Thursday, January 12, 2017

The Audacity of Dignity

We're back!  Here is Steve with his take on Obama's Farewell Address.

With his approval rating purring along at a comfortable cruising altitude of 57% and just days left in his Presidency, Barack Obama planned his farewell address, no doubt hoping that this one day, just this one time, his calm, measured voice would be heard above the screeching  assaults of the Twitterer-elect. Just this one day, he would dominate this news cycle with his own “first draft of history,” his own sense of how he wishes his presidency to be remembered.

But noooooooooooooooo.

Earlier in the day, the news broke that the top secret intelligence final report on the Russian hacking scandal had included the mind-exploding revelation that the Russians claim to have unearthed and to possess “compromising personal and financial information” about Donald Trump.

Let’s face it: nine times out of ten the phrase “compromising personal information” is code for a Kardashian-grade videotape, which, in the case of this particular flabby, orange-fuzzed 70-year-old, conjures a gruesome image.  If Buzzfeed’s, ah, “leaked” report is even the slightest bit accurate, it gives vast new layers of meaning to the phrase “the politician was embarrassed by a leak.” Bottom line:  Please, God, don’t let anyone leak this videotape!  I felt bad enough for those poor KGB agents who had to operate the hidden cameras. Yecch!

And for what? Hey, Vlad, do you think you are going to own this guy with videotape? This is the guy who was caught on a hot mike saying that he was such a star that women willingly allow him to “grab them by the pussy,” and he was elected President!   Hey, Mr. Putin-on-the-Ritz, do you really think that you are going to top that with a grainy nanny-cam shot through a two-way mirror at the Moscow Day’s Inn?

But the lava gushing out of the Trump slime volcano yesterday actually provided the exact context and perspective needed to frame Barack Obama’s farewell address.

Barack Obama, in 52 minutes, somehow managed to project a reservoir of idealism, optimism, and faith in America in the face of the daily carnival we are witnessing as the Trump team clumsily attempts to take the reins of power.  Those paying close attention witnessed Obama launch a few high-IQ seeking missiles that skewered Donald Trump so artfully that the Donald probably missed most of them entirely. 

A Meryl Streep-style full-on attack has never been this man’s style.  Here is an amuse bouche of the man’s stealth rapier:  at one point Obama noted that the progress of our nation has never been an uninterrupted path forward, but was often “two steps forward, and one step back.” The symbolism was hard to miss: “Two Obama terms forward, One Trump term back.”

As expected, Obama viewed his farewell as an open shot at defining his legacy. He teed up this topic by wondering what people would have said had he launched his first term as President by announcing seemingly foolhardy goals… reducing unemployment to below five percent, reversing the recession, tripling the DOW, rescuing the domestic car industry, ensuring that no foreign terrorist organization attacked the United States in his term in office, eliminating Osama Bin Laden, broadening medical coverage to achieve the  lowest rate of uninsured Americans ever recorded, and shutting down Iran’s nuclear program “without a shot.” Yes, those would have been crazy, unrealistic, seemingly unachievable goals. And yet they all came to pass.

But the Trump zingers and the pride in his accomplishments were woven carefully within a broader narrative that was clearly Obama’s most central focus: a genuine concern for the health of democracy in America.

Curiously, there is actually no real tradition of a “farewell speech” for American Presidents. The fact is that by the end of their terms, most Presidents have long since outstayed their welcome, their popularity dissipated. Think about the fact that there has only been one time since 1950 that a President was succeeded through the electoral process by a member of his own party.  So it stands to reason that despised and rejected lame duck presidents are not terribly interested in making a big speech, and darn few people would bother to listen if they did.

Indeed, the only “farewell speech” by a President in that time frame that anyone remembers is when Dwight Eisenhower departed from office by issuing an ominous warning about the “rise of the military-industrial establishment.” When a Republican general warns you about the corrupting influencing of Fortune 500 military contractors in cahoots with the Pentagon, you actually do sit up and take note.

It was therefore fascinating that Barack Obama, like Eisenhower, chose to make a warning the centerpiece of his valedictory. Obama noted us that throughout our nation’s history, there have been times when our democracy has been under threat. These first decades of the 21st Century, Obama observed, have been such a time. Obama identified the four great threats to our democracy as economic inequality, racism, the decline of respect for objective fact as the basis for analysis, and the risk of abdication and disengagement -- of taking democracy for granted.

Obama views each to be a clear and present danger to America democracy, but something tells me he saved his biggest concern for that last point.

I freely confess to being an unabashed and enthusiastic supporter of Barack Obama. For eight years, he has made me proud to be an American.

Yet I must also confess that I do not share his unequivocal optimism for our nation’s future.  Where he sees an oft- interrupted but nonetheless relentless march forward – two steps forward, one step back – I can make an argument that America shows many traits of the great powers and cultures that have peaked and begun a slow and inexorable slide toward mediocrity.  Exhibit one in my argument is the election of Donald Trump as our President, which is one hardly “one step back,” but more like programming the flux capacitor in the DeLorean to 1856 in an 88 mile-per-hour retreat  from our ideals, principles, and aspirations.

