The Obama Presidential Center

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It will be built in the Jackson Park neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago.  And according to Anthony Clark’s article at Politico it will be unlike the presidential libraries of all his predecessors.  It will not be operated by The National Archives and Records Administration and it will not house Obama’s presidential papers.

Here is a taste of Clark’s piece:

Presidential libraries are perfect examples of just how far presidents will go to control their own legacies. Since the first one was created in 1941, what were intended to be serious research centers have grown into flashy, partisan temples touting huckster history. Built with undisclosed, unlimited donations, often to sitting presidents, libraries have traditionally been donated to the government after their construction. But even though they are taxpayer-funded and controlled by a federal agency, the private foundations established by former presidents to build the libraries retain outsize influence. The libraries’ whitewashed exhibits are created by presidential boosters; they host political events; their boards are stacked with loyalists; and many of their important historical records may never see the light of day.

You could say that the rise of the presidential library has followed the fall of the presidency. We once held the office of president in high regard. As we have lowered our opinion of it, presidential libraries have grown larger and more powerful—and less truthful.

The Obama Presidential Center could break this pattern, and solve at least some of the major flaws of the system, by creating a new model for a privately run presidential museum that can be laudatory in its exhibits and partisan in its programming, but not while under the troubling imprimatur of the federal government—and without the taxpayers footing the bill. At the same time, the new arrangement will leave presidential records and the terms of their release to the public in the hands of the government, where they belong. Freeing NARA to process and produce those records without the interference of the Obama Foundation will be our best hope for learning what really happened during the Obama presidency—and, if others follow his example, future presidencies as well.

Read the rest here.

Barack Obama Easter Prayer Breakfasts, 2010-2016

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2010:

I can’t tell any of you anything about Easter that you don’t already know.  (Laughter.)  I can’t shed light on centuries of scriptural interpretation or bring any new understandings to those of you who reflect on Easter’s meaning each and every year and each and every day.  But what I can do is tell you what draws me to this holy day and what lesson I take from Christ’s sacrifice and what inspires me about the story of the resurrection.

For even after the passage of 2,000 years, we can still picture the moment in our mind’s eye.  The young man from Nazareth marched through Jerusalem; object of scorn and derision and abuse and torture by an empire.  The agony of crucifixion amid the cries of thieves.  The discovery, just three days later, that would forever alter our world — that the Son of Man was not to be found in His tomb and that Jesus Christ had risen.

We are awed by the grace He showed even to those who would have killed Him.  We are thankful for the sacrifice He gave for the sins of humanity.  And we glory in the promise of redemption in the resurrection.

And such a promise is one of life’s great blessings, because, as I am continually learning, we are, each of us, imperfect.  Each of us errs — by accident or by design.  Each of us falls short of how we ought to live.  And selfishness and pride are vices that afflict us all.

It’s not easy to purge these afflictions, to achieve redemption.  But as Christians, we believe that redemption can be delivered — by faith in Jesus Christ.  And the possibility of redemption can make straight the crookedness of a character; make whole the incompleteness of a soul.  Redemption makes life, however fleeting here on Earth, resound with eternal hope.

Of all the stories passed down through the gospels, this one in particular speaks to me during this season.  And I think of hanging — watching Christ hang from the cross, enduring the final seconds of His passion.  He summoned what remained of His strength to utter a few last words before He breathed His last breath.

“Father,” He said, “into your hands I commit my spirit.” Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.  These words were spoken by our Lord and Savior, but they can just as truly be spoken by every one of us here today.  Their meaning can just as truly be lived out by all of God’s children. 

So, on this day, let us commit our spirit to the pursuit of a life that is true, to act justly and to love mercy and walk humbly with the Lord.  And when we falter, as we will, let redemption — through commitment and through perseverance and through faith — be our abiding hope and fervent prayer. 

2011:

I wanted to host this breakfast for a simple reason -– because as busy as we are, as many tasks as pile up, during this season, we are reminded that there’s something about the resurrection — something about the resurrection of our savior, Jesus Christ, that puts everything else in perspective. 

We all live in the hustle and bustle of our work.  And everybody in this room has weighty responsibilities, from leading churches and denominations, to helping to administer important government programs, to shaping our culture in various ways.  And I admit that my plate has been full as well.  (Laughter.)  The inbox keeps on accumulating.  (Laughter.)
 
But then comes Holy Week.  The triumph of Palm Sunday.  The humility of Jesus washing the disciples’ feet.  His slow march up that hill, and the pain and the scorn and the shame of the cross.

And we’re reminded that in that moment, he took on the sins of the world — past, present and future — and he extended to us that unfathomable gift of grace and salvation through his death and resurrection.

In the words of the book Isaiah:  “But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities:  the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed.”

This magnificent grace, this expansive grace, this “Amazing Grace” calls me to reflect.  And it calls me to pray.  It calls me to ask God for forgiveness for the times that I’ve not shown grace to others, those times that I’ve fallen short.  It calls me to praise God for the gift of our son — his Son and our Savior.

2012:

Now, I have to be careful, I am not going to stand up here and give a sermon.  It’s always a bad idea to give a sermon in front of professionals.  (Laughter.)  But in a few short days, all of us will experience the wonder of Easter morning.   And we will know, in the words of the Apostle Paul, “Christ Jesus…and Him crucified.”

It’s an opportunity for us to reflect on the triumph of the resurrection, and to give thanks for the all-important gift of grace.  And for me, and I’m sure for some of you, it’s also a chance to remember the tremendous sacrifice that led up to that day, and all that Christ endured — not just as a Son of God, but as a human being. 

