Thursday, January 19, 2017

Letters to the President

I am not naive about the American presidency.  I have been a student of it since I was 14, fascinated with Senator John F. Kennedy running against Hubert Humphrey in the Democratic primaries.

I helped out in his campaign locally in western PA (the first of many such efforts.) My family helped get me to Washington for his inauguration, and by luck and pluck I was among the first ordinary Americans to shake his hand as President.

I kept up with his presidency by reading the available newspapers (in those days, I'd be lucky to find the New York Times in the public library a week after it was published), watching TV news and special programs, reading weekly newsmagazines and monthly magazines. I knew the names of Kennedy's chief advisors and everyone in his cabinet, more than any administration since. (I can still name his cabinet, along with the starting lineup of the 1960 Pittsburgh Pirates.)

I wrote to the White House, received courteous replies, which sometimes said my letter was passed along to the State Department or wherever for their further consideration. Nonsense perhaps, as I probably knew even then, but I still felt part of it.  I served as an usher at a President Kennedy speech in Pittsburgh, where one of my duties was to keep my eye on the crowd for suspicious behavior, and I was told how to identify Secret Service officers to tell them.

I followed every event in those eventful years, including some now forgotten--the Civil Rights speech and bills he introduced (not LBJ who only saw them pass) and especially his American University speech which fundamentally changed the Cold War and quickly brought about the limited nuclear test ban treaty, the first of what became many--the most recent of which was signed by President Obama.

And of course I was scarred for many years by JFK's assassination, and then Robert Kennedy's--which in some ways hurt more--as well as Martin Luther King. But all this was not blind hero worship.  My interest and curiosity led me to a more nuanced understanding of the job.  Because it is a job.

President Kennedy mentioned Richard Neustadt’s book Presidental Power in an interview, so I was probably 16 when I read it (it's still considered the key text on the subject), along with Ted Sorenson’s Decison-Making in the White House. I learned how complex it was to get things done, and how limited presidential power is in practice. You can’t just give orders.

Years later, I happily watched Bill Clinton, who is about six weeks younger than me, become President. I was working in an office at the time, and I knew how hard it was in the course of a day to get even a few things done. There are only so many hours, so much attention possible. I kept this in mind when people complained that Clinton (or Obama) wasn’t doing enough of this or that.

Barack Obama was the first candidate to really inspire me since JFK--not just because of his words, his acute intelligence, but because of who he was.

Yet I understood, even in the euphoria of that 2008 election, that there were limits to what he could accomplish.  And while I had some questions about why he did and didn't do things (so I'll be reading his books),  I understood the obvious and likely forces and problems.

 Above all, I listened to what he said about all this.  I never thought he was perfect.  But I always believed he was honest, that he respected facts, that he believed in and practiced empathy.

Communication these days is so much more complicated--that is, it is so easy that everyone is flooded with messages, and probably fewer get through.  So I never wrote a letter to President Obama.  Not until it came time to say thank you, as many others were doing.

Yet he accomplished so much (and so much that he is criticized for is simply untrue, as all the actual fact-checkers agree) that I had a hard time figuring out what to say.  So I left it for the last moment, and even then I couldn't get my email through--turns out there was a character limit!

Here's most of what I did finally send:

Thank you for the Recovery Act, and especially for seeding the clean energy future. 

 Thank you for all that the Affordable Care Act has done to right wrongs and provide more people with meaningful medical insurance.

Thank you for restoring American honor by banning torture and ending related shameful practices, and for trying to do more.

Thank you for recognizing the priority of the climate crisis, and for selecting the most powerful and doable changes to reduce greenhouse gases.

To see the United States be a leader of the Paris climate agreement in what was arguably the first time the people of this planet acted as one, was a wonderful, shining moment.

Thank you for ending the imminent threat of Iran possessing nuclear weapons, without deadly violence and the dangerous possibility of war.

Thank you for all of this and more that you’ve done in a very difficult political context, and for all that you said and did as a public communicator in a variety of settings. I believe that words of intelligence, compassion and wisdom have long lives.

Thanks to you and your family for setting a high standard and excellent example. So much of this was so needed after our recent history.

For all of these reasons, I am sure that you have inspired many, many young people over the past eight years, as President Kennedy inspired me. 

That’s the source of my hope. If some were in their early teens in 2008, as I was when I worked for JFK and shook his hand, they’ll be graduating from college and going on with their education, or going out into the world. And together with those who were younger, or who were growing up in your second term—they will follow, so for years to come there will be many who will say the first President they admired was Barack Obama. And their lives in some ways will be guided by that.

Even an old guy like me will remember that high among my proudest adult moments was voting for you. And that you were the President I most admired.

And so I said goodbye to President Obama, and I am saying goodbye to the Presidency.  I may be wrong but I don't think it's going to ever be the same.  I've seen the best of it.

But I've also agonized through Nixon, through Reagan, through the Bushes. What's coming is probably way worse, but that was enough.  I'm old and I am determined to turn my attention elsewhere.  I doubt I'll be able to ignore the consequences of the coming regime of Homegrown Hitler, but I'll leave the politics and the daily journalism and commentary to others.

I agree with President Obama that younger people shouldn't mope, they should go to work. But me, I'm retired.  I'll look to make my contributions in ways other than closely following the political battles, especially as I believe that this election result transcended politics.

In my email to the White House, I didn't say what I am most grateful for.  Which is that he's still alive.

I am also not blind to the backlash to his presidency.  Jung wrote: “Every good quality has its bad side, and nothing good can come into the world without at once producing a corresponding evil.”  In view of the overt and enraged racism that has built and then exploded while the first black President and his family were in the White House, Jung may well be right.

In the past I've quoted President Obama's parting advice to White House interns: "Be kind, be useful, be fearless."  That's good advice for the young.  For the rest of us who've learned we can't avoid fear I'd modify it a bit: Be kind, be useful, be courageous.

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