HARVARD SQUARE COMMENTARY

November 24, 2008
From Liberty Street

Ostracism

John Turner


As a punishment, or to avoid political dangers, the ancient Greeks used to banish certain figures from their home territory for a period of five to ten years. In the United States we do the same thing to presidents.

I am reminded of a headline I saw in The Onion a couple days after the election; Black Guy Put in the Worst Job in the World.

I have read several news stories lately about how Barack and Michelle Obama are regretting having to give up the lives they had before he became a candidate for the presidency. I guess you could say they asked for it. Still, it is a sad tale.

Reading the newspapers has informed me that Obama used to do many of the same things I do when I visit my daughter in Chicago. She lives a mile or so north of Obama's house, and when I'm there and want a little roaming around time I go to Hyde Park to stroll up and down the streets, fantasize about the architecture, check out the bookstores, and take more time in a coffee shop than the price of my mug and muffin justifies.

There's a stretch of 57th Street, east of the University but not quite over to the lake, that I find particularly gratifying.  Powells has a branch there which, at the moment, is the best bookstore I know, not as good as some of the bookstores of my youth, but, still, with the smell and feel of what a real bookstore used to be before Barnes and Noble came on the scene ( I don't mean to imply that I dislike  Barnes and Noble.) Powells has no volumes on how to become a millionaire in thirty minutes a day. You would not expect to see George Bush in Powells.

Recent news articles have informed me that 57th Street was one of Obama's haunts. I'm surprised I didn't run into him. The area round about is clearly not paradise. It has something of a gritty atmosphere. Yet being there tells you, unmistakably, what reality in America is. I find it comforting to think that the new president of the United States lived in such a place. I can at least hope that he'll remember some of it after he's been whisked away and encased in the bubble.

We talk a lot about the imperial presidency, but I doubt we know what it means. An emperor is a person not only not like you and me but incapable of imagining what our lives are like. Evidently, we want our president to resemble an emperor. We like the pomp and circumstance. We luxuriate, vicariously, when he strikes awe in the hearts of the rest of the people of the world. We delight in the phrase that he is the most powerful person on earth. He gives us a great show. And most of the time we pay for it, not only with treasure but with blood.

Obama is said to be determined not to be emperor-ized. That already sets him above his predecessor, who loved the thought and seems to have sought the presidency for that experience alone. But we shouldn't underestimate the difficulty Obama is facing. Habitual deference pumps up the brain, sometimes to the point of making it explode.

I hope he has sense enough to keep people around him who will tell him that nonsense is nonsense, even if it comes out of the presidential mouth.

I have another daughter who lives in Washington, and when I visit her I roam around her Connecticut Avenue neighborhood and watch the people there. They are not like the people I see in Hyde Park. So, I have a pretty good idea of where Obama is coming from and where he is going to, though I can't say I have any grasp of what life inside the sterile palace is actually like.

It's strange how we worship fame and, at the same time, revel in its debilitations.  There's something perverse in our attitudes towards it. When you think of how temporary it is, it seems a petty thing. Still, everything is temporary. That's one of the truths we're having a hard time facing in our modern world.

I wish the Obamas well. They are now historical figures rather than just people. Yet, I hope they can hold on to their common humanity. If they can, it will be good for all of us and perhaps more importantly it will be good for them. No matter how much we think we own them by having given them our votes, we don't. They have the right to be people too.


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