For like us, Jesus knew doubt.  Like us, Jesus knew fear.  In the garden of Gethsemane, with attackers closing in around him, Jesus told His disciples, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death.”  He fell to his knees, pleading with His Father, saying, “If it is possible, may this cup be taken from me.”  And yet, in the end, He confronted His fear with words of humble surrender, saying, “If it is not possible for this cup to be taken away unless I drink it, may your will be done.”

So it is only because Jesus conquered His own anguish, conquered His fear, that we’re able to celebrate the resurrection.  It’s only because He endured unimaginable pain that wracked His body and bore the sins of the world that He burdened — that burdened His soul that we are able to proclaim, “He is Risen!” 

So the struggle to fathom that unfathomable sacrifice makes Easter all the more meaningful to all of us.  It helps us to provide an eternal perspective to whatever temporal challenges we face.  It puts in perspective our small problems relative to the big problems He was dealing with.  And it gives us courage and it gives us hope. 

We all have experiences that shake our faith.  There are times where we have questions for God’s plan relative to us — (laughter) — but that’s precisely when we should remember Christ’s own doubts and eventually his own triumph.  Jesus told us as much in the book of John, when He said, “In this world you will have trouble.”  I heard an amen.  (Laughter.)  Let me repeat.  “In this world, you will have trouble.”

AUDIENCE:  Amen!

THE PRESIDENT:  “But take heart!”  (Laughter.)  “I have overcome the world.”  (Applause.)  We are here today to celebrate that glorious overcoming, the sacrifice of a risen savior who died so that we might live.  And I hope that our time together this morning will strengthen us individually, as believers, and as a nation. 

2013:

In these sacred days, those of us as Christians remember the tremendous sacrifice Jesus made for each of us –- how, in all His humility and His grace, He took on the sins of the world and extended the gift of salvation.  And we recommit ourselves to following His example –- to loving the Lord our God with all our hearts and all our souls and with all our minds, and to loving our neighbors as ourselves. 

That’s the eternal spirit of Easter.  And this year, I had — I think was particularly special for me because right before Easter I had a chance to feel that spirit during my trip to the Holy Land.  And I think so many of you here know there are few experiences more powerful or more humbling than visiting that sacred earth. 

It brings Scripture to life.  It brings us closer to Christ.  It reminds us that our Savior, who suffered and died was resurrected, both fully God and also a man; a human being who lived, and walked, and felt joy and sorrow just like us.  

And so for Christians to walk where He walked and see what He saw are blessed moments.  And while I had been to Jerusalem before, where Jesus healed the sick, and cured the blind, and embraced the least of these, I also had a chance to go to the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.  And those of you who have been there know that entering the church is a remarkable experience, although it is a useful instruction to see how managing different sections of the church and different clergy — it feels familiar.  (Laughter.)  Let’s just put it that way.  (Laughter.) 

And as I approached the Altar of the Nativity, as I neared the 14-pointed Silver Star that marks the spot where Christ was born, the Patriarch of Jerusalem welcomed me to, in his words, “the place where heaven and Earth met.”

And there, I had a chance to pray and reflect on Christ’s birth, and His life, His sacrifice, His Resurrection.  I thought about all the faithful pilgrims who for two thousand years have done the same thing — giving thanks for the fact that, as the book of Romans tells us, “just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.” 

I thought of the poor and the sick who seek comfort, and the marginalized and the forsaken who seek solace, and the grateful who merely seek to offer thanks for the simple blessings of this life and the awesome glory of the next.  I thought of all who would travel to this place for centuries to come and the lives they might know. 

And I was reminded that while our time on Earth is fleeting, He is eternal.  His life, His lessons live on in our hearts and, most importantly, in our actions.  When we tend to the sick, when we console those in pain, when we sacrifice for those in need, wherever and whenever we are there to give comfort and to guide and to love, then Christ is with us. 

So this morning, let us pray that we’re worthy of His many blessings, that this nation is worthy of His many blessings.  Let us promise to keep in our hearts, in our souls, in our minds, on this day and on every day, the life and lessons of Christ, our Lord.

2014:

So this Easter Week, of course we recognize that there’s a lot of pain and a lot of sin and a lot of tragedy in this world, but we’re also overwhelmed by the grace of an awesome God.  We’re reminded how He loves us, so deeply, that He gave his only begotten Son so that we might live through Him.  And in these Holy Days, we recall all that Jesus endured for us — the scorn of the crowds and the pain of the crucifixion, in our Christian religious tradition we celebrate the glory of the Resurrection — all so that we might be forgiven of our sins and granted everlasting life. 

And more than 2,000 years later, it inspires us still.  We are drawn to His timeless teachings, challenged to be worthy of His sacrifice, to emulate as best we can His eternal example to love one another just as He loves us.  And of course, we’re always reminded each and every day that we fall short of that example.  And none of us are free from sin, but we look to His life and strive, knowing that “if we love one another, God lives in us, and His love is perfected in us.”      

2015:

For me, the celebration of Easter puts our earthly concerns into perspective.  With humility and with awe, we give thanks to the extraordinary sacrifice of Jesus Christ, our Savior.  We reflect on the brutal pain that He suffered, the scorn that He absorbed, the sins that He bore, this extraordinary gift of salvation that He gave to us.  And we try, as best we can, to comprehend the darkness that He endured so that we might receive God’s light.

And yet, even as we grapple with the sheer enormity of Jesus’s sacrifice, on Easter we can’t lose sight of the fact that the story didn’t end on Friday.  The story keeps on going.  On Sunday comes the glorious Resurrection of our Savior. 

“Good Friday may occupy the throne for a day,” Dr. King once preached, “but ultimately it must give way to the triumphant beat of the drums of Easter.”  Drums that beat the rhythm of renewal and redemption, goodness and grace, hope and love.  Easter is our affirmation that there are better days ahead — and also a reminder that it is on us, the living, to make them so. 

