I still have a strange sense of hope for change, but it is not coming from Barack Obama. Rather it is coming from public rumblings that I'm beginning to hear of a desire for integrity and truth among all of us -- including whoever might occupy the White House.
Last week, my husband and I escaped New York's epic winter to the island climes of Antigua. While there, I took the time to finish the Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Revolutionary Characters: What Made the Founders Different, by Brown University history professor Gordon S. Wood. Instead of a dusty rehash of well-worn nostalgia, Wood allows the reader to enter a privileged world of acquaintance with a few leading figures of our government at its birth.
I use the word "privileged" to refer to a world I feel privileged to see through the eyes of an author who translates the past and brings it to light by appreciating it as a living, breathing thing. Naturally the first chapter focuses on our first president, George Washington, the guy on the quarter, who never told a lie. And what do you know, but Wood also makes him stand out among all human beings over time in our country for his uncompromising honesty and dedication to country.
Washington was resolute.
Sure, those were different times, but there were the challenges of revolution and organizing a young nation. And of course, the Continental Congress and the people willingly gave Washington the power because they wanted a true leader. As president, Washington asked for opinions from key advisers; he heard them rather than counting only the opinions he wanted to hear, rather than twisting the essence of his character and switching positions out of a thirst for power. According to Wood, Washington's thirst was for reputation and being seen as honorable and as "disinterested" in being bought by special interests.
As for our current President Obama -- the one who seduced much of a public, including so many young people -- I have come to think that his character is anything but sturdy. He is as good an actor as Washington is said to have been, but fundamentally, President Washington acquired positions on important matters and kept to the integrity of making his own decisions and stuck to them. At the end of the day, Washington was a truth-seeker. He was a statesman rather than a politician.
Washington sought approval for being a virtuous and disinterested man, rather than desperately seeking popularity ratings for votes and power at just about any cost as do politicians of today -- including Obama. If you think about it, our president is committing a kind of prostitution and one so egregious as to harm all of those who counted on him for integrity and his vow to prioritize humanity, children, our present travails and our future.
With that said, for us and the media to point at or blame this single man, this fleeting occupant of the high office, would be just as egregious.
Instead, we need to look hard at our sad, divisive and destructive situation and start with ourselves. We have become utterly dependent on those in power and so seduced into seeing things along party lines. We have been drawn into a lust for violence against our neighbors, into an assaultive battering of anyone who sees anything differently. We have become obsessed with the bullying of our young people when our attentions should focus more on trying to heal the rhetorical and very real violence we commit among ourselves every day.
George Washington saw the tendency in human beings to be overcome by demagoguery. Thankfully, he was not seduced into such behavior. At first, I was upset with Obama for not helping us understand the forces he had to fight, but then I watched him lower taxes for extremely rich people while reducing funds for the things that most people need. Well, now it is all coming home.
Simply stated, Obama doesn't have the backbone a president needs. He has no loyalty to the truth, nor to actively lead us towards metabolizing difficult issues so we can ourselves see difficult truth. Like most politicians, he appears to calculate avoidance (e.g. war, terror, torture, environmental threats, etc.). In hiding from the truth, he is committing flagrant offenses against us all.
Every day we watch him parry for a one-vote majority rather than weighing the greater good or even the cost of effective policies and sticking to them.
While I believe he has been able to easily sell himself as virtuous in a country that considers the foibles of married men and their mistresses as the worst possible crime without seeing that the worst is selling out to the most powerful special interest of the moment, I am left to wonder, does he really think Republicans and others who hate his guts will buy his tactics of "compromise"? Not so far. They have been able to capitalize on this as a weakness. They see him as beneath them.
All of this leaves those, like me, who so ardently supported his presidency with deep feelings of disappointment and shame. Yet, I hope this leads to a recovery of reason and some sanity instead of exacerbating our tendency to demonize one another or surrender to cynicism.
To be sure, our country is at a hard toss-up between either growing up a bit and or going (by default) back to a monarchy or into a civil war or a rule by religious "proclamation" or a dictatorship, as George Washington warned might happen.
It has never been more important for everyone in our nation to read about George Washington in our homes and classrooms and talk amongst ourselves, that is, if we can talk without being overcome by hate. Warning: as with grizzly bears, being "interested" in people takes unusual energy, will and practice. Please consult your doctor and your heart as to whether you are ready to begin.
This new kind of exercise, in which we listen to ourselves and each other one might call "Washingtonian" in honor of the real man as opposed to the dysfunctional capitol city named for him. Real listening could well go a long way to begin the kind of radical change our country needs.