Obama: On the End of a Literary Presidency
An Obama Administration Speechwriter Takes Stock, and Looks Forward
Which is the way I take;
Out of what door do I go,
Where and to whom?
A lively understandable spirit
Once entertained you.
It will come again.
–Theodore Roethke, from The lost son.
That November drive through Virginia back to Washington: Every color seemed somehow brighter. The red and orange leaves on the side of the highway; the clear blue sky; even the maroon in the car. Every face in every cafe and gas station appeared more hopeful. With each hour into the morning the feeling didn’t fade. And then somewhere along the drive an official from the South African embassy called me: “The President of South Africa would like to call President Elect Obama to congratulate him on his victory. Can you tell me who to call?” With that call it became more real: This good man was in fact going to be our president. He was going to call other presidents and be in charge. So if you ask me what I remember most from that day? The sunlight; my wife’s small brown hand in my own; the feeling that from this moment, our history could be amended, our Union made more perfect, our lives more free.
Now we are here.
Over the last year our dominant political narrative shifted from the vision and ideas of President Barack Obama to a political campaign mired in smallness and depravity. Today we find ourselves in a moment of profound uncertainty as Barack Obama exits and an unqualified, mercurial man takes the helm of the United States government; as a man with no experience in public office and no experience with the military becomes the commander-in-chief of the most powerful military force in the world; a man whose language about women and minorities enables violence across the country. Many haven’t slept well, haunted by forebodings of what’s to come.
Since leaving the Obama Administration last year I have spent my days reading about how human beings withstand significant disruptions. I approached the question first as a former Pentagon speechwriter and security strategist concerned with destructive attacks on the United States, but even more so out of concern for the individual mind, that fertile terrain where political narratives and disruptive events tread their way.
We know how this can feel. The loss of a loved one, a terrorist attack, a surprise political event—such events can shake the very ground beneath your feet. In the worst cases, the mind can grow a little muddled; familiar terrain can become foreign. “Midway upon the journey of our life,” as Dante wrote in his opening lines to The Divine Comedy, “I found myself within a forest dark, For the straightforward pathway had been lost.” It felt a bit like that in 2016.
We each have a duty as citizens to try to prevent disruptions from occurring whenever we can, to cut them off at the pass. Yet not everything can be controlled, not everything can be stopped. Recall the ancient city of Pompei, bustling one day and gone the next. The question thus becomes: How do we respond after?
Barack Obama understands this problem especially well. We have heard the president address it over and over as he spoke to a nation that has too often mourned senseless gun violence. “For all of us, life presents challenges and suffering—accidents, illnesses, the loss of loved ones,” President Obama said in Dallas during his eulogy for the five police officers murdered in July 2016 at a protest they were working to protect.
“There are times when we are overwhelmed by sudden calamity, natural or manmade. All of us, we make mistakes. And at times we are lost,” he admitted. “And as we get older, we learn we don’t always have control of things—not even a President does. But we do have control over how we respond to the world. We do have control over how we treat one another.” In the speech’s coda he repeated a refrain he had first said a year before in a eulogy for Reverend Clementa Pinkney and eight others killed in a mass shooting at Emmanuel African Methodist Church in Charleston, South Carolina. “With an open heart,” he repeated, paraphrasing the prophet Ezekiel, we may live in darkness, but we can reach out to others with love. We can change how we treat one another.
To live with an open heart; this doesn’t always come easily, especially when the mind gets a little muddled. Words can help us see the way forward for our politics as well as our lives.
Following the gun violence of last summer, and to account for the depravity and jarring transition of the 2016 campaign, like many I turned to literature. To James Baldwin’s novel Another Country, Tony Kushner’s play Angels in America, the essays of Zadie Smith, as well as the poetry of Theodore Roethke, A.R. Amons, Langston Hughes, and many more. Writers that could help me take stock of unstocked things. From literature and from the words and tenure of Barack Obama we can discern four lessons on how to live with an open heart. That’s four more than I had before; perhaps more may come, but these four provide a good start.