Through God’s mercy, Peter the Apostle said, we are given “an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you.”  It’s an inheritance that calls on us to be better, to love more deeply, to serve “the least of these” as an expression of Christ’s love here on Earth.

2016:

And Pastor preached on this this weekend, and I know all of you did, too, as I suspect, or in your own quiet ways were reminded if Easter means anything, it’s that you don’t have to be afraid.  We drown out darkness with light, and we heal hatred with love, and we hold on to hope.  And we think about all that Jesus suffered and sacrificed on our behalf — scorned, abandoned shunned, nail-scarred hands bearing the injustice of his death and carrying the sins of the world. 

And it’s difficult to fathom the full meaning of that act.  Scripture tells us, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.”  Because of God’s love, we can proclaim “Christ is risen!”  Because of God’s love, we have been given this gift of salvation.  Because of Him, our hope is not misplaced, and we don’t have to be afraid.

And as Christians have said through the years, “We are Easter people, and Alleluia is our song!”  We are Easter people, people of hope and not fear. 

Now, this is not a static hope.  This is a living and breathing hope.  It’s not a gift we simply receive, but one we must give to others, a gift to carry forth.  I was struck last week by an image of Pope Francis washing feet of refugees — different faiths, different countries.  And what a powerful reminder of our obligations if, in fact, we’re not afraid, and if, in fact, we hope, and if, in fact, we believe.  That is something that we have to give.

Click on the year to read the entire message.

What Happened to the Easter Prayer Breakfast?

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Gorsuch is in.  The Easter Prayer Breakfast is out.

Michael Wear, who directed faith outreach for Barack Obama’s 2012 election campaign, reflects on the fact that Donald Trump will not be continuing Obama’s annual Easter tradition.

Here is a taste of his piece in The Washington Post titled “Remember When the White House Had Faith?

It appears likely that President Trump will not continue the White House Easter Prayer Breakfast, a tradition that began in 2010 under President Barack Obama where he would invite Christian leaders from across the country to join him for a service in the East Room of the White House. It would include singing, a sermon and prayers, and the president would discuss the significance of Easter for him.

Even today, it surprises many to hear that the president would speak so personally about Easter. In 2010, for instance, he reflected on the theological idea of redemption:

But as Christians, we believe that redemption can be delivered — by faith in Jesus Christ. And the possibility of redemption can make straight the crookedness of a character; make whole the incompleteness of a soul. Redemption makes life, however fleeting here on Earth, resound with eternal hope.

Fast forward to today’s White House, with a man who is undoubtedly one of the most religiously illiterate and thoroughly secular presidents in American history. Ironically, without the vote of churchgoing Christians, Trump would not be in the White House today.

Read the entire piece here.

 

Obama: The President as Professor

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Rand Richards Cooper nails it:

From the moment he appeared in the national spotlight, Obama seemed less presidential than professorial. To me he suggested that familiar figure, the Coolest Professor on Campus—articulate and witty; friendly but a little bit detached, with a self-regard nicely tempered by irony; a superb performer in class who might be hard to get hold of in office hours. It’s an attractive character type—but fundamentally an outsider, an observer and commenter, in love with ambiguity and prone to sardonic views and comments. A writer, in other words.

How does the Cool Professor become president in the first place? One answer is the triumph of mass media over the political machine; one thing Obama and Trump have in common is that both reached over the heads of their parties to voters themselves via a media-delivered appeal: Obama with his soaring oratory, and Trump with his TV and social-media ubiquity. This end-run around traditional political structures makes it likely that we’ll continue to see Presidents with unconventional skillsets. In the space of half a century we have moved from a President like LBJ, a crude bumpkin in his public image but a monster powerbroker behind the scenes, to Presidents whose rise is based largely on their media appeal.

Check out the entire piece at dotCommonweal.  It is a reflection on Michiko Kakutani’s New York Times article about Obama’s reading and writing habits.   Cooper wonders if reading books makes one a better POTUS.  One more taste:

Unsurprisingly, as a book person, I’m already missing Obama. After all, how often can a critic hope to take literary recommendations from the White House? The obvious fact is that those of us who find life impossible to imagine without books know we are losing a soulmate in the White House—in exchange for someone whose ghost writer insists he has never read a book cover to cover. And in the end, I have to believe in the power of books to inform and enlighten power; to improve a president in his capacity not as president, but as human being. Is this merely my own obvious professional preference? Some years back I was on a committee tasked with coming up with a questionnaire for my twenty-fifth college reunion. We were brainstorming on a whole range of things involving professions, lifestyles, hobbies, and priorities, and I suggested including the question, “How many books have you read in the last year?” Another guy on the panel, who had spent his career in finance, bristled and turned to me. “Why don’t we ask, ‘How many business deals have you closed in the last year?’” he said. Sputtering a bit, I attempted to explain what I took to be the special function of books, especially to what was, after all, an institution of higher learning, not a business school.

In retrospect that exchange between the two of us—“How many books have you read?” brusquely rebuked by “How many deals have you closed?”—seems a harbinger of the particular deal that will be sealed in Washington DC on Friday, when the poet-president steps off the stage, and the plutocrat-president steps onto it. I can’t help but be deeply glum about it, and anxious. Another chapter closes in our nation’s history, but I’d rather not turn the page, for fear of what happens next. 

Coates and Obama Talk Race: Part 3

coates-obamaHere is an excerpt from Part 3 of their conversation on race published at The Atlantic. (See our previous post to get up to speed).

