Friday, September 07, 2012


FOR ME, AS A STUDENT OF HISTORY, THE MOST POIGNANT MOMENT of President Obama's thoughtful, reflective speech last night was when he invoked his hero and role model, Abraham Lincoln: "And while I'm proud of what we've achieved together, I'm far more mindful of my own failings, knowing exactly what Lincoln meant when he said, 'I have been driven to my knees many times by the overwhelming conviction that I had no place else to go.'"

When Abraham Lincoln said these words, the war was not going well for the Union following Lee's victory at the Second Battle of Bull Run, briefly deferring Lincoln's intention to issue a preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. It was a low point for the President, still mourning the death of his eleven year old son, Will.

President Obama prefaced this quote with a powerful, Lincolnesque statement: "I’m no longer just a candidate. I’m the President. I know what it means to send young Americans into battle, for I have held in my arms the mothers and fathers of those who didn’t return. I’ve shared the pain of families who’ve lost their homes, and the frustration of workers who’ve lost their jobs. If the critics are right that I’ve made all my decisions based on polls, then I must not be very good at reading them."

 If there's a hint of frustration and self-pity here, we, the people, should forgive and embrace our President. For he was merely vocalizing what every great leader, from Lincoln to FDR to Churchill, has experienced in perilous times — the burdens of leadership and the loneliness at the top, where life and death decisions are made, alone, every day.

Mitt Romney, you have no earthly idea.

It was a brief but revealing opening, a crack in the armor of our President, who has endured so much abuse from haters and naysayers, much as Lincoln did in his time, only to let us know that he, too, is a human being tasked with making wrenching, momentous decisions. As Bobby Kennedy once said, quoting the Greek poet Aeschylus, as Bobby delivered the news of Martin Luther King's assassination to a stunned campaign crowd, “He who learns must suffer. And even in our sleep pain that cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God.”

Joe Biden witnessed this President first-hand: "I'm here to tell you what I think you already know. But I watch it up close. Bravery resides in the heart of Barack Obama, and time and time again I witnessed him summon it. This man has courage in his soul, compassion in his heart and a spine of steel." Earlier, President Clinton amplified this quality of leadership, known only to those who have, frankly, been there and done that: "I want to nominate a man who’s cool on the outside, but who burns for America on the inside."

Wise words from those who know. The British would say, approvingly, that this President has "a stiff upper lip." For those who cravenly question this President's birthright because of the color of his skin, he summoned, as Lincoln did, the better angels of our nature: "But we also believe in something called citizenship — citizenship, a word at the very heart of our founding, a word at the very essence of our democracy, the idea that this country only works when we accept certain obligations to one another and to future generations."

President Lincoln, in a custom that is unheard-of today would greet common citizens at the White House, as well as others seeking patronage or jobs, with a simple, "What can I do for you?" His door was almost always open. For him, it was a way to stay connected with the people. In a touching, revelatory moment, Michelle Obama described a very similar ritual, upgraded to the times we live in, her husband insisted upon from the start, that his staff set aside ten constituent letters for his reading, at night.
"That's the man I see in those quiet moments late at night, hunched over his desk, poring over the letters people have sent him. The letter from the father struggling to pay his bills... from the woman dying of cancer whose insurance company won't cover her care ... from the young person with so much promise but so few opportunities. I see the concern in his eyes...and I hear the determination in his voice as he tells me, "You won't believe what these folks are going through, Michelle; it's not right. We've got to keep working to fix this. We've got so much more to do." I see how those stories — our collection of struggles and hopes and dreams — I see how that's what drives Barack Obama every single day."
Significantly — tellingly — a copy of the Emancipation Proclamation hangs in the Oval Office. President Obama is a good, decent, and caring man with extraordinary leadership qualities, who has done his very best for us and for our nation, every single day. And his very best is the very essence of American exceptionalism. How much does Barack Obama deserve re-election? It's not even a close call, no matter what happens at the polls in November.

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