Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Obama: the High Standard He Must Meet...

President-elect Barack Obama faces an incredible task when he assumes office. That task is to live up to the gold standard of presidential behavior and character so clearly and deeply etched into the public mind by example before most of us had ever heard of Obama.

The example I speak of is not Bill Clinton. I think we can all agree that regardless of the effectiveness of his policies or his legacy in leaving America with an actual budget surplus, President Clinton's personal integrity and demeanor did not set a gold standard for the Presidency.

Nor am I referring to the 35th President, John F. Kennedy, or even to the 16th President, Abraham Lincoln (from whom President-elect Obama seems to draw some of his inspiration).

No, the example I speak of is both clearer and more recent. I speak of President Josiah Bartlet, the liberal icon and slave to principal and integrity who served as President through seven season of the NBC television series West Wing.

You think I jest... Perhaps you even mock me.

I was a faithful fan of West Wing. I own all seven season on DVD. For four years I went around telling people that Bartlet was the only President I knew for sure we had. After all, George W. Bush was elected to office by the Supreme Court by a vote of 7-2 on December 12, 2000.

Played by Martin Sheen, President Bartlet was the epitome of so many good things. He represented a world in which education was valued, not viewed as snobbish or elitist. President Bartlet clung to actual principles. I'd like to think there are still leaders in the world who seek political office for reasons that don't primarily involve self-interest. Call me naïve; I'd like to trust my President and I'd like to resist the trend toward cynicism. I don't want to believe that the only way to make it to the top in politics is to be crooked. I'd prefer to think that God still sometimes anointed leaders for us who act in good faith.

Can Obama stand in the shadow of Jed Bartlet? Will he lead with integrity? Will he carry Bartlet's burden for the poor? Can he marry principle to pragmatism? Can he be the commander-in-chief that Bartlet was?

I think it is ironic that one of the minor themes of the West Wing revolved around President Bartlet's humanity, his frailties. The West Wing's President struggled with smoking. Will Barack Obama ever light one up in the National Cathedral and put it out in God's face the way that Bartlet is presented as doing in the Two Cathedrals episode...?

Okay, I know it was fiction. But art imitates life, and vice versa. For now, my hope is that Barack Obama will fill Jed Bartlet's shoes. Perhaps later I'll lower my expectations and hope simply that he can fill the shoes of President Kennedy...

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