Obama: …And then you’ve got Skip Gates being arrested, which, to me, I was saying something pretty obvious. They ended up handcuffing this middle-aged, elderly man on his own porch. No matter how much he cursed you out, you overreacted, and it probably would not have happened had there not been some assumptions about who he was based on his race. Again, immediately folks ignored the discussion.

So this is part of the reason why when I hear people say we need a dialogue about race, or we need commissions on race, or this or that, I’m always somewhat skeptical, because trying to engineer those kinds of conversations on a national level in a way that could actually capture reality is very hard. What can happen, I think, is for us to act in ways that show mutual regard, propose policies that safeguard against obvious discrimination, extend ourselves in our personal lives and in our political lives in ways that lead us to see the other person as a human worthy of respect. It’s what we do more than what we say, I ultimately think, that saves us. All right?

Coates: All right.

Obama and Coates Talk Race: Part 2

coates-obamaHere is an excerpt from Part 2 of their conversation on race published at The Atlantic. (See our previous post to get up to speed).

Coates: Okay. The second part, you’re talking about how the country has changed, and the consciousness, and I think we both agree that 150 years ago that wasn’t true. And I wonder, is it the work, perhaps maybe not of presidents but certainly of people outside of government, to change that mind-set? And if one can come to see, for instance, that, yeah, it is true that nondiscrimination should be a basic value that we share, that, as I would put it, responsibility for our history is one, too?

Obama: Right. And I think that it is. I want my children—I want Malia and Sasha—to understand that they’ve got responsibilities beyond just what they themselves have done. That they have a responsibility to the larger community and the larger nation, that they should be sensitive to and extra thoughtful about the plight of people who have been oppressed in the past, are oppressed currently. So that’s a wisdom that I want to transmit to my kids. And it may be that we found an area where you’re more optimistic than me. But I would say that’s a high level of enlightenment that you’re looking to have from a majority of the society. And it may be something that future generations are more open to, but I am pretty confident that for the foreseeable future, using the argument of nondiscrimination, and “Let’s get it right for the kids who are here right now,” and giving them the best chance possible, is going to be a more persuasive argument.

One of the things you learn as president is, as powerful as this office is, you have limited bandwidth. And the time goes by really quickly and you’re constantly making choices, and there are pressures on you from all different directions—pressures on your attention, not just pressures from different constituencies. And so you have to be pretty focused about where can you have the biggest, quickest impact. And I always tell my staff, “Better is good.” I’ll take better every time, because better is hard. Better may not be as good as the best, but better is surprisingly hard to obtain. And better is actually harder than worse. [Laughter]

It requires enormous energy for us to cut the African American uninsured rate by a third. A lot of scars. Bernie Sanders would say, “You still have millions of African Americans who aren’t insured, and if we had a single-payer system, that wouldn’t be the case.” And that’s true. But it is my judgment that had I spent the first two years trying to get a single-payer system, all those folks who now have health insurance that didn’t have it would still be uninsured. And those are millions of people whose lives are impacted right now. I get letters from them right now. “You saved my child’s life.” “I did not have to sell my home when my wife got sick.” And that is what, as a policy maker, I’m trying to achieve during the short period of time that I’m here.

Now, you as a thinker, you as a writer, you as a philosopher, you want to stretch the boundaries of thinking, because you’re not constrained by trying to move the levers of power right now. And so I think that these are all worthy topics of conversation. Sometimes I wonder how much of these debates have to do with the desire, the legitimate desire, for that history to be recognized. Because there is a psychic power to the recognition that is not satisfied with a universal program, it’s not satisfied by the Affordable Care Act, or an expansion of Pell grants, or an expansion of the earned-income tax credit. It doesn’t speak to the hurt, and the sense of injustice, and the self-doubt that arises out of the fact that we’re behind now, and it makes us sometimes feel as if there must be something wrong with us, unless you’re able to see the history and say, “It’s amazing we got this far given what we went through.” So part of, I think, the argument sometimes that I’ve had with folks who are much more interested in sort of race-specific programs is less an argument about what is practically achievable and sometimes maybe more an argument of “We want society to see what’s happened, and internalize it, and answer it in demonstrable ways.” And those impulses I very much understand, but my hope would be that, as we’re moving through the world right now, we’re able to get that psychological or emotional peace by seeing very concretely our kids doing better and being more hopeful and having greater opportunities. And your son thriving at some United Nations model conference, and me seeing Malia and Sasha doing amazing things. And some of the mentees that I was talking to at A and T overcome incredible disadvantages and starting to gain confidence in what they can do in the world. And I’ll stop there.

Read the entire conversation here.

From the Archives: “Our historical narcissism indicts us”

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Wounded police officers outside the Downtown Howard Johnson Hotel in New Orleans–December 31, 1972

If you read my previous post, you know that today I watched (for about the fifth time) Barack Obama’s March 2015 speech at Selma.  There is so much I appreciate about this speech.  For example, Obama, like those who marched at Selma, connected the Civil Rights Movement to the ideals of the nation–ideals that we all share.  He also talks about the progress that has been made in civil rights over the last two centuries.

I returned to this speech after a conversation I had this morning about race in America. One of the people in the conversation said something like “racial tension is worse today than it has ever been in America.”  As the historian in the group, I said that I was not so sure about the validity of such a statement.  Race relations in America are better today than they were fifty years ago.  Obama makes this clear in his speech.  Progress can be a good thing.

And then I was reminded of a post I did back in September about Rick Perlstein’s piece at The Baffler titled “Time Bandits: Why Our Political Past is Rarely Prologue.”  I also remember quoting from this piece in a public lecture I gave a few days later at Eastern Nazarene College in Quincy, Mass.

