The President As Writer

by Katherine McNamara


the tragic vision

“No ideas but in things,” wrote William Carlos Williams; and about Lincoln: “the walking up and down in Springfield on the narrow walk between the two houses, day after day, with a neighbor's baby, borrowed for the occasion, sleeping inside his cape upon his shoulder to give him stability while thinking and composing his coming speeches….”

Here is Obama, for three years a community organizer in Chicago, during the mayoralty of the great Harold Washington, the hope of black people. Suddenly, Washington dies. The young man goes to the wake and sees the skull beneath the skin.

“There was no political organization in place, no clearly defined principles to follow. The entire of black politics had centered on one man who radiated like a sun. Now that he was gone, no one could agree on what that presence had meant.

“The loyalists squabbled. Factions emerged. Rumors flew. By Monday, the day the city council was to select a new mayor to serve until the special election, the coalition that had first put Harold in office was all but extinguished. I went down to City Hall that evening to watch this second death. . . .

“But power was patient and knew what it wanted; power could out-wait slogans and prayers and candlelight vigils. Around midnight, just before the council got around to taking a vote, the door to the chambers opened briefly and I saw two of the aldermen off in a huddle. One, black, had been Harold's man; the other, white, Vrdolyak's. They were whispering now, smiling briefly, then looking out at the still-chanting crowd and quickly suppressing their smiles, large, fleshy men in double-breasted suits with the same look of hunger to their eyes — men who knew the score.

“I left after that. I pushed through the crowds that overflowed into the streets and began walking across Daley Plaza toward my car. The wind whipped up cold and sharp as a blade, and I watched a hand-made sign tumble past me. HIS SPIRIT LIVES ON, the sign read in heavy block letters. And beneath the words of that picture I had seen so many times while waiting for a chair in Smitty's barbershop: the handsome, grizzled face; the indulgent smile; the twinkling eyes; now blowing across the empty space, as easily as an autumn leaf.”

Amid desolation, beyond irony, the writer has assented to the tragic sense of life. He does not give way to hopelessness; he observes what exists and must be engaged with, not wished away. He will bend his will like the arc of a bow to a higher purpose, which is, he recognizes, as real as, but of a different nature than, worldly power. Shedding only some of his skepticism (he notes wryly), he embraces — is embraced by — a Christian faith carried in traditions of the black church: its embodiment of the Word as agency, and so, its spur to social change.

“Out of necessity,” he would write, “the black church had to minister to the whole person. Out of necessity, the black church rarely had the luxury of separating individual salvation from collective salvation.” His hard-won knowledge, as radiant as his smile, is that “the sins of those who came to church were not so different from the sins of those who didn't, and so were as likely to be talked about with humor as with condemnation.” (He knows they see that he “knew their Book and shared their values and sang their songs,” but that part of him would always remain “removed, detached, an observer among them.”)

What he loved was the thisness of the community. “You needed to come to church precisely because you were of this world, not apart from it; rich, poor, sinner, saved, you needed to embrace Christ precisely because you had sins to wash away — because you were human and needed an ally in your difficult journey, to make the peaks and valleys smooth and render all those crooked paths straight.”

Obama's beloved community was the Rev. Jeremiah Wright's Church of Christ, which, for years, he attended every Sunday at 11 a.m. You can imagine his grief at the sacrifice which a media-amplified politics demanded of him, his forced parting from Wright, the man who had given him his beautiful shield against desolation, the audacity of hope.

still don't know how to put morality ahead of politics

Two writers, two post-modern presidents. One, Barak Obama, community organizer and law professor, is about to take office. The other, Vaclav Havel, dramatist, an organizer of his country's Civic Forum and its great spokesman against communist absolutism, serves as a moral voice in the world. In some respects, the distance between them is not very great.

On October 27, 1989, Havel was arrested by the old regime. Two months later, by unanimous vote, he was elected president of newly-independent Czechoslovakia. Two months after that, in February 1990, he stood before the American Congress, speaking (he understood) to the world. He had few political illusions. “As long as people are people, democracy in the full sense of the word will always remain an ideal,” he said, “a horizon” that might be approached in ways better or worse, but never wholly achieved. (Obama would call democracy a “conversation” in which the members of the polity worked out their future, based on the Constitution.) Rather, Havel spoke of what he called the “philosophical aspects” of the change that had come to “our corner” of Europe, because these would have wider implications, he warned, even for those nations, such as the United States, that had fortunately never suffered the horrors of a totalitarian system.