Four ways to live with an open heart: In the past we struggled and triumphed over adversity, so we should revisit the past and keep faith in future progress; if we confront fear wherever we find it, in ourselves or in others, we help prevent aggression; in the face of a suffering, our best defense lies in love, in the unconditional commitments we make to our families and friends and others; and with an open heart, we can keep at the daily work of politics and service, as citizens, to knit together the world. These lessons don’t come easily. History and our experience prove them right. As the character Hannah Pitt says at the end of Angels in America, “You cannot live in the world without an idea of the world, but it is the living that makes the ideas. You can’t wait for a theory, but you have to have a theory.” Barack Obama and Ezekiel gave us one. The living makes it real.
We may suffer tremendous pain in the years to come, but we have a track record of success on which to fall back when times get rough. This is the easiest and most accessible lesson.
Through reading we can see how far we’ve traveled in the nearly 65 years since the publication of James Baldwin’s novel Another Country in 1962. It would have been unthinkable in Baldwin’s era to imagine an African-American president and a cabinet as diverse as this last one. It would have been impossible to imagine how the Supreme Court would usher in the national right for same-sex marriage. And yet these things happened.
They happened because we learned how to imagine other lives and expand our sense of what is possible and right. James Baldwin himself was triply cursed—gay, black, and the son of a preacher—and he made it his life’s mission to confront the dark forces at work in American society to try to improve the world. Another Country is the story of a small group of white and black and queer friends that are trying to make their way in a hard and racially charged New York City. The novel was written and published before Martin Luther King’s world-changing speeches, written when segregation still reigned in the south and homosexuality was still buried deep in American secular and religious consciousness, further than interracial love. Mixed couples faced judgment and violence on the streets; gay men and women hid their homosexuality from the world.
As Associate Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in his 2015 majority opinion affirming the Supreme Court’s decision requiring all states to recognize the legality of same-sex marriage, “Until the mid-20th century, same-sex intimacy long had been condemned as immoral by the state itself in most Western nations, a belief often embodied in the criminal law.” The American Psychiatric Association even listed homosexuality as a mental disorder until 1973. “For this reason, among others,” Kennedy wrote, “many persons did not deem homosexuals to have dignity in their own distinct identity. A truthful declaration by same-sex couples of what was in their hearts had to remain unspoken.” These twin evils of forcibly closeted sexual identity and racism come with costs. In its worst form, that cost becomes hatred and violence against oneself or others.
Those costs rain down on everyone in Another Country. Particularly one man. In the opening chapter Rufus, a young, black, bisexual jazz musician, wanders the streets of New York consumed by depression and regret borne of years of oppression, an inner hatred that destroyed his relationship with a young southern white woman, Leona. He withdraws from the world and from his friends. He submits to prostituting himself to desperate men for money. He wanders drunk from bar to bar in a rage. Ultimately his pain sends him off the George Washington Bridge.
James Baldwin called Rufus “the black corpse floating in the American mind,” a symbol of the country’s racism and violence that it had to confront. Fear and anger and the potential for violence live within each of us, Baldwin understood, and he saw that individuals and societies succumb to violence when they fail to confront the darker aspects of their own psychological nature. Fear of the other, fear of death, fear of aloneness, fear of economic destabilization, fear of humiliation. If left unaddressed individuals and communities create scapegoats as they project their fears onto racial and sexual groups, towards other individuals, or inwards towards themselves. Demagogic leaders trade in the currency of fear; they offer bravado and aggression as false relief to individual souls caught in a suffering world.
Yet relief comes from another path entirely. Living with an open heart means sublimating the darker parts of the self towards empathy and service—the second lesson. Thus President Obama’s admonition in Dallas to “control how we treat one another” requires that we each examine our inner selves and our expectations for life and all the memories and emotions that live within us, anger, desire, doubt, fear, all of it.