Here is my post from September 20, 2016:

Rick Perlstein, the author of several excellent (and big) books on American conservatism since the 1950s, is skeptical about the way his readers have turned to his work for historical analogies in this election cycle.

Here is a taste of his recent piece in The Baffler:

History does not repeat itself. “The country is disintegrating,” a friend of mine wrote on Facebook after the massacre of five policemen by black militant Micah Johnson in Dallas. But during most of the years I write about in Nixonland and its sequel covering 1973 through 1976, The Invisible Bridge, the Dallas shootings might have registered as little more than a ripple. On New Year’s Eve in 1972, a New Orleans television station received this message: “Africa greets you. On Dec. 31, 1972, aprx. 11 pm, the downtown New Orleans Police Department will be attacked. Reason—many, but the death of two innocent brothers will be avenged.” Its author was a twenty-three-year-old Navy veteran named Mark James Essex. (In the 1960s, the media had begun referring to killers using middle names, lest any random “James Ray” or “John Gacy” suffer unfairly from the association.) Essex shot three policemen to death, evading arrest. The story got hardly a line of national attention until the following week, when he began cutting down white people at random and held hundreds of officers at bay from a hotel rooftop. Finally, he was cornered and shot from a Marine helicopter on live TV, which also accidentally wounded nine more policemen. The New York Times only found space for that three days later.

Stories like these were routine in the 1970s. Three weeks later, four men identifying themselves as “servants of Allah” holed up in a Brooklyn sporting goods store with nine hostages. One cop died in two days of blazing gun battles before the hostages made a daring rooftop escape. The same week, Richard Nixon gave his second inaugural address, taking credit for quieting an era of “destructive conflict at home.” As usual, Nixon was lying, but this time not all that much. Incidents of Americans turning terrorist and killing other Americans had indeed ticked down a bit over the previous few years—even counting the rise of the Black Liberation Army, which specialized in ambushing police and killed five of them between 1971 and 1972.

In Nixon’s second term, however, they began ticking upward again. There were the “Zebra” murders from October 1973 through April 1974 in San Francisco, in which a group of Black Muslims killed at least fifteen Caucasians at random and wounded many others; other estimates hold them responsible for as many as seventy deaths. There was also the murder of Oakland’s black school superintendent by a new group called the Symbionese Liberation Army, who proceeded to seal their militant renown by kidnapping Patty Hearst in February 1974. Then, in May, after Hearst joined up with her revolutionary captors, law enforcement officials decimated their safe house with more than nine thousand rounds of live ammunition, killing six, also on live TV. Between 1972 and 1974 the FBI counted more than six thousand bombings or attempted bombings in the United States, with a combined death toll of ninety-one. In 1975 there were two presidential assassination attempts in one month.

Not to mention a little thing called Watergate. Or the discovery by Congressional investigators that the CIA had participated in plots to kill foreign leaders and spied on tens of thousands of innocent protesters, as well as the revelation that the FBI had tried to spur Martin Luther King Jr. to suicide. Or the humiliating collapse of South Vietnam, as the nation we had propped up with billions in treasure and 58,220 American lives was revealed to be little more than a Potemkin village.

And now? We’re drama queens. The week after Dallas, the host of the excellent public radio show The Takeaway, John Hockenberry, invoked the Manson murders: “America’s perilous dance with Helter Skelter . . . Individual feelings of fear and revenge do not ignite a race war—yet . . .” Yet.

There followed a news report about the civil war in South Sudan, one side loyal to the president, the other to the former vice president. Now that’s a disintegrating society. The Baffler is a print publication, and perhaps between this writing and its arrival in mailboxes we’ll start seeing, say, armed black militants in a major American city randomly killing scores of innocent white people, as in an earlier age—following which, I want to add, American society, no, did not disintegrate.

Our historical narcissism indicts us. Please don’t drag my name into it.

Perlstein adds:

The longing to assimilate the strange to the familiar is only human; who am I to hold myself aloof from it? But it’s just not a good way to study history, which when done right invites readers to tack between finding the familiar in the strange and the strange in the familiar. History roils. Its waves are cumulative, one rolling into another, amplifying their thunder. Or they become attenuated via energies pushing in orthogonal or opposite directions. Or they swirl into directionless eddies, with the ocean’s surface appearance as often as not obscuring grander currents just below.

It’s dispiritingly reminiscent of the consensus I sought to demythologize in Before the Storm that some see Trump only in the ways he is exceptional to the usual waves, currents, eddies of our history—except for that time Rick Perlstein writes about in his books, when Americans hated each other enough to kill each other. “How Did Our Politics Get So Harsh and Divisive? Blame 1968,” was how one recent rumination on the sixties-echo effect in the Trump movement got headlined in the Washington Post. Why not blame 1776, when the nation was born in blood and fire, brother fighting brother? Or 1787, when the Constitution repressed the contradictions between slave and free states, with all the core unresolved tensions slowly simmering until the nation had to be born again, from the blood of the better part of a million Americans slaughtering one another? “How Did Our Politics Become So Harsh and Divisive? Blame 1860.”

Heck, why not blame 1877, when an estimated one hundred people were killed in railroad strikes that involved some one hundred thousand people? Or the “Red Summer” of 1919, which set in motion race riots and lynchings, killing hundreds by 1921, when as many as three hundred died in the Tulsa riot alone? Or 1924, when it took the Democratic Party 103 convention ballots and sixteen days to settle whether the party would be represented by its pro– or anti–Ku Klux Klan factions, while tens of thousands of hooded Klansmen rallied across the river in New Jersey? Or 1945–46, when almost two million Americans went on strike? Or 1995, when a madman blew up a federal building and killed 168, including children in daycare? Why not start at the beginning and blame 1492, or the year the English settled in Massachusetts Bay?