“Interests of all kinds — personal, selfish, state, national, group, and if you like, company interests — still considerably outweigh genuinely common and global interests,” he said. “We are still under the sway of the destructive and thoroughly vain belief that man is the pinnacle of creation, and not just a part of it, and that therefore everything is permitted to him. There are still many who say they are concerned not for themselves but for the cause, while they act demonstrably in their own interests and not for the cause at all. We are destroying the planet that was entrusted to us. We still close our eyes to the growing social, ethnic, and cultural conflicts in the world. From time to time we say that the anonymous megamachinery we have created for ourselves no longer serves us but, rather, has enslaved us, yet we fail to do anything about it.

“In other words, we still don't know how to put morality ahead of politics, science and economics. We are still incapable of understanding that the only genuine core of all our actions — if they are to be moral — is responsibility. Responsibility to something higher than my family, my country, my firm, my success. Responsibility to the order of Being, where all our actions are indelibly recorded and where, and only where, they will be properly judged. The interpreter or mediator between us and this higher authority is what is traditionally referred to as human conscience. If I subordinate my political behavior to this imperative, I can't go far wrong. If on the contrary, I am not guided by this voice, not even ten presidential schools with two thousand of the best political scientists in the world could help me.”

no one is exempt

Obama's conscience was formed by the influence of his mother and his grandparents, he has written, who taught him empathy, a virtue he places at the center of his moral code. It is, for him, the expression of the Golden Rule, which is “not simply a call to sympathy or charity, but as something more demanding, a call to stand in somebody's else's shoes and see through their eyes.”

If we were a country of empathetic citizens, he writes, perhaps bitterly, “[w]e wouldn't tolerate schools that don't teach, that are chronically underfunded and understaffed and under-inspired, if we thought that the children in them were like our children. It's hard to imagine the CO of a company giving himself a multimillion-dollar bonus while cutting health-care coverage for his workers if he thought they were in some sense his equals. And it's safe to assume that those in power would think longer and harder about launching a war if they envisioned their own sons and daughters in harm's way.”

The standard he sets for the citizenry is justice: “[I]f they are like us, then their struggles are our own. If we fail to help, we diminish ourselves.”

What he requires of himself is stringent: “I am obligated to try to see the world through George Bush's eyes, no matter how much I may disagree with him. That's what empathy does — it calls us all to task, the conservative and the liberal, the powerful and the powerless, the oppressed and the oppressor. We are all shaken out of our complacency. We are all forced beyond our limited vision.

“No one is exempt from the call to find common ground.”

a way to end the war that involved all sides in its solution

Early in 2007, in Washington, the Tory MP Michael Ancram spoke to an informal political salon — as he had talked to many such gatherings — about the necessity of talking with your enemies. For several years, he had been part of a forum working unofficially throughout the Middle East to organize exploratory dialogues among long-standing enemies. You do not have to like your enemies, he said firmly, but you do have to respect them, and dialog is part of the respect you must show them.

For background, he recounted an incident from earlier days. In 1993, he was minister for Northern Ireland. It was a time of great violence: assassinations, mass bombings, gun running, sectarian attacks. Terrible things happened. Yet, a signal had come through back-back channels from the IRA: “The war is over; help us end it.”

The words still give me shivers. Ancram, scion of an ancient Scottish Catholic noble family, educated by Benedictines who taught the necessary virtue of attentive listening, told us how the government proceeded. They revised their analysis, and understood they could not win the war. They began to change their public language, avoiding words and phrases they knew would incite adverse acts by the other side. They listened. They realized no permanent peace could be made without the IRA. They needed to open a dialog. A time came when direct talks would begin, without preconditions. The man Ancram had to face was the man who, as he knew full well, had sanctioned the death of one of his closest political friends.

