It’s Tuesday night and The President is in Arizona to make a speech. Something terrible has happened and people died, and so everybody wants The President to say a thing, including The President. He looks like he always does; the suit, the timeless blue background, the flags. The President has been trying to tell us this thing all this time, but we weren’t ready to listen. Today we are, and so The President, while grieving, is still authentic and still regal and so it’s not apparent that he’s eagerly unwrapping this thing he’s been clutching; instead he appears like the man who knows the right thing to say, right now.
The President opens with that Thing we all feel when someone has died and someone else has survived, and that someone else is looking to you for comfort, because they’re all torn up about that other person dying: “There is nothing I can say that will fill the sudden hole torn in your hearts.” It’s true; Sarah Palin said something like that, too, but it’s better this time. There is nothing anyone can say to fill the sudden hole torn in anybody’s hearts. Let’s get that out there straight away.
Right away I can feel The President setting up his show firmly in the middle of the aisle or perhaps above it altogether. From his vantage point, he will preach truths to rows of monsters and saints.
The President wants to be liked / admired / appreciated. The President is a Decent Guy.
As he begins speaking, I think about how I feel personally wounded when The President says something good and the angry wo/men on the teevee throw their spiteful insultbombs at him like cranky animals. I think of how those wo/men are like internet trolls: you can do your best to appease them, deal a fair hand and respect everyone’s perspectives. You can try and listen. You can say the right thing. But at the end of the day, the point isn’t that you’re getting somewhere, it’s that you’re still talking at all.
After listening to the President’s speech, I know I’ll want to read what’s been said about it in the media. But I have to write this story that you’re reading right now before I read anybody else’s story, otherwise it’s not real and it’s time to GET REAL. [I mean you don’t have to like The President or anything. But someone gave a really good speech, Preach-in-the-Marketplace style, and he said some obvious things that we don’t say enough, so just humor him and GET REAL]
The President knows it hasn’t all been desert sunsets and flags in the wind these days and that people cope by yelling at each other. But tonight he returns to his stubborn belief that logical solutions, if explained properly and delivered perfectly, will always succeed.
I worry that this strategy works in almost every area of life except for being President of the United States.
The President quotes Scripture and cites G-d from the get-go. That’s safe — atheists don’t care when you mention G-d, but religious people are pleased as punched to hear their #1 Feeling echoed so consistently. It soothes them/us and makes them/us listen better. The President references the importance of Freedom of Speech so that the right wing knows he found a much better way of speaking about The Freedom of Speech than they did — as if “freedom of speech” is ever a compelling excuse for indecency.
The President says names like “John McCain” and “George H.W. Bush” straight away, too, and those noises soothe certain constituents of the Old White Man Brigade.
Then The President tells us some recently-finished stories. The stories of American lives that reverberate and touch our hearts. The President is telling us to see our stories, too, as part of a greater, human story, and our lives as uniquely American and profoundly important. That might be total bullshit but also — whatever. We’ll take it.
Eleven minutes in, The President mentions that “Gaby” opened her eyes that day for the first time, just a few minutes after he left. We are warmed, not only by the news but by his seemingly genuine desire to ensure he delivers information of gravity without a shred of opportunism or exploitation.
She’s with us too, he says: “She knows we are here, she knows we love her and she knows that we are rooting for her.”
He thanks Daniel Hernandez, the gay intern who insists he’s not a hero even though the world insists that he is. In a way, Daniel has a point, though, you know? He did what everyone should do. Anyone who wouldn’t do what he did isn’t just not a hero — they’re not a human. But for Daniel and for the people who tackled the gunman, a hypothetical became a reality and they rose to the challenge.
This is what The President says about being a hero:
“Heroism is found not only on the fields of battle. They remind us heroism does not require special training or physical strength. Heroism is here, in the hearts of so many of our fellow citizens. All around us, just waiting to be summoned. as it was on Saturday morning. Their actions, their selflessness, poses a challenge to each of us. It raises a question – what beyond prayers, expressions of concern, is required of us going forward. How can we honor the fallen? How can we be true to their memory?
The President understands our silly brains and the things we try to do when unbelievably terrible things happen. He understands why we point fingers at each other. But The President knows that our discourse has been destroyed by viscous political parties that aren’t really much of a party anymore. It’s more apart than a party.
He says we need to learn to talk to each other in a way that heals, not in a way that wounds.
The President executes a flawless double-meaning there. He tells us about the Scriptures again and reminds us that G-d is in his heart —
and then The President scolds us for taking this tragic event and using it as another reason to be heartless assholes to each other. The President wants us to remember that we are all human beings, you see. Somewhere along the line this idea has gotten lost and The President knows this.
“This we cannot do,” The President tells us solemnly and sober as a judge. He repeats “That, we cannot do,” like how a stand-up comedian repeats the last few lines of a successful joke, except that it’s the opposite of a joke. Shit just got serious.