Great stuff here on historical thinking, the uses of history, and historical analogies.  I may use this in my Intro to History course

I should add that I did use this in my Intro to History course and it led to some nice discussion.

Barack Obama in the Wake of Sandy Hook

obama-sandy

This, apparently, is the moment Obama first learned about the Sandy Hook shootings

I’m sure some of you have seen this, but I just came across it today.  This passage, which appeared on the website Vox Populi, comes from Joshua Dubois’s The Presidents’ Devotional.

Dubois served as head of the Office of Faith Based and Neighborhood Partnerships in the Obama administration:

I left early to help the advance team—the hardworking folks who handle logistics for every event—set things up, and I arrived at the local high school where the meetings and memorial service would take place. We prepared seven or eight classrooms for the families of the slain children and teachers, two or three families to a classroom, placing water and tissues and snacks in each one. Honestly, we didn’t know how to prepare; it was the best we could think of.

The families came in and gathered together, room by room. Many struggled to offer a weak smile when we whispered, “The president will be here soon.” A few were visibly angry—so understandable that it barely needs to be said—and were looking for someone, anyone, to blame. Mostly they sat in silence.

I went downstairs to greet President Obama when he arrived, and I provided an overview of the situation. “Two families per classroom . . . The first is . . . and their child was . . . The second is . . . and their child was . . . We’ll tell you the rest as you go.”

The president took a deep breath and steeled himself, and went into the first classroom. And what happened next I’ll never forget.

Person after person received an engulfing hug from our commander in chief. He’d say, “Tell me about your son. . . . Tell me about your daughter,” and then hold pictures of the lost beloved as their parents described favorite foods, television shows, and the sound of their laughter. For the younger siblings of those who had passed away—many of them two, three, or four years old, too young to understand it all—the president would grab them and toss them, laughing, up into the air, and then hand them a box of White House M&M’s, which were always kept close at hand. In each room, I saw his eyes water, but he did not break.

And then the entire scene would repeat—for hours. Over and over and over again, through well over a hundred relatives of the fallen, each one equally broken, wrecked by the loss. After each classroom, we would go back into those fluorescent hallways and walk through the names of the coming families, and then the president would dive back in, like a soldier returning to a tour of duty in a worthy but wearing war. We spent what felt like a lifetime in those classrooms, and every single person received the same tender treatment. The same hugs. The same looks, directly in their eyes. The same sincere offer of support and prayer.

The staff did the preparation work, but the comfort and healing were all on President Obama. I remember worrying about the toll it was taking on him. And of course, even a president’s comfort was woefully inadequate for these families in the face of this particularly unspeakable loss. But it became some small measure of love, on a weekend when evil reigned.

Historian’s Eye

My friend and fellow historian Amy Bass has called my attention to Matthew Frye Jacobson‘s website, Historian’s Eye.  Here is Jacobson’s description of the site:

Beginning as a modest effort in early 2009 to capture the historic moment of our first black president’s inauguration in photographs and interviews, the “Our Better History” project and the Historian’s Eye website have evolved into an expansive collection of some 1000+ photographs and an audio archive addressing Obama’s first term in office, the ’08 economic collapse and its fallout, two wars, the raucous politics of healthcare reform, the emergence of a new right-wing formation in opposition to Obama, the politics of immigration, Wall Street reform, street protests of every stripe, the BP oil spill, and the seeming escalation of anti-Muslim sentiment nationwide.  Interviewees narrate and reflect upon their own personal histories as well, a dimension of the archive that now spans many decades and touches five continents.

Adopting its title from a passage in Obama’s inaugural address, the project seeks to trace the fate of “our better history,” as the nation faces unprecedented challenges with a president at the helm who is fully inspirational to some, palpably unnerving to others.  In addition to catching this moment like a firefly in a mason jar, the project seeks to encourage a new relationship to history itself—a mental habit of apprehending the past in the present and history-in-the-making.

The geniuses whose inspiring ghosts hover most conspicuously over this project are Dorothea Lange and Studs Terkel.  The wonderful thing about a camera, Lange once said, is that it can teach you how to see without a camera.  One of the primary goals of this project is to learn to see anew and to enable clarity about our own historical moment.  As for Terkel, no one perhaps has ever assembled as significant an archive of American voices as he.  Though he is often thought of as preserving the experience of ordinary folks, in giving them a platform Terkel also provided access to a neglected realm of vernacular wisdom, analysis, theorizing, and understanding.  The present gallery of interviewees differs from Terkel’s, including federal judges and high-end hedge fund managers alongside the carpenters, union organizers, immigrants, and unemployed office workers with whom Terkel would have been more familiar.  But the aim is much the same:  to document the experience of sweeping historical forces at street level; to render the diversity of worldviews and outlooks; to give voice to a vernacular analysis and wisdom that outshines our “punditry” more often than we are ever encouraged to imagine.

The momentum of our culture encourages very short memory and very quick judgment.  We take our public discourse mostly in sound bites, and hence things that predate the latest news cycle are most often crowded out of our consideration. Historian’s Eye asks you to slow down; to look and to listen; to pay close attention and to notice; to entertain a variety of perspectives; to ask varied questions; to think about the current moment as possessing a deep history, and also to think of it as itself historical—futurity’s history.  Above all, Historian’s Eye asks you to pitch in and to talk back.

I encourage all of my readers to check it out.  It includes videos, interview transcripts, lesson plans, and tons of great pictures.  I am still trying to process all of the information on the site and thinking about how it could be used in teaching.  There is so much there!

