WASHINGTON — He was dressed all in a suit from his head to his foot, but President Barack Obama was channeling Santa when he dropped in on a Boys and Girls Club in Northeast Washington Monday with a basket full of Christmas cookies and a copy of "The Polar Express" tucked under his arm.
District of Columbia schools are out this week. The Obamas will soon be sunning on the beach in Hawaii. The weekend's deep snow was melting to slush as Obama arrived by motorcade for the unannounced stop — ahead of a meeting with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
The 27 children at the Richard England Clubhouse and Community Center, ages 6 to 11, flocked around the president for handshakes, cookies, small talk or a tug at his sleeve. One even issued him a foosball challenge.
Having barely beaten back a Senate filibuster of his health-care overhaul hours earlier, Obama seemed grateful for the company of an adoring audience that didn't talk back quite so much.
"Have you guys been good?" he asked playfully.
"YES!" they screamed sing-song, in unison.
"Do you think you deserve cookies?" "YES!"
"You sure, now?" "YES!"
Some of the cookies were in the shape of Bo, the president's dog.
The president read aloud the story of a child who believes in Santa despite others' doubts and gets to take home a sleigh bell from a magical North Pole trip. He read it with the inflection and ad-libbing of a parent at bedtime, and later told the boys and girls that he and his older daughter Malia had read all the "Harry Potter" books together. He even did one "ho-ho-ho" in character, though it sounded more like "huh-huh-huh."
He asked the children what they wanted for Christmas, but he seemed surprised by their expensive and high-tech tastes, including iPods, cell phones and video games. "Whatever happened to, like, asking for a bike?" the president asked.
"Everybody has a bike," one informed him, and others agreed.
In another exchange, he asked one child who wants a cell phone, "Who you gonna call?"
Said the child: "Everyone."
Countered the president: "Like who?"
One child said that Christmas celebrates "the birth of Baby Jesus." The president said it also symbolizes "the possibility of peace" and people treating one another respectfully. "It's not just about getting a gift."
They talked about the Three Wise Men, and why power brokers would bother to visit a baby in a manger.
The president told the children to do their reading and math and be good to others, and that "what's important is the kind of spirit you have." Some implored him to stay, but he apologized, "I gotta leave now, I gotta go do some work."
Niko Letterlough, 7, gave him T-shirts for his daughters on behalf of the group, and asked if he'd come back and if he'd play him at foosball. "You know, I hate getting beat," Obama told him." Niko assured, "I'll let ya win," and got a fist-bump and a "that's what I'm talking about" from the president.
Then he sprang to his motorcade and drove out of sight.
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