Thursday, January 21, 2010
Dear President Obama
A year ago today, I awoke in a hotel room in Washington, D.C. filled with anticipation at the prospect of witnessing your inauguration. I am not a political person; in fact, I loathe politics. I had never worked in a political campaign in my life, but I made up my mind to work for you because I believed that you were our last best chance at becoming the country we claim to be—and must become if we are to survive. I spent hours, days, weeks, months making phone calls, going door-to-door, and sitting at a card table in the parking lot of a grocery store in a ghetto neighborhood, signing up people to vote.
I will never be sorry that I did it. I will never forget the whole families that stopped by on Sundays to register, after church, the ladies in their beautiful hats. And the down-and-outs, the kids—barely eighteen, people just pulling in on their way to or from work. There was a sign on the door of the grocery store that said, “Felons can vote.” Some came, tentatively, to sit down at our table, and left standing taller.
The last day of registration, people came all day long. I walked up the block with my clipboard to where a bunch of guys were hanging out on a front porch, spilling out onto the street. “Have you registered to vote yet?” I asked. It was very quiet for a moment; they looked at me. Then one said to another, “You register, man?” The guy shook his head, no—and his friend gestured toward me. I signed him up—and several others. “Thanks for coming down,” they said, when I left.
We signed up thousands of voters at that corner from May to October; in November, we took busloads of people to the polls.
Election morning, my husband and I were at the gathering place for poll workers at 5 a.m. Spirits were high. It turned out to be a chilly day, but sunny—and we sat outside of our assigned place on lawn chairs all day, hoping, hoping, hoping.
“YES WE CAN,” you said. And we did.
It was the most amazing feeling. That, too, I will never, ever forget.
We hadn’t really talked about going to your inauguration, but the morning after the election, my son-in-law Jim made hotel reservations on an impulse. “We have to go,” he said.
I will never forget the day of your inauguration, either. It was bitterly cold, and I remember setting out, all bundled up, merging with the river of people heading for the mall. Everyone was so—happy. We had tickets, but when we got to Fourteenth Street we couldn’t get across because it had already been closed. We didn’t care. We walked back toward the Washington Monument and watched on one of the Jumbotrons dotting the inauguration landscape that day.
I remember looking at the monument, so white against the cloudless blue, blue sky—and the flags circling it, thinking that it was lovely to be able to look at American flags and not feel angry. To think, maybe, I could begin to feel that the flags were mine, too. I remember all our little clouds of breath mingling in the cold air. Thousands and thousands of people. People as far as I could see in any direction. So many kinds of people, all of us gathered for this momentous event.
In time, the dignitaries began to arrive. Eventually, President Bush. Dour Dick Cheney—in a wheelchair! I swear, there was a collective gasp of pleasure that had to have been heard all the way to Virginia when your beautiful girls appeared on the screen—our girls, too.
Then there you were, striding onto the screen. Calm, collected, there. You raised your hand, your voice rang out. “I, Barack Hussein Obama…”
The inauguration of the first African-American president! I had wanted my grandchildren to see that, to tell the story of your inauguration to their own grandchildren years from now.
But most of all, I wanted them to be able to tell their grandchildren about being present at the moment when, finally, America grew up and began to fulfill it’s true promise.
I wanted them to be able to say, with wonder, “Before President Obama, people were hungry, they suffered and died because they couldn’t afford the health insurance they needed to get medical treatment, some kids went to schools were there weren't enough books.
“Before President Obama, we were arrogant, we believed we were entitled to try to make everyone in the world believe what we believed, to be like us—though what we said we were, a beacon of freedom and equality, really didn’t match up with the way things were on the street. We were wasteful with our natural resources, we allowed greedy corporations to send jobs to countries where labor was cheaper because there were no laws in place to control the exploitation of workers. People died in a war we initiated based on intelligence we manipulated to make people believe it was necessary. We treated gay people as second-class citizens. We wouldn’t let them marry, we wouldn’t even let them serve the country in the military, though many were highly qualified to do so.
“And get this! Before President Obama, there was this insane practice called lobbying, in which people with special interests were allowed to organize to gain power of legislators through money and favors. And another one in which major bills went to a vote trailing dozens of minor, but costly, bills—pet projects of legislators who agreed to support the major bill only if they were included as part of it.
“Can you imagine that?” I wanted them to be able to say.
“No way,” I wanted my great-grandchildren to be able to answer.
I didn’t think you were a god, like some of my fellow volunteers did. I knew it would be hard. I knew you’d have to compromise. I certainly didn’t expect you to change everything over night.
But I did expect you to do the right thing when it was possible. Gays in the military, for example. You could have changed that ignorant, discriminatory possibility with the stroke of a pen. You still could—and should. You owe it to the GLBT community that came out to support you.
I expected you to recognize the mistake W. made in turning over billions of dollars to banks whose greed and dishonesty had gotten us into the economic mess we were in. I thought you knew that about them, I thought you knew they were the last people likely to care about the millions of people losing their jobs and homes, their life savings. I never thought you’d endorse the continuation of that misbegotten policy—certainly not without establishing the kind of controls that might force the banks to behave responsibly.
I expected you to take a stand against the immoral greed of insurance companies, too, as you worked to fulfill your promise of affordable health care for everyone.
I expected you to see that war in Afghanistan would be as fruitless as war in Iraq. Not to mention the fact that we simply can’t afford it.
(“Nobody Denies that Kids Need Literacy Help…But Can Indiana Afford It?” That’s the headline in the Indianapolis Star this morning. The answer, according to our state government is, “No.” Just a small slice of the billions and billions of dollars allocated to the war in Afghanistan would make such a difference to countless kids who must have a decent education if they are to grow up and become the kind of citizens we need. It makes me heartsick.)
I didn’t expect you to surround yourself with, well, politicians. I expected to see new faces, to hear new voices speaking new ideas.
But mostly,I expected to hear your voice—the voice I heard during the campaign, the one that spoke so decisively, intelligently, compassionately and, above all, honestly about race and about so many other things.
I respect and value your belief in consensus; I admire your determination to give everyone a voice in the legislative process. But consensus is only possible when the people involved have the best interest of our country at heart. Not self-interest or the interest of their party, certainly not the interest of pet projects or, worse, political grudges.
When that happens, as it inevitably has, there must be one brave voice that speaks out above the others. As president, that must be your voice. For better or worse, you must stand up for what you (and we, who elected you) believe is right. If it means you’re a one-term president, so be it. You could do a lot in one term, really. And, even if you lost in 2012, there’d be millions and millions of us who would remember that we had made something amazing happen, electing you in 2008, and we’d be willing to gather our strength, find the next person with courage of his convictions, and try again.
Please, President Obama, speak. It’s not too late, not yet.
But I’m sorry to say that I feel less and less hopeful that you will. I’m not angry at you, I don’t feel I was tricked into believing in you. I still believe you are a man of great integrity who wants to do the right thing.
And, like I said, I’m not sorry I worked so hard for your campaign. It was one of the most profound experiences in my life.
I’m just very, very, very sad.