What might it look like to confront those fears? In late November of 2016 in Texas, a bearded older white man stood outside a mosque and raised a sign saying, “You belong. Stay strong. Be blessed. We are one America.” Online the private Facebook group Pantsuit Nation daily churns out stories of women and men from across the United States standing up to hate speech in their lives and for the lives others, sometimes at immense personal costs. Such stories shall be legion. To confront fear and live with an open heart means challenging every word and every idea that would ever denigrate or make vulnerable another life.
In the face of an unjust world we will do our best to resist. Yet our resistance requires not only an ability to withstand fear, but the ability to withstand deep suffering and occasionally absolute horror in our lives. This brings us to the third and most difficult lesson. Our best defense against a dark world lies in wrapping ourselves around our loved ones and friends and committing to love them, and ourselves, unconditionally. This isn’t easy.
In Tony Kushner’s play Angels in America the character Prior Walter becomes deeply ill with HIV/AIDS. He has lesions running all over his body, he’s incontinent and falling through a downward spiral, barely out of his thirties and literally covered with vomit and feces. Compounding his illness, Prior and his friends have been abandoned by a political system that has failed to protect them against a pervasive and terrifying disease. He feels lonely and afraid.
It is at that moment that Prior’s lover Louis Ironson abandons him for Joe Pitt, a young, closeted Republican. Louis’s expectations for an easy life, and an easy life with other people, mismatch the nature of reality. He wanted love and life to be simple yet who on earth ever said that it was? It comes with sickness, and sometimes sickness and political failures like the government’s response to the HIV/AIDS crisis combine at the same time. “You believe the world is perfectible and so you find it always unsatisfying,” Joe tells Louis, “You have to reconcile yourself to the world’s unperfectibility by being thoroughly in the world, but not of it.” You need to accept the hardness of life; this doesn’t mean that life cannot be improved.
Louis’s journey back to Prior becomes the audience’s journey into the reality of the disease; only by facing the world with all its marks and illness and by accepting one another for who they are do Louis and Prior move forward in mission. A mission to get the world to pay attention to HIV/AIDS. Through his humor and vision, Kushner’s story of resilience and activism helped men and women across the world to confront the disease and stick together in love.
To live with an open heart means never giving up on the day-to-day work of building a better world. That is the duty of all citizens; of journalists and authors exposing the truth; of civil servants upholding the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic; of activists leading a march against injustice. Yet the day-to-day work of principles and politics can often be just that—quotidian, dull, occasionally exhausting—and we need inspiration and faith to keep at it. Which brings us back to this moment of transition and to the work that lies ahead—and to the fourth and final lesson.
In Barack Obama’s campaign and election many found a leader that embodied so many American hopes and dreams—a politician who could help the individual and the collective on a journey of change, a man who could bring the once marginalized into the center of power, a leader who could help us overcome disunity and realize a better future. No one’s perfect, of course, but he is exceptional.
The line from these literary works (and so many others) to Barack Obama’s candidacy seems clear in retrospect. In Obama we found a man whose primary message was to sublimate fear and move forward in unity. The most memorable moment of the 2004 Democratic National Convention can be found in Barack Obama’s first real national frame. “We worship an awesome God in the blue states, and we don’t like federal agents poking around our libraries in the red states,” he said, “We coach little league in the blue states and, yes, we’ve got some gay friends in the red states.” He captured the world’s imagination and a generation of Americans rose up to support his candidacy a few years later.
From the frozen streets of New England to the beaches of Hampton Roads, during the year on his 2007-2008 campaign I met Americans of all shapes and sizes, all walks of life, some in wealthier homes and many in modest ones, some at the peak of their lives, others in the twilight of their years, many struggling with economic hardship, all trying to make their way. Each wondered about the direction of the country and how they could contribute. Their hopes and dreams inspired me then as now. It was a remarkable intersectional rally that brought Barack Obama to power, a coalition that brought blacks and liberal whites and the gay community and Latinos and others together in common work to get out the vote.
Victory was a collective high that lasted for weeks and weeks. Yet for all that he achieved—and for all that his legacy will achieve—nothing can change the inner nature of the world. Sometimes, surprises happen.
