Sunday, June 06, 2010


Shall we pity a president who must endure the musings of a famous McCartney on a Wednesday night at the White House? Surely one can imagine a less attractive way of spending a midweek evening at the dawn of summer in Washington after a winter of dreary discontent. Having one's beloved serenaded by the bard of the Beatles inevitably must secure some most deserved brownie points in that growing list of debts kept in the ledger maintained in that most exclusive, solitary club in the world: spouse of the U.S. president. And to have Sir Paul sing 'Michelle' to one's own Michelle must surely make Barack more than a little festive inside. What a conversation will be enacted later that night between the president and his wife! (Gossip is gossip, but presidential gossip between the Commander in Chief and his own wife between the sheets? Of such intimacies sonnets could be written!)

Still, one can speculate. All lives are surreal in and of themselves when aligned next to one another, but the life of the American president must somehow stand separate from the rest, if only because the nature of the profession requires daily duties that border on the narrow line separating the surreal and the tragic. Waking up to a shower and a shave and a daughter inquring as to when that 'hole will be plugged' ranks as one of the most flippant and profound comments a president has made in many years. Whereas most of us prepare for work with a sensation somewhere between indifference and a tiny, spiralling dread that expands ever outwards as the morning unwinds, the United States president must kiss his kids off to school and then proceed down the hall to a small, sterile room where black-suited functionaries blandly recite who, what and where the intelligence services of the most powerful country in the world have harmed in the past twenty-four hours, leading to a sensation in the great leader's stomach that could be similar to a cancer patient being told that there is hope, yes, but of the most fragile and tenuous kind. To start the day learning that one's secret missles have accidentally killed an Afghani family of four (which remains a specualtion on my part, to be sure, but speculation, through its very flexibility, can achieve a kind of moral truth that facts can only leer at), and end the evening by singing along with 'Hey Jude' to Paul MCartney while the television cameras capture your every moment for a broadcast, for history, for the fact that a president's job is to have his every moment frozen in bloodless time simply because that is what a president is for, to have an image we can analyze and judge, forgive or forget, to have that arc explain the span of one's day, surely must make a man sleep the sleep of the driven or the dead. Sleep like a man who has been shown the insides of the carcass he has killed, or sleep like a man who has been given a sedative strong enough to blunt a bear.

We judge a president not by what he does, or says, but what he shows. And Obama shows a driven, intent, subdued individual who maintains a temperament akin to a tightroper walker forcefully but elegantly striding the divide between glory and certain, plummenting death. His smile is broad and white and seemingly genuine, but 'one may smile and smile and be a villian', in the words of Shakespeare, and while Obama is not a villian (in my naive eyes), he is certainly a human, and humans can drift the lines of moral certainty like wood on the water.

I can only imagine Obama listening to Paul McCartney serenade his wife. How strange a moment for the boy from Hawaii! Years ago he was a little boy visting the Big Buddha in the ancient town of Kamakura, Japan, not far from where I now live, and now he was sitting in the White House, watching a Beatle praise him and his wife. All that day he had been dealing with BP oil spills and random missles fired in Afghanistan and God only knows what else the American president deals with on a daily, hourly, minute-by-minute basis. For a moment, everything seemed so electric and ordinary: a middle-aged man at a Beatles concert. Forget, if you can, that this was a private show (shared with the entire planet). Ignore, if you must, that only seats away from Obama, hidden from view, sat a man with the case containing the nuclear access codes that accompany the president wherever he goes. (And what a strange and ludicrous existence that job entails! Oh, to be inside of the consciousness of the man whose fingers wrap themselves around such a suitcase on a daily basis! Eternity and armaggedon at ones fingertips twenty-four seven! Was such an occupation even hinted at by him in his high school yearbook? ) Disregard, if possible, the stressed and sweaty people with sleeves rolled up and eyes slouching shut working in unknown rooms even at that late hour, downing coffee and cursing their coworkers who get to watch McCartney sing his songs while they are left with the task of designing ways to minimize the means by which innocent civilians have their heads severed and torsos splattered. All that remains, after such separation, is one Barack Obama, a smile on his face, listening to the music of, if not his generation, precisely, at least that of his era's approximate fellows.

Inside of his mind I imagine Obama returning to that day in Kamakura, Japan. A little boy with his mother in a strange land. Staring up at a mammoth stone Buddha who remains blandly impassive to all of life's disastrous follies and unspeakable (but not unacceptable!) atrocities. The American president must be a consummate actor, and so there is little indication that he is doing anything at this moment other than enjoying the rare privilege of a Beatle applauding his courage and integrity. The smile is white and the eyes are flashing that Obama flash. Tomorrow he will have to fix the oil spill. Deal with Pakistan. Scold the C.I.A. Welcome a group of overachieving inner city kids for their fifteen minutes with the president. Remember to compliment Michelle on her new haircut. Try not to scold the kids so much at dinnertime for slurping their milk, which they think is funny, and he does not. (Dealing with the Russian bureaucracy only five minutes before six is surely one way in which a family dinner can be ruined! Nothing spreads gloom like the gnarld machinations of a former Soviet infrastructure before mealtime.). For the cameras, for Michelle, for Paul, for us, Obama is where he is supposed to be, doing what he does. Inside himself, he is somewhere else, where he has to be.