The President’s Lament
By MITCH TRAPHAGEN
In August, 2009, the headlines weren’t particularly comforting to those of us working as congressional staff members. Every single day, it seemed, there was a new story, a new video, about chaos and near-anarchy in town hall meetings across the country.
The first town hall meeting for Iowa’s third congressional district came after those headlines had been well-established. Notably, that first meeting was held in decidedly unfriendly territory — the vast majority of people in the small farm town were registered to the other party. In normal years, that would not have been an issue — the congressman I worked for easily crossed party lines. An Iowa farmer and a man of integrity, he saw his constituents, not his party, as his responsibility. But this was no ordinary year and these were not ordinary times. Polarization had come to Iowa.
The town hall meeting was standing room only. The packed room quickly overwhelmed the air conditioning system on that hot August day. Certainly, the temperature would do nothing to cool off the white-hot tempers that all of us on staff had seen so vividly displayed on the national news. In the audience were members of the national press, expecting to see the worst from the crowd, making for the best of headlines.
But a funny thing happened at that meeting. The old-school Congressman didn’t try to spin anything, he simply told the truth. Many in the crowd — perhaps most — didn’t necessarily agree with his position but they couldn’t fault him for being honest.
One staff member worked the crowd, carrying a wireless microphone to people with questions. As often as not, those questions made the staff squirm. There were questions loaded and ripe for riot. The person shuttling the microphone was not only an extremely intelligent and highly competent staff member, she was also a veteran of the Iraq War. She knew how to handle herself among the hostiles in the crowd. At the first tough question, she tried to move on — to find someone offering friendlier, less incendiary ground. She wanted to protect the Congressman.
But the Congressman stopped her. “Wait,” he said. “I want to hear this and I want to answer that question.”
And so it went for the next couple of hours. The Congressman let people talk and he answered them. He also listened — truly listened — to what the people in the crowd had to say. As a result, honesty trumped chaos and anarchy in that room. I have no doubt that several people came ready to fight — there were many people in the crowd holding video cameras; expecting to make a big splash on YouTube with the latest town hall meeting massacre of a member of Congress. But it didn’t happen. Everyone who wanted to speak was offered the chance to do so and to say what they wanted to say. The Congressman answered them with honesty. When someone is treated fairly, it is hard to pick a fight. There were no fights.
The next two town hall meetings were much the same. The Congressman acknowledged the anger, put a stop to the cheering and then explained his position. And then he listened to their positions. He didn’t just talk, he communicated. Not everyone went home happy but at a minimum, they left feeling respected.
George W. Bush and Barack Obama now share in a specific knowledge that only they and their surviving predecessors can know: there is no magic wand hidden in a desk drawer in the Oval Office.
On September 12, 2001, President Bush discovered that he could climb up onto the shoulders of an American public that was rising in anger; a public choosing fight in the flight or fight decision. From that lofty perch, he could — and did — shout to the world that America was not defeated.
On August 29, 2005, as the great American city of New Orleans was laid to waste by a force of nature, he learned that the perch was not so lofty from the shoulders of an American public hunched over in sadness and despair. Americans — and the world — watched for days as a city in the world’s most powerful and proud nation crumbled into near anarchy. The President was blamed and reviled for mismanagement of the crisis.
Five years later, another disaster is slowly unfolding and President Obama is certainly realizing that shouting out to the world from the shoulders of an increasingly cynical and weary public will not stop the oil from gushing forth and destroying the livelihood of thousands of Americans along with the environment. He is certainly learning that simply issuing orders from the bully pulpit of the American presidency — the world’s most powerful platform — is no solution at all. Some members of the media and the public are calling the oil spill “Obama’s Katrina.”
Today, as in 2005, people are entering the public forum ready to fight. Blame is cast without ever considering the notion that there is very little the president can do. In President Bush’s case, can anyone blame him for some hesitancy in sending troops into New Orleans? Think about it — that’s not how things are done in America. On the few small scale cases in which it had happened in the past, the results were not good. There are so many legal and constitutional issues surrounding that, it would make your head spin. If anyone out there believes that President Bush didn’t care about his fellow Americans in New Orleans, you are deluding yourself. The president didn’t create Katrina. The President didn’t want people to die, nor did he want to watch the wholesale destruction of a city. But at the same time, he couldn’t just swoop in on Air Force One, wave his hand and make everything better. Did he make mistakes? Certainly — he’s human, after all. And that is what we want and need in a president. The president is not a king, not a magician. The president is and should be one of us. Warts and all.
And now President Obama is facing a crisis that he didn’t create but increasingly owns. Like President Bush, he is facing a serious dilemma. The same people who have accused him of being a socialist are now saying that he hasn’t done anything to take over and fix the unfolding tragedy. But just as President Bush could not personally rescue people from rooftops in New Orleans, President Obama cannot be out in the Gulf scooping up oil with his bare hands. Is he making mistakes? Considering that oil has been gushing for nearly two months, it is safe to say that mistakes have been made. The situation appears to be approaching the point to which the only organization on earth with the discipline, power and skills to tackle this is the United States military. But that is no small decision — even when weighing the consequences of delay.
Lacking a magic wand, perhaps the mistake both presidents have made is in not overruling overly protective staff and spin doctors. Perhaps the president should do a better job of directly facing the anger and fear to say, “Wait, I want to hear this.” I know full well that President Bush cared deeply about the people of New Orleans. I know President Obama cares deeply about the people along the Gulf coast. But neither have done a good job demonstrating the simple act of being human. It is becoming apparent that information about the spill is being controlled and massaged. What the public hears does not seem to match the reality and gravity of the situation. The result is a feeling that honesty is lacking, and, as such, respect is lacking.
Two months ago, I flew from Tampa to Sioux Falls, South Dakota, to be at the hospital while my mom had major heart surgery. Less than an hour after she was out of the operating room, my cell phone rang. “How is your mom?” I heard the Congressman ask. He was calling from Washington, DC. Congressman Leonard Boswell is a very busy man with an enormous amount of responsibility. I had no idea he even knew she was having surgery.
His call didn’t change her medical condition, but it did change me. He showed me that he genuinely cared; and in doing so, he helped me to redouble my commitment to my mother’s welfare over my own desire to get on with my life back in Florida. His simple, honest act of compassion and respect inspired me to be a better son, a better person.
Americans are capable of miracles. Respect, honesty and inspiration are powerful things. Perhaps the President could try what a Congressman from Iowa already knows. He might find it is almost like having a magic wand.