No Drama, Please

Chapel Hill News logoJanuary 4, 2009

As we head into this new year and new administration, I feel hopeful and even inspired — a state I haven’t equated with a politician since I was a little girl. Growing up, my family worshiped John and Jackie Kennedy. I remember lining up, shoulders back, spine tall, in the JFK fitness program in elementary school — running laps, doing sit-ups and earning stars for good sportsmanship. School children all over the country were encouraged to get in shape; adults too.

“Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country,” was the operative philosophy around our house.

All that changed on a cloudy November day when, having been sent back to our homerooms at Witherspoon Street Junior High School, Mrs. Harris, her hands shaking so badly that she spilled a bottle of blue ink on her desk, told us, “President Kennedy has been shot.” School let out early. I ran all the way home, sobbing.

For me, Kennedy was the last of the inspiring presidential personalities, until Barack Obama. Lyndon Johnson reminded me of my parents’ rotund attorney, who used to come by for whiskey and to smoke one of his stinky fat cigars. Then came Nixon, tricky dick, with his Pinocchio nose and paranoid ways. Ford always appeared kind of brain-damaged and dull.

Jimmy Carter had some good ideas we should have listened to but seemed in over his head. Reagan looked overly pancaked and B-actorish, and God forbid he stray from his cue cards. Bush senior mangled the language, couldn’t think on his feet, and was stymied by a bar code scanner when he finally ventured into a grocery store. Out of touch, for sure.

Clinton was brilliant but totally lacking in self-awareness and impulse control — Big Macs and fries, political expediency and that perpetual state of allergy. We thought the language couldn’t get more abused after Bush senior — but that was before his son took office. Bush junior was also a contemptuous frat-boy, smug and narrow.

And now? Imagine a president-elect talking about how world leaders need to take time off to recharge and to THINK. Without downtime, Mr. Obama said, “you start making mistakes or you lose the big picture.” Are we finally moving beyond our stupid anti-intellectualism?

And then there are Obama’s ground rules. We’re going to talk about policy not personality, he told his staff, fact not fabrication. In no way will this president be staged by handlers, as was Bush in the “Mission accomplished” sham.

During the campaign Obama remained cool, collected when called a terrorist and a Muslim; when, at rallies, folks chanted threats to his life, he calmly refuted hyperbole with fact. In an interview on “60 Minutes,” Obama’s campaign strategists said that one of their mantras from their boss was, “no drama.” Amen.

The Obamas seem to want to give back to the community, not to run away from their roots, despising their backgrounds, the way Johnson and Nixon did.

Imagine becoming a community organizer over a six-figure attorney. Obama made that choice. And watching the couple together, I sense a real flesh-and-blood relationship.

As we look toward the inauguration and what some view as a mistake by Obama — assigning the invocation to the minister Rick Warren — I’m going to focus on what the Harvard historian Timothy McCarthy told Frank Rich of the New York Times: He said the National Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Leadership Council should, “… judge Obama on the content of his policy-making, not on the character of his ministers.”

I’m trying to greet this New Year with hope, with equanimity, with a willingness to listen to many voices, with a determination to avoid gossip and drama. Never before in my adult life have I sensed that perhaps I could look toward my president for guidance.