Tom Nelson, in his debut album “Reinforcements,” wrote a verse in his moving song “Let’s Waste Another  Year” that has been running through my mind since Obama spoke.

“Decline and fall…
It ain’t so bad at all
We can resist it for a while, dear…”*

Yes, decline and fall in America doesn’t appear to be so bad at all. We have organic produce at Whole Foods, a rich offering on Netflix, and 50 likes every time we post on Instagram.  Come on, Steve, just how bad can Trump be? America has survived far worse, I am told over and over again.

Perhaps I am in the minority, but I can see four scenarios in which Trump leads us into World War III without even wasting another year.

  •  He cancels the Iranian nuclear deal, causing Teheran to restart its nuclear program, triggering Netanyahu to launch a pre-emptive strike.  Boom.
  •  Kim Jong-un rattles his newly developed nuclear-tipped ICBM, and The Donald launches a pre-emptive strike, which sends nuclear-tipped short range missiles on a Seoul-searching trip south. China joins in, and pretty soon we are all humming a gruesome Tom Lehrer tune.  Boom.
  • Putin smothers Trump with love and then rolls tanks into Estonia. By the time Trump figures out that Putin is not his BFF, his nuts are in a vise and Putin is sidling up to Poland. Then what? Boom.
  • Here’s my favorite: Trump feels personally offended and dissed in any one of these scenarios, and goes prematurely nuclear.  Our own generals refuse to follow his orders to execute the launch codes. And do you know what? In those particular seven days in May, lefties like you and me end up rooting for the generals. But the “boom” you hear this time is the sound of our democracy keeling over and dying in the face of a military coup, and the banana republic we live in is not the kind you find at the Mall.

Decline and fall – it ain’t so bad at all. And we can only resist it for a while, right, dear?  Yes, then it becomes real work. It becomes a job. Like the French resistance was a real job. It’s not just wearing a safety pin or signing all your social media posts with #notmypresident. It is actually getting out and doing something.

Do we have it in us to fight back?  Or do each and every one of us make our own little daily appeasement at Munich and hope for the best?

Deep down, for all the radiant optimism and eternal hope, Barack Obama may actually feel the same way. Why else would he make his valedictory a gigantic warning about the clear and present dangers to our democracy?

I will miss Barack Obama. I am frightened to think just how much we will all miss him when the world starts to spin out of control and there is no cool-headed, knowledgeable, patient, tough, fair, and wise leader sitting in that office trying to solve a tough problem without triggering the end of civilization as we know it.

That is what I will miss about Barack Obama, and that is what I most fear about Donald Trump. In the face of truly outrageous affronts, insults, questions about his own citizenship, and the legitimacy of this presidency, Barack Obama remained cool, analytical, and in control. He countered racism, bigotry, ignorance, and intolerance with implacable calm and stoic dignity.  In a world that screams, kicks, attacks, lies, cheats, tweets, and fights dirty, that calm and that dignity were a brilliant leader’s brilliant response. Talk about audacity. The audacity of dignity.

In the end, for all the differences between Trump and Obama on politics, beliefs, philosophy, ideology, and knowledge, the greatest gap of all is the temperament gap.

The torch has been passed, indeed, from one of most dignified Presidents in our history to a man who has already pretty much guaranteed that he will be the least.

Forward this column if you must, but it would be so much better if you volunteered to fight for Planned Parenthood, or to protect our environment from the impact of long-term climate change, or did what you could to prevent Republicans for destroying the Senate filibuster. Fight the people who want to go back to a deregulated Wall Street. Fight the people who want to ban Muslims. You don’t have to travel to find them.  Roughly 50% of them live on your cul de sac.  

Or so I am left to infer from the way they voted.

Please stop pretending that forwarding a link can be considered action.  Do something in that archaic non-virtual reality that we call our home town.

Do something.

That’s not me talking. In 52 minutes last night, that is what your President warned that you must do.

Or we will have no one to blame but ourselves.

*Lyrics from “Let’s Waste Another Year,” from the album “Reinforcements”
Tom Nelson, lyrics and music


  1. As always, great piece, Steve. Couldn't agree more that we all need to "do something." Day in and day out. One way to raise our voices is to walk in the Women's Marches taking place, not just in Washington, but throughout the country, on January 21. Here's a link so that people can find where there's a march close to their home towns. It's a start.

  2. i think obomber deserves some of the blame for trump, the loss of senate, and the loss of congress. afterall his first campaign reversal (public option and mandate) possibly kept 5 million people from voting for him in 2012 and will now be the most likely reason for its repeal. why does he say its up to us to vote and get active when we did that in 2008/2012 but he did not support us but chose to support rahm emanuel and the clintonistas.


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