I opened up Barack Obama’s Audacity of Hope today because I was reminded of a very insightful observation he made in his chapter “Values” in the book. It is focused on George W. Bush, and helps to provide some understanding, I think, of George Bush the man vs. George Bush the leader. So here are the words of Obama;
“As I munched on hors d’oeuvres and engaged in small talk with a handful of House members, I recalled my previous two encounters with the President, the first a brief congratulatory call after the election, the second a small White House breakfast with me and the other incoming senators. Both times I had found the President to be a likable man, shrewd and disciplined but with the same straightforward manner that had helped him win two elections; you could easily imagine him owning the local car dealership down the street, coaching Little League, and grilling in his backyard- the kind of guy who would make for good company so long as the conversation revolved around sports and the kids.
There had been a brief moment during the breakfast meeting, though, after the backslapping and the small talk and when all of us were seated, with Vice President Cheney eating his eggs Benedict impassively and Karl Rove at the far end of the table discreetly checking his Blackberry, that I witnessed a different side of the man. The President had begun to discuss his second-term agenda, mostly a reiteration of his campaign talking points- the importance of staying the course in Iraq and renewing the Patriot Act, the need to reform Social Security and overhaul the tax system, his determination to get an up-or-down vote on his judicial appointees- when suddenly it felt as if somebody in the back room had flipped a switch. The President’s eyes became fixed; his voice took on the agitated, rapid tone of someone neither accustomed to nor welcoming interruption; his easy affability was replaced by an almost messianic certainty. As I watched my mostly Republican Senate colleagues hang on his every word, I was reminded of the dangerous isolation that power can bring, and appreciated the Founders’ wisdom in designing a system to keep power in check.” (45-46)
I don’t quote Obama here because of some hidden agenda or to enhance the already ridiculous partisan conservative vs. liberal divide. Instead, I find Obama’s observation wise and reasonable, as I have carried a significant discomfort for years now in observing the leadership of George Bush. I simple have not been able to figure the man out, especially as he has assumed that “almost messianic certainty” on issues and situations and has essentially called anyone who dared to disagree with his position unpatriotic and dead wrong. There’s something very dangerous about that kind of approach, especially the unwillingness to welcome the accountability of others.
All of us need to surround ourselves with folks who will keep us honest; who will encourage us when they believe we are making good decisions and will challenge us when they believe we are being unwise and self-centered. We are limited in our understanding as people, and we need to welcome criticism and accountability as we seek to lead in various ways. We certainly should not crumble under that accountability to lose the contribution of our distinctive voice (otherwise we will simply become a mishmash of others’ perspectives and hopelessly confused), but we were not created to be alone. I guess what I’m saying is that we are called to cultivate wisdom; to walk the tough line in this case between our perspectives and the perspectives of others around us. This is not easy, but that’s part of the definition of wisdom.
I just happen to think George W. Bush is not a man who seeks wisdom; he surrounds himself with like-minded persons who either rubber-stamp his perspective or continue to whisper their shared belief on reality consistently in ways that make him averse to hearing anything different. That’s not the trait of a leader, but of a despot, and therefore makes Obama’s words that much more important, “As I watched my mostly Republican Senate colleagues hang on his every word, I was reminded of the dangerous isolation that power can bring.”
What caused me to think deeper about this issue was seeing Scott McClellan (former press secretary for Bush) appearing on the Daily Show and giving the reasons behind why he wrote his scathingly honest insider book What Happened: Inside the Bush White House and Washington’s Culture of Deception.” His deepest reason was not to undermine the credibility of Bush (though his account certainly does so), but to expose the terrible blend of partisan politics that resides in the Capital today of conservative vs. liberal sniping and close-mindedness and outright hatred. McClellan cared enough at how Bush was contributing to this us vs. them mentality (through labelling those who disagreed with him unpatriotic) that he was willing to rise above personal and party loyalty to present another way that seeks to ultimately shape a different kind of approach in Washington, and because Washington is influential in shaping political discussions across the land, a way that will hold the potential for a deeper political conversation in America. I think that’s a worthy goal. It’s a tough row to hoe, but it’s definitely the kind of leadership America needs. I see some of that same vision in Obama’s Audacity of Hope. Does that mean I’ll vote for him? Not necessarily. But it certainly contributes to my thought as I consider my vote this upcoming fall.