“Do you have a heart?” The President is asking the people, hiding the statement safely between the lines so nobody can hear how disappointed he is in us, but also hopeful.
Yes we do, the people say, while clapping their hands.
Well then start acting like it, The President says:
“As we discuss these issues, let each of us do so with a good dose of humility. Rather than pointing fingers or assigning blame, let us use this occasion to expand our moral imaginations, to listen to each other more carefully, to sharpen our instincts for empathy, and remind ourselves of all the ways our hopes and dreams are bound together.”
“Remember?” the President asks us. Remember how it feels when you lose somebody in your family, “especially when that loss was unexpected”? I mean talk about a hole in your heart, people! A real one, not the kind you wear like a shield to protect yourself or the kind you slap on your sleeve to scare and warn other people that you mean business.
The President wants us to remember that we are all human beings and that for many of us, the sudden unexpected, tragic loss of another living, breathing, heart-and-soul-fortified human person is a feeling we have had. I have. Have you? It’s the worst. I mean it’s just the worst thing that ever happens, you know? The President knows this. The President reminds us that we need to learn how to grieve. Again, we seem to have forgotten.
This is how it’s done:
1. One is shaken out of one’s routines
2. One is forced to look inwards
3. One reflects on the past
4. One wonders, “Did we spend enough time with an aging parent?” and “Did we express our gratitude for all the sacrifices they made for us?”
5. One tells one’s spouse just how desperately we love him/her/hir
6. Do “5” every day.
7. One looks backwards and also forward
8. One reflects on the present and the future (+ #3)
10. One evaluates “the manner in which we live our lives and nurture our relationships with those who are still with us.”
11. One asks oneself if we have shown enough kindness and generosity and compassion to the people in our lives.
12. One questions whether we’re doing right by our children and our community.
The President reminds us that we are going to die, too. The President has a thesis, served up meaning-of-life style:
“What matters is not wealth or status or power or fame, but rather how well we have loved. And what small part we have played in making the lives of other people better”
– The President of the united states, barack obama
The President is reminding us that this is all there is. The rest of it — the politics, the economy, the cultural institutions of our everyday lives — those are just the things we have to keep in place in order for our emotional humanity to biologically survive the universe. All there is of Gabrielle Giffords is the feelings she had that made her do the things she did, and how many feelings are there, really? We are all in the same family and we’d better get over ourselves because blood is blood and this is forever.
The President brings it back to Christina Taylor, because her story is the saddest of the year. I mean what the fucking fuck is that, you know? And born on 9-11? The term “only in America” turns bitter in our mouths, and so we have to spit it out because The President is about to get real and we are so ready:
“In Christina we see all of our children. So curious, so trusting, so energetic, so full of magic. So deserving of our love. If this tragedy prompts reflection and debate, as it should, let’s make sure it’s worthy of those we have lost.”
The President has hit it out of the ballpark and straight into our hearts now. We hug each other and he continues:
“And if, as has been discussed in recent days, their deaths help usher in more civility in our public discourse, let’s remember that it is not because a simple lack of civility caused this tragedy — it did not — but rather because only a more civil and honest public discourse can help us face up to our challenges as a nation, in a way that would make them proud.”
That nine-year-old girl — she wanted to be the first woman in the Major Leagues. I wanted to be the first woman in the major leagues, too. Did you, my tomboy friends?
At the end of the speech, The President says that all we need to do is just be nice to each other: we’re full of decency and goodness, and the forces that divide us are not as strong as those that unite us.
The President tells us that Christina Taylor had been elected to Student Council and had gone to see a real congresswoman speak. Christina was born on 9-11 and was featured in a book called “Faces of Hope,” and now she is gone.
The President is saying ‘Stop taking your existence for granted.’ Why not be happy? I mean why not? Why the fuck not? Why not just default to happiness instead of bitterness and anger and rage. Why anything? Why not? We need to live up to our children’s expectations, he reminds us.
The President wants us to remember that we are all human beings. He pauses to let us hoot and holler like young, striving American pioneer children, united by nothing more than humanity. And humanity is enough.
I’m awake; I am in the world–
no further assurance.
No protection, no promise.
-from “Stars” by Louise Gluck
Then it’s over. I sit at my keyboard and wonder why The President’s understanding of our emotional truths doesn’t translate into bold policy decisions like outlawing discrimination.
I also realize that he didn’t mention Jared Loughner by name or really give him any time at all in that 30-minute speech. I like that choice.
I decide to have faith anyhow.
The thing is, The President said, is that America is pretty concerned about your feelings. That’s why we’re allowed to do and say whatever we want. America is pretty fucked, but there is that: this is a place where you are free to feel your feelings and you will not be punished by the government for feeling them.
You do you, The President is saying. You do you for me, and for all of us.