SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
President Obama's home for a few days between last week's trip to Europe, and next week's tour through Africa. He's meeting an awful lot of foreign leaders. That means a lot of gift exchanges. Now, the president does not personally select these gifts; a staffer does.
But there is a well-kept secret at the White House. When this president wants to choose a gift himself for someone in his inner circle, he sets a very high bar. NPR's Ari Shapiro has the story.
ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: Valerie Jarrett is one of the president's closest friends and advisers. Her West Wing office sits almost exactly above the Oval Office. On one wall hangs a large frame with two historic documents, and a handwritten note from the president. The documents reflect half a century of progress on women's rights.
VALERIE JARRETT: One is a petition for suffrage, signed in 1866; and then a resolution by Congress adopting the 19th Amendment, which gives - of course - women the right to vote, in 1919. And so nearly - over 50 years, it took, from the time the original petition to the time of the resolution.
SHAPIRO: Last November, Jarrett had a birthday. These documents were the president's gift to her.
JARRETT: And I think the president's message with me is - is that sometimes, time takes time. (Laughing) Sometimes, change takes time; and that many of the people who signed the original petition may not have made it across the finish line, but that you just have to keep at it. And so I look at it every morning, when I come in, and remind myself about why we're here.
SHAPIRO: People at the White House often see each other more than they see their families. It occasionally feels like a war zone. So co-workers forge tight bonds and in some cases, those bonds extend all the way to the president.
SECRETARY JACK LEW: He really has a knack in giving a present that shows that he really knows who you are, what makes you tick.
SHAPIRO: This is Treasury Secretary Jack Lew, who used to be White House chief of staff. Lew's father was born in Poland and came to the country through Ellis Island. That's always shaped his worldview.
LEW: I've had a little statue of the Great Hall of Ellis Island on my desk, for decades. My son, when he was in elementary school, brought it back from a school trip.
SHAPIRO: Last August, Jack Lew walked into the Oval Office, and the president had a birthday gift for him: a Frisbee-sized, green, metal disk mounted on a wooden plaque. It now sits on Lew's desk at Treasury.
LEW: This is a copper, ornamental rosette that originally hung in the Great Hall at Ellis Island. And when Ellis Island was renovated, apparently they couldn't fit all of the rosettes back. And this become available, and it's that something the president gave to me as a birthday gift.
SHAPIRO: To procure gifts like these takes research, money and - well, it doesn't hurt to be president of the United States, says Valerie Jarrett.
JARRETT: I said, well, my goodness; how on earth did you get this? And he says, you know, presidents have the ability to get things. So his gift-giving has improved with office. (Laughing)
SHAPIRO: For people who are less close to the president, he has standard fallback gifts. Several outgoing Cabinet members got a key to the White House Cabinet room. Another standby is as candid photo of the departing staffer with the president. Then there's press secretary Robert Gibbs, who received his departure gift on national television. Gibbs delivered his final press briefing on the same day Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak stepped down.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Obviously, Gibbs' departure is not the biggest one today.
SHAPIRO: President Obama walked into the briefing room unannounced, holding a large picture frame. Inside the frame was a necktie. To understand the significance of the tie, you need to rewind the clock back to 2004. Barack Obama was about to give one of the most important speeches of his career, a keynote address at the Democratic National Convention. Robert Gibbs picks up the story.
ROBERT GIBBS: I don't think I'm revealing a state secret. We didn't really think much of his taste in ties.
SHAPIRO: Adviser David Axelrod - no fashion icon himself - decided that Obama's tie was hideous.
GIBBS: And Axelrod grabs the tie that I was about to put on and says, he can wear this one. And I said no, he can't; I'm about to wear that one. Then he says no, you're not wearing this one; he's wearing this one.
SHAPIRO: Obama said, no way; I want to wear my own tie. The final decision went to Michelle Obama and when Barack Obama gave this iconic speech, it was with Robert Gibbs' tie around his neck.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
OBAMA: There is not a liberal America, any conservative America. There is the United States of America.
SHAPIRO: Robert Gibbs never knew what happened to that tie until that day in the White House briefing room, seven years later.
OBAMA: He has not said about - anything about this tie all these years...
(LAUGHTER FROM PRESS CORPS)
OBAMA: ...but I have to tell you that I know there's a simmering resentment that he never got it back.
SHAPIRO: The president handed Gibbs the tie in a frame with a photo of the 2004 DNC speech. So even the president of the United States sometimes falls back on that old cliche gift, a necktie.
Ari Shapiro, NPR News, the White House.
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