The room gasped. Ancram did not flinch. It had been necessary to talk, he said, for we had to find a way to end the war that involved all sides in its solution.

the product of men

Obama wrote playfully that, as a professor of Constitutional law at University of Chicago, he sometimes imagined his work as being not unlike that of a theologian, “for, as I suspect was true of teaching Scripture, I found that my students often felt they knew the Constitution without having really read it.” Drawing the comparison a bit further, he noted how when we argue about deeply-held matters such as abortion or flag-burning, “we appeal to a higher authority — The Founding Fathers and the Constitution's drafters — to give us more direction.”

A deft play on the American ideal of a civic religion. But then he made a sharp — and, as I read him, essential — distinction in his thought between matters of faith, including, significantly, natural law, and matters of the polity. For, he wrote, our fundamental documents remain accessible after more than two centuries and if he has guided his students to them, he has nonetheless been no intermediary, “for unlike the books of Timothy or Luke, the founding documents— the Declaration of Independence, The Federalist Papers, and the Constitution— present themselves as the product of men.”

Pay attention to this: “the product of men.” At one time — Obama is clear about this — a man who looked like him would not have had the rights of an American citizen, but because the Constitution is a “living document, and must be read in the context of an ever-changing world,” it can be modified and adapted as the polity changes. He is deeply affronted, intellectually and morally, however, by the Republican habit of “changing the rules in the middle of the game,” by sheer force of power. He is critical of his own party when warranted, but finds, reasonably, that the Republicans have consistently used power politics at the expense of Constitutional processes.

He insists that, as citizens, no matter how deeply held our cause, we must make our case “subject to argument and amenable to reason.” (The one time he uses the verb sell, he puts it in quotes, as if with tweezers.) He is said to be a pragmatist, and if this is so, he puts himself squarely, vehemently, in line with the Founders, “as they sought to prevent not only absolute power,” but also “the very idea of absolute truth, the infallibility of any idea or ideology or theology or 'ism,' any tyrannical consistency that might lock future generations into a single, unalterable course, or drive both majorities and minorities into the cruelties of the Inquisition, the pogrom, the gulag, or the Jihad.”

He goes on: “The Founders may have trusted in God, but true to the Enlightenment spirit, they also trusted in the minds and senses that God had given them. They were suspicious of abstractions and liked asking questions, which is why at every turn in our early history theory yielded to fact and necessity. Jefferson helped to consolidate the power of the national government even as he claimed to deplore and reject such power. Adams's ideal of a politics grounded solely in the public interest — a politics without politics — was proven obsolete the moment Washington stepped down from office. It may be the vision of the Founders that inspires us, but it was their realism, their practicality and flexibility and curiosity, that ensured the Union's survival.”

Obama, the skeptic, the man of reason, can love the Union as ardently as Lincoln or Whitman ever did. It is a political love which might be possible only for the tragic sensibility, for we have become a nation in which torture has been justified at the highest levels of government. We have terrible truths to come to terms with, for as citizens we are responsible for the harm the nation has done, quite as much as for the good. Yet — it is the tragic vision again — he recognizes full well the limits of human reason and human intention, even when employed in good faith; nor does he suppose that good faith and politics are constant bedfellows.

reading Obama

In his books, a meditation on race, and a long reflection on the polity and the just and the immoral use of power, Obama — like Havel, like Ancram — has no illusion that the political conversation is not a difficult process. He distrusts the call to “bipartisanship,” which he sees, accurately, as a rigged kind of power play. He does not suppose, as I read him, that in public life people must like each other, but he does insist that they must learn to treat each other respectfully, and must talk to each other, and must, somehow, listen to each other, for in civic life reason and persuasion are the instruments of democratic governance. “Our politics are broken,” he told Pastor Rick Warren at the Saddleback Forum. He would hope to persuade us, without falling into fatal cliché, that we, citizens, must reasonably become the change we hope for. In an interesting way, his political realism echoes Dr. Williams’s poetics.

further reading

William Carlos Williams:
In the American Grain

Barak Obama:
Dreams from My Father, A Story of Race and Inheritance
The Audacity of Hope, Thoughs on Reclaiming the American Dream

Vaclav Havel:
The Art of the Impossible, Politics as Morality in Practice
Summer Meditations

Obama's Fascinating Interview with Cathleen Falsani

Mark Danner:
Obama & Sweet-Potato Pie

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