Thanks, Mr. President. I guess that’s where I should start. Oh, and sorry. You deserved so much better than to be forced to hand off the country to what’s-his-name and to have to give us a pep talk on democracy, as you did during your farewell address. But enough about all that. I’ve been writing this blog pretty much as long as you have been president, and I have genuine thanks to offer to you.
I don’t just mean thanks for helping to put the country’s economy back together again, after Humpty-Dumpty Republican economic policies mucked it up. Of course, I and millions of other Americans appreciate you for doing that, especially since you had to fight with Republican saboteurs most of the way. You left things in pretty good shape, considering where we were. Your successor will, it appears, once again turn to nursery-rhyme economics, and we will, in due time, be in need of a Democratic rescue.
And I don’t merely mean thanks for trying to get millions of often-forgotten Americans health insurance, and, thus, healthcare, an effort that is now threatened by Republican control of the government. You know as well as I that there are so many people out there who are alive and healthier now because of the Affordable Care Act, as imperfect an instrument for distributing humanity as that law is. God only knows what will eventually happen to the uninsured under Ryan and the Republican’s Randian scheme. But you, along with other Democrats—some of whom knowingly sacrificed their political futures to get the law passed—gave it your best shot under the circumstances.
The truth is that these and other achievements during your administration are not what I will appreciate the most about your time in office. I think you know where I’m going.
In 1966, Dr. King, noting the progress made in the civil rights movement throughout the decade or so before, scrawled at the bottom of a typed speech he was to deliver in South Carolina,
The greatest victory of this period was what it did to the psyc[h]e of the Negro. New dignity and destiny. We came out of this period only slightly integrated in the external society, but powerfully integrated within. We armed ourselves with dignity and self-respect, and our adversaries tasted the gall of defeat.
He mentioned “dignity” twice. He joined dignity with destiny. And he joined dignity with self-respect. You, Mr. President, embody those two combinations. You lived out your destiny as president with such incomparable dignity—especially considering the disrespect and slander and character assassination you endured. You armed yourself with dignity by properly assuming that you deserved regard first as a man and then as our elected leader. You armed yourself with self-respect by assuming your own personal regard. The former was an external expectation; the latter was an internal one. That was what King meant when he differentiated between the two.
As King suggested, and as it became obvious over the course of your presidency, your integrated personality is what led your “adversaries” to taste “the gall of defeat.” That’s what made them so hostile to you. That’s what drove them crazy. All that uppity-ness, which was nothing more than the behavior of a man who was “powerfully integrated within.” I suspect that a significant amount of energy behind Trumpism is tied to such gall. In 1966, King knew the civil rights movement “did not defeat the monster of racism,” and, alas, we see the monster still has some life left in it today, some of that life due to your merely being president, some of it due to your being the president you were.
Don’t get me wrong. There were times when even I would get frustrated with you, with your coolness when the situation seemed to demand heat, and with your compromises when the situation seemed to demand digging in. And there were things I wish you would have emphasized and fought for more than you did—unions and the power of collective bargaining, for instance. But at this moment I am thinking mostly about how you, and your equally dignified and personality-integrated wife, conducted yourselves as the first African-Americans to live in what was for all of our history the White’s House. Neither of you stepped away from your dignity for a moment, although there were times you had to tiptoe around certain issues that, in a still race-sensitive society, would have only stirred up the wrong passions at the wrong time, if you would have expressed righteous anger at some of the indignities you both saw and experienced.
Related to what I am trying to say, I’m glad you did that interview with The New York Times’ chief book critic. As a reader and writer myself, it helped me to understand you better. You said you loved reading as a kid because you traveled so much, which sometimes made you feel “displaced” and the “outsider.” You said it appealed to you that books were portable worlds “that were yours, you could enter into.” You later “rediscovered” reading and writing early in college:
I was hermetic — it really is true. I had one plate, one towel, and I’d buy clothes from thrift shops. And I was very intense, and sort of humorless. But it reintroduced me to the power of words as a way to figure out who you are and what you think, and what you believe, and what’s important, and to sort through and interpret this swirl of events that is happening around you every minute.
After graduation you began to write in your journal and write short stories, mostly about the people you met in your community organizing work. You rejected the “Jack Kerouac, open-road, young kid on the make discovering stuff” in favor of something “more melancholy and reflective.” And that’s where I get back to the idea of your integrated personality. You were asked, “Was writing partly a way to figure out your identity?” to which you replied:
Yes, I think so. For me, particularly at that time, writing was the way I sorted through a lot of crosscurrents in my life — race, class, family. And I genuinely believe that it was part of the way in which I was able to integrate all these pieces of myself into something relatively whole.
People now remark on this notion of me being very cool, or composed. And what is true is that I generally have a pretty good sense of place and who I am, and what’s important to me. And I trace a lot of that back to that process of writing.
In this 140-character world, that’s the perfect tribute to the power of real writing, which is a way some of us sort through our experiences, trying to make sense of them—and ourselves. The way you put it, “to integrate all these pieces of myself into something relatively whole,” said it all.
And that, again, is what I want to thank you for the most. For being an integrated human being, comfortable in your own skin, color and all—all your skin color meant for some people, those who looked at you with a patriotic appreciation for the promise of this country, and those who looked at you with MLK’s “gall of defeat.”
So, to finish up, thanks for being the man you worked hard to be and for being the kind of integrated person all of us should work hard to be. Considering the way you were treated during your presidency by some on the right, and with that hard slap in the face on November 8, you had every right to become cynical. But yielding to cynicism would betray that personality you worked so hard to integrate. You said during your very last press conference on Wednesday that, despite the fact that some people think you are hiding your true feelings about what happened in November, you were truly optimistic:
I believe in this country. I believe in the American people. I believe that people are more good than bad. I believe tragic things happen. I think there’s evil in the world. But I think that at the end of the day, if we work hard, and if we’re true to those things in us that feel true and feel right, that the world gets a little better each time. That’s what this presidency’s tried to be about.
Your beautiful and talented wife said it better than I ever could: “Being president doesn’t change who you are. It reveals who you are.” Over eight years, we saw you get grayer. We saw you get wiser. But we never saw you lose your sense of dignity and destiny, dignity and self-respect.
Thanks and Godspeed, Mr. President.