What Happened This Week Made Me Think About Bravery In Politics
Former President Barack Obama provided the book ends to an extraordinary week in politics.
On Saturday, Sept. 1, he gave a moving eulogy at Sen. John McCain’s funeral at the National Cathedral.
On Friday, Sept. 7, he spoke to students at the University of Illinois.
At the first occasion, he did not mention Donald Trump’s name. On the second he did.
In between those two speeches came a series of revelations about Trump, largely made by people who did not make them in public. They used anonymity as a shield between themselves and the president, most likely because they did not want to lose their jobs or risk legal action.
Obama didn’t have to fear anything like that. He’s already held Trump’s job. He has the delicious and daunting freedom to say anything he thinks.
Delicious, because he’s one of just a few men in this country who can criticize a president and have the right to say, “Been there. Done that.”
Daunting, because as the reaction to his speeches show, Obama still wields a lot of power, with his followers and with the world at large.
Last December, I wrote that Obama is in essence serving a third term, although he is denied one by the U.S. Constitution.
Because the current U.S. president shows little interest in acting like a statesman, Obama is playing that role.
It’s reassuring to Americans and allies who expect that of a U.S. leader, but infuriating to those who are loyal to Trump, or who rightfully believe America ought to have one president at a time.
But, I think Obama is fulfilling yet another role. He is showing what it is like to be brave.
He is saying what he thinks about democracy, at a time when Americans need to hear it.
I admire Bob Woodward, and I am proud to have been a journalist for the New York Times.
Both historically represent some of the best reporting that our nation has to offer. And yet, this past week, their pages were populated by people whose names we may never know.
Woodward’s new book, Fear, is populated with juicy accounts of the chaos inside the White House. I have no doubt that they are true, simply because Woodward is meticulous in his work, recording hours of interviews and taking copious notes.
On the heels of the book came the anonymous op-ed in the Times whose most stunning revelation was that Cabinet members discussed the mechanics of invoking the 25th Amendment to have Trump removed from office.
I have no doubt that Anonymous is indeed someone high up in the Trump administration, who betrayed the president under cover from the Times because it would be too risky to do so in public.
The problem with both is that we just don’t know who said what. And, that’s not bravery. That’s being timid. I’m not willing to label them cowards, as some Trump loyalists have done, because cowardice comes when you do nothing.
The people who talked to Woodward and to the Times at least did something. But they did it halfway.
They did not join John Lewis and Martin Luther King Jr. in crossing the bridge at Selma. They looked on from the roadside. They could say they were there. But they weren’t actually participating.
Bravery is standing up, and saying it to someone’s face. Saying it to the American people. That’s why it’s called courage, and not, “okay, whatever.”
In his eulogy for John McCain, Obama summed up what many people feel in looking at Washington.
“So much of our politics, our public life, our public discourse, can seem small and mean and petty, trafficking in bombast and insult, in phony controversies and manufactured outrage. It’s a politics that pretends to be brave and tough, but in fact is born of fear.”
On Friday, he went further. “It did not start with Donald Trump,” Obama said of the nastiness that has infected the Republican Party and right-wing politics. “He is a symptom, not a cause.”
Obama went on, “This is not normal. These are extraordinary times. And they’re dangerous times. But here’s the good news. In two months we have the chance, not the certainty but the chance, to restore some semblance of sanity to our policies.”
The week wrapped up with some things clear. Far from being the end of his life, McCain’s death has kicked off a new era in politics.
People seem to be stirring awake, whether they are speaking publicly or anonymously. It might seem a little late, for those of us who have waited in frustration for politicians to take steps to end this nightmare.
After the funeral, Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake, who is retiring at the end of this year, told the New Yorker, “The fever will break eventually. It has to.”
I’m not optimistic about the country just yet. Trump is still president. The 2018 general elections are still two months away.
He can do much more damage, rant more rants, and there might come a situation in which an aide doesn’t get to his desk in time to whisk away a treacherous letter.
Likewise, some of Obama’s effectiveness now is because he has limited his public appearances since leaving office.
Someone incorrectly reported Friday that his University of Illinois speech was the first time he had come in from the sidelines since the 2016 election.
No it wasn’t, not if you watched the McCain funeral, or his other public appearances for the past 18 months. He was really only off the scene for about three months in 2017.
Although he is out there now, Obama doesn’t want to do it alone. “You cannot sit back and wait for a savoir,” he said at Illinois.
Hopefully, he won’t have to be one. People are watching, and talking and acting. And perhaps the sun is beginning to break through the clouds after a very long storm, as Flake suggested.
May more brave people stand in sunshine, and not in the shadows.
Micheline Maynard is a journalist and author who tweets @mickimaynard