Conservative Values for Progressive Ends

John Schmalzbauer is the Blanch Gorman Strong Chair in Protestant Studies at Missouri State University. (I don’t know if John remembers, but I shared a great Italian dinner with him and a few others at a Lilly Fellows conference in Los Angeles back in 2000 or 2001). Anyhow, he has a great piece over at Immanent Frame entitled “Barack Obama’s Book of Virtues.” Schmalzbauer wonders whether Obama has read William Bennett’s The Book of Virtues. He points out that six of the ten “virtues” listed in The Book of Virtues were mentioned in Obama’s inaugural address. They are responsibility, hard work, courage, honesty, loyalty, and faith.

Perhaps E.J. Dionne was correct when he described Obama as employing conservative values in service of progressive ends.

In Support of Kathleen Sebelius

Abortion is a terrible thing. We should do everything we can to reduce the number of abortions in the United States. As a Christian, I am pro-life. I believe that all human beings–even unborn infants–are created by God and have inherent worth and dignity. With many in the Democratic Party, I believe that government should do everything possible to aid the powerless and helpless. This should include the unborn as much as the poor and the oppressed.

Unfortunately, the label “pro-life” has been co-opted by the Republican Party–a political party that has fought, at times admirably, against abortion; but has also supported war, capital punishment, and torture.

Because I am pro-life, I am glad that Barack Obama has appointed Gov. Kathleen Sebelius (D) of Kansas to be his Secretary of Health and Human Services. From what I have been able to glean, Sebelius is a devout Catholic who has signed significant legislation in Kansas to reduce the number of abortions. If these evangelicals are correct, abortions in Kansas have dropped by ten percent under her watch.

Some might criticize Sebelius because she does not want to overturn Roe v. Wade. But if these critics were truly pro-life, they should be rejoicing at Obama’s decision to appoint her. Conservatives must realize that they lost the 2008 election. The country chose the other guy. This is the guy who believes in protecting a women’s right to choose and said he would push a pro-choice agenda. It is time that the pro-life movement get a healthy dose of realism. Roe versus Wade will not be overturned anytime soon. It is just not going to happen.

So why such criticism when Obama picks a candidate for Secretary of Health and Human Services with a solid track record of reducing abortions? Shouldn’t this be a good thing for pro-lifers? Shouldn’t pro-lifers be glad that Obama is, as E.J. Dionne said today, stepping “gingerly” into the culture wars?

ADDENDUM: Since I posted this, I have learned more about Sebelius record on life issues from people “on the ground” in Kansas. I have been convinced that my description here of Sebelius’s record on abortion is a bit too rosy and I am guilty of jumping to conclusions here based on the ideas of some of the evangelical leaders references in this post. While there may be a lot of good reasons to support her nomination, I am not sure her commitment to reducing abortions is one of them. I learned a good lesson through all of this about localism. There a lot of people in Kansas–Republicans and Democrats and Independents–who have offered me a much more nuanced,informed, and I think accurate, picture of Sebelius’s views on this issue.

Reinhold Niebuhr Lives!

If you have a spare eighty minutes you need to check out “Obama’s Theologian,” a recent installment of “Speaking of Faith.”

E. J. Dionne and David Brooks join Krista Tippet to discuss the legacy of Reinhold Niebuhr. Jean Bethke Elshtain begins the session by reading one of Niebuhr’s prayers.

Here are some of my favorite quotes from the discussion.

Brooks: “The University of Chicago is a Baptist school where Jewish professors teach atheistic students St. Thomas Aquinas.” (This quote has been attributed to Martin Gardner).

Dionne: “Niebuhr was a progressive who believed in original sin.”

Brooks: “The core of conservatism is epistemological modesty and original sin…the Republican Party has drifted far away from this.”

Dionne: “A lot of Democrats found God in the 2004 exit polls…you can find God anywhere.”

Also listen carefully for Brooks’s riff on the relationship between human nature and politics.

Dionne: “Because Obama is a post-60s liberal, he is really a 1930s and 1940s liberal.”

Liberal Patriotism

Historian Michael Kazin has a nice piece in Sunday’s Washington Post about the way that the Obama victory has made patriotism a “liberal faith.” He writes:

Liberals are still getting comfortable with thinking of themselves as the upholders of civic virtue. And conservatives will certainly try their best to recapture that image, as last fall’s attacks on Obama as a European-style socialist demonstrated. But after decades in denial, progressives have finally realized that they cannot lead America if America does not hold a privileged place in their hearts. If Obama is as successful at running the country as he has been at recrafting the national story, his most fervent supporters might come to believe that a majority of their fellow citizens are also proud of them.

Obama, liberals, and civic humanism. I have written a bit about this here and here and was interviewed about it here.

The Obama Assault on Individualism

On Tuesday I suggested that Barack Obama’s inaugural address draws deeply from the historical well of the civic humanist or republican tradition in America. (And I am not alone). His emphasis on duty and the dangers of self-interest sound a lot like some of our so-called Founding Fathers.

Though he does not use the term “civic humanism,” E.J. Dionne offers a similar interpretation of Obama’s speech, focusing particularly on the president’s assault on two varieties of individualism. He writes:

What makes Obama a radical, albeit of the careful and deliberate variety, is his effort to reverse the two kinds of extreme individualism that have permeated the American political soul for perhaps four decades.

He sets his face against the expressive individualism of the 1960s that defined “do your own thing” as the highest form of freedom. On the contrary, Obama speaks of responsibilities, of doing things for others, even of that classic bourgeois obligation, “a parent’s willingness to nurture a child.”

But he also rejects the economic individualism that took root in the 1980s. He specifically listed “the greed and irresponsibility on the part of some” as a cause for our economic distress. He discounted “the pleasures of riches and fame.” He spoke of Americans not as consumers but as citizens. His references to freedom were glowing, but he emphasized our “duties” to preserve it far more than the rights it conveys.