The world may not be perfectible; but it can always be improved. Working for change on a political campaign, through community organizing, or in government can be immensely tiring and painful. Yet these are the tools we have to make change real.
Day-in and day-out, politics revolves around power and the constant negotiation of agendas. It’s tough work no matter how many good people you know. Getting meaningful things done in government, for example, means politicking with hundreds of people. Shockingly not everyone in Congress or the Executive Branch meditates every day on the reality of sin and samsara and the power of transcendence. Senior level daily meetings don’t begin with kumbaya but a litany of demands imposed from above and (more often) from the outside. The workday starts at 0600 or earlier for many and goes well past 1900. There’s a break for dinner, often with the BlackBerry having its own seat at the table, and then a few hours more of work after the family or the dog goes to bed. It is the opposite of sexy.
People misunderstand each other or compete against each other all the time. This causes friction, of course, and there are narcissists aplenty, especially at the top. There are friends, there are enemies, and there are “frenemies,” people whom you may love as people but sit in opposing positions that sometimes require them to take views at odds with your own. Then sometimes there are friends who are actually enemies and enemies who are actually friends, but you just can’t quite tell until your agenda has been knifed or saved.
You toil away on a campaign or in bureaucracies for years to make politics and policy happen or to bring stories to light. It can drain you in ways you could barely imagine. Then on some days, the work pays off.
“The nature of injustice is that we may not always see it in our own times,” Justice Kennedy wrote in his decision ratifying the right of gay marriage for the country. The founding fathers entrusted to future generations in the Constitution a charter that carried with it “the right of all persons to enjoy liberty as we learn its meaning. When new insight reveals discord between the Constitution’s central protections and a received legal stricture, a claim to liberty must be addressed.” The country had finally arrived at another moment in the long struggle for freedom that Baldwin and Kushner and so many others had worked to address. A claim on liberty made its way to the highest court of the land.
Gay men and women hoped “not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization’s oldest institutions. They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right. The judgment of the Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit is reversed. It is so ordered.” With these words walls fell down and love won; the world moved forward. Across the world people sent the decision to partners and lovers and parents and friends.
Faith may offer cognitive freedom from an imperfect world, literature may help us see the way, but “only in politics does the miraculous occur,” as Louis Ironson says; only politics can change laws and govern the world. For that we can never give up on it.
The list of this Administration’s achievements accumulated before and after 2015, some known across the world, some classified, some still unfolding today. Somehow this one decision made every day worth it. In this our Union was made more perfect.
We are at a moment of transition as a country. The end of this Administration is a difficult time for those that believed in this president; it is even harder now given the fear and uncertainty that our incoming president engenders. Our journey, it seems, lies between the twin poles of resistance and resilience: Between the power and hope of the political project—the need to address any injustice and violence in the world—and the equal but divergent need to withstand a world where wickedness will always exist. How shall we make our way forward? By pursuing an authentic search for truth; by confronting fear; by finding and sustaining love wherever we can; by committing to the daily work. By living with an open heart.
Literature gives us something on which to fall back when the straightforward path gets lost. The legacy of the last eight years and the writings of prior eras can help us imagine our way through whatever may come. To plot a course for our politics as well as our lives. “The world only spins forward,” Prior Walter says at the end of Angels in America. “The time has come. Bye now. You are fabulous creatures, each and every one. And I bless you: More Life. The Great Work Begins.” It began in 2008, and it was pretty great.
Now it begins again, in a manner we never expected. Soon we’ll make our way without this president and his gifted wife and family. It’s more than a little scary and more than a little sad. Yet when the country suffers or stumbles, as it will, we will have something far greater than our present world to hold onto: The truths of love, as found in words and in our historical experience and in each other. Our literary and political history from 1962 to 1991 to today gives us a record of words and world-changing action. Life won’t be easy; real change never is; real love never is. Yet together we strive and move forward and won’t ever give up. It is so ordered, indeed.