked, still visibly shaken up.
"One hand," I pointed out. "Up, in the back."
He stepped off the bench and walked over to the lone prisoner with his hand raised.
"You, sir," Obama said. "You're guilty?"
"Yes, your majesty," the old man told him.
"You don't have to call me 'your majesty,'" Obama told him kindly. "'Your honor' will do just fine."
Obama looked at him.
"So... you're guilty?"" he asked again.
"And you don't want to be released?"
Obama looked at me, and then back at the prisoner.
"Why?" he asked.
"Because," the man said. "I have it pretty good here. when I wake up in the morning, they feed me. I watch TV all day, only stopping for lunch and dinner. I nap occasionally, and my medical needs are taken care of. I'm happy here. On the outside, I'd have to get a job, work, pay bills. Here, the government takes care of all that."
Obama was touched. He put a hand on the old prisoner's shoulder.
"I promise you this, my friend," Obama told him, "I'll do everything in my power to make sure that one day, the government will take care of the needs of all Americans, illegal or otherwise. All these things you receive in prison will one day be available to you on the outside. For you. For your children. But not for your children's children, because by that time I hope to have mandatory abortions. To each, according to their need. From each, according to the size of their paycheck. No, make that: From each, according to their inability to keep the government out of their wallet."
"Thank you, Mr. President."
"'Your majesty' will do just fine."