REASON 34: Leadership begins with character.
To be sure, many of the reasons I will be voting for Barack Obama in November are common ones for people of my particular political bent.
These reasons include, but are not limited to: a distaste for religious extremity in the political realm; a lifelong commitment to women’s reproductive rights; a reluctance to start bombing Iran any day now; a belief that Americans might actually benefit from a bit of health care; a certainty that—based on the incontrovertible evidence of the last half century—Democrats do a far better job handling the economy than Republicans; a repulsion at the idea of transforming the mega-rich into state-sponsored welfare queens; an inability to forget that poor, struggling, and disabled people still exist, and that they sometimes need our help; a heartfelt concern for the personal freedoms of gay families; a qualm or two about the notion of building a wall along the Mexican border; a desire for at least minimal protection of the environment; and a general sense of alarm about possible future Supreme Court inductees.
But none of these constitute my main reason. The main reason I will vote for Barack Obama in November is because I admire him. The moment I first realized the depth of this admiration—and also realized how important it is—was in August of 2008, right after John McCain named Sarah Palin as his running mate. It might be difficult to remember now, but during the week or so following the 2008 Republican Convention, Ms. Palin’s electrifying presence in the campaign caused a lot of people like me to freak the hell out. We thought, This is it, the goose is cooked, the game is up. She seemed so powerful, so galvanizing, so terrifying. As difficult as this is to recall now, Sarah Palin’s nomination seemed at the time like the most brilliant and sinister tactic John McCain had ever executed in his life, and quite suddenly it appeared that he might win because of her. I had friends calling me in panic, saying, “She’s got fascistic potential, and there’s no way to shut her down!” I had friends calling me in tears of alarm, with the customary suicidal threat-like statements about how it was seriously time to move to Canada now. I had one friend whose husband put her on an enforced media blackout for a few days, because this woman was so agitated by Sarah Palin’s very existence that she literally could not sleep.
At the height of Palin-mania, I hosted a barbecue one night at my house, and the only thing we did—all nine of us liberal Americans seated around the table—was to scream at each other in increasingly frenetic consensus that this was a fucking nightmare! It was one of those nights where everyone agrees with each other completely, yet somehow nobody can stop yelling. Certainly nobody was behaving that night with any sort of decorum or comportment; we were too jacked up on fear and hysteria to even take a breath.
My husband, standing at the barbecue, said nothing for a very long while. My husband is not American. He was born in Brazil, where he grew up under a filthy, corrupt dictatorship. In his twenties, he moved to Europe, where he lived for a while under various socialist democracies. He spent a few years on a kibbutz in Israel, living out a utopian experiment in communal existence. Then he moved to Australia (another socialist democracy) and when I met him, he was living in Indonesia (another corrupt dictatorship). Now he lives with me in New Jersey—a state which is part corrupt dictatorship, part socialist democracy, part utopian experiment. What I mean to say is, my husband has been around.
That night, as my friends and I grew increasingly frothy, dismayed, and screechy about how Sarah Palin = The End of the World, my husband finally turned around from his barbecue and made this comment: “I’ve lived in a lot of places and I’ve seen a lot of things, but never in my life have I seen a more impressive political figure than Barack Obama. He seems more intelligent and dignified than any candidate I’ve ever encountered. I definitely know that he’s more intelligent and dignified than me, and—with all due respect—I believe he’s more intelligent and dignified than anyone sitting at this table. He doesn’t seem at all alarmed about Sarah Palin, so why are you letting it get to you? Follow his example, and calm down.”
In other words: Look to your leader, and emulate his behavior.
This was a radical realization for me. Never before in my political memory had I known a leader whose behavior was so admirable that I might actually like to emulate it. There’d been leaders in my lifetime whom I was fond of, or impressed with, or amused by—but none whom I had ever admired as a role model for intelligent, dignified behavior. I closed my eyes and imagined what it might be like to have somebody in the White House whom one could look to for an example of how to remain calm and thoughtful in moments of crisis, stupidity, or sorrow.
It looked good to me, and it still looks good.
That is who Barack Obama is—a person of admirable character—and that is who he has remained for me over these last four years. I have not agreed with his every decision, but never once have I seen him break his cool, lose his composure, or abandon his insightful perspective—even during the most serious and/or absurd national disasters. Whenever I am on the verge of panic about the future of this country, I look to my president to gauge his response, and I follow his example. He has remained calm this entire time, so I have remained calm this entire time. In other words, shocking as it may sound in our disillusioned age, I trust him to lead.
I don’t know how many more chances I will get during my lifetime to live in a country that is managed by a leader of emulation-worthy intelligence and dignity. For all I know, it may never happen again. But I would at least like another four years of admiring the most powerful person in the world, and that—more than anything else—is why I am voting for Barack Obama in November.
Frenchtown, New Jersey