Obama’s rhetoric will confuse both sides of the political spectrum. This is a clear sign that he is on the right track.

UPDATE: See Robert Bellah’s thoughts on some of these issues here. (HT: Art Remillard at Religion and American History).

Obama Inaugural: Paine, not Washington

So let us mark this day with remembrance, of who we are and how far we have traveled. In the year of America’s birth, in the coldest of months, a small band of patriots huddled by dying campfires on the shores of an icy river. The capital was abandoned. The enemy was advancing. The snow was stained with blood. At a moment when the outcome of our revolution was most in doubt, the father of our nation ordered these words be read to the people:

“Let it be told to the future world…that in the depth of winter, when nothing but hope and virtue could survive…that the city and the country, alarmed at one common danger, came forth to meet [it].”

Two things about this quote:

First, there seems to be some confusion about its use. These were not the words of George Washington. They were the words of Thomas Paine in The Crisis. Obama never says that it was Paine. He only says that “the father of our nation ordered these words to be read.”

Here is the extended quote from The Crisis (December 23, 1776).

Let it be told to the future world, that in the depth of winter, when nothing but hope and virtue could survive, that the city and the country, alarmed at one common danger, came forth to meet and to repulse it. Say not that thousands are gone, turn out your tens of thousands; throw not the burden of the day upon Providence, but “show your faith by your works,” that God may bless you. It matters not where you live, or what rank of life you hold, the evil or the blessing will reach you all. The far and the near, the home counties and the back, the rich and the poor, will suffer or rejoice alike. The heart that feels not now is dead; the blood of his children will curse his cowardice, who shrinks back at a time when a little might have saved the whole, and made them happy. I love the man that can smile in trouble, that can gather strength from distress, and grow brave by reflection. ‘Tis the business of little minds to shrink; but he whose heart is firm, and whose conscience approves his conduct, will pursue his principles unto death.

If this is indeed a reference to Washington’s troops on the Delaware in December 1776, then I am confused about the reference to “the capital” and its abandonment. While New York City had been abandoned by the Continental Army the previous month, one would be hard pressed to call New York “the capital.” If we could call any city a “capital” it would have to be Philadelphia, the place where the Second Continental Congress was sitting. Philadelphia would eventually be abandoned by Congress, but not until September 1777.

What am I missing here?

UPDATE: In the comments section Benjamin Carp of Publick Occurrences reminds me that the Continental Congress left Philadelphia for a brief period in December 1776. This clears things up. Thanks!

The Obama Inaugural: The Renewal of Civic Humanism

Today Obama made an appeal to our “better angels.” Hope over fear. Unity over discourse. He reminded us that we are “bigger than the sum of our individual ambitions; greater than all the differences of birth or wealth or faction.” He challenged us to face our difficulties and stop avoiding all of those “unpleasant decisions” we need to make. He urged us to embrace the virtues of hard-work, loyalty, courage, humility. He warned against the self-interest that comes with unrestrained markets.

Like FDR he reminded us of our economic difficulties, proposed infrastructure development, and instilled confidence. Like Jimmy Carter he asked us to sacrifice for the common good. Like George W. Bush he emphasized the power of freedom in the world. Like Abraham Lincoln he called for a remaking of America. He made an appeal to the ideals of the nation–ideals for which Americans were willing to die. Concord, Gettysburg, Normandy, Khe Sahn.

This speech was the culmination of a message that Obama has been preaching since he first started his run for president. The call for sacrifice and virtue and the common good draws directly from the very old American tradition of civic humanism. For the American Republic to survive in a time of crisis, the Founders believed, the American people must be willing to put the interests of the nation over their own interests. This is the “promise of citizenship.”

There is a great paradox in Obama’s vision. He wants us to turn backward in order to move forward. He is deeply committed, like most liberals are, to a belief in human progress. He believes in America’s unlimited potential. But at the same time he believes that the best way to achieve this kind of progress is to be humble and show restraint. In order to move forward Americans must return to ideas rooted in the founding. The very survival and future of this free and liberty-loving republic depends on virtues that may require us to sacrifice for others. I am not sure if Obama has ever read JGA Pocock or Gordon Wood, but he has certainly revived the republican tradition that these historians write about.

The Obama Inaugural: The FDR Comparison

As many historians have argued, the presidential inaugural address is a sort of national sermon. I think most would agree that early this afternoon Obama inspired the faithful. I will spend the next few blog posts this afternoon and evening offering some commentary.

The start of Obama’s speech echoed FDR’s first inaugural. Both addressed a nation in a time of economic crisis.

Here is FDR’s first inaugural address (1933):
In such a spirit on my part and on yours we face our common difficulties. They concern, thank God, only material things. Values have shrunk to fantastic levels; taxes have risen; our ability to pay has fallen; government of all kinds is faced by serious curtailment of income; the means of exchange are frozen in the currents of trade; the withered leaves of industrial enterprise lie on every side; farmers find no markets for their produce; and the savings of many years in thousands of families are gone. More important, a host of unemployed citizens face the grim problem of existence, and an equally great number toil with little return. Only a foolish optimist can deny the dark realities of the moment.

Here is Obama:
That we are in the midst of crisis is now well understood. Our nation is at war, against a far-reaching network of violence and hatred. Our economy is badly weakened, a consequence of greed and irresponsibility on the part of some, but also our collective failure to make hard choices and prepare the nation for a new age. Homes have been lost; jobs shed; businesses shuttered. Our health care is too costly; our schools fail too many; and each day brings further evidence that the ways we use energy strengthen our adversaries and threaten our planet.