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A President and a Pope – Scottish Review of Books
by Owen Dudley Edwards

A President and a Pope

September 4, 2009 | by Owen Dudley Edwards

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A President and a Pope – Owen Dudley Edwards

Once in power, President Barack Obama has been very courteous about and to his predecessor, George W. Bush. That is President Obama’s regal way. It comes naturally to him, blending the authority of an African chieftain, the relaxation of a mid-century Hawaiian, the economy of an Indonesian, the diplomacy of a South Chicago social worker, the intellectualism of a professor of law, the flexibility of a best-selling writer, and the dignity of his full-blooded Cherokee ancestor, and no doubt countless other strains going to make this most representative of all heads of state, ever, anywhere. A cynic (if we could imagine such a thing possible among modern journalists) might say that it was only fair for President Obama to be polite to President Bush, without whose visibility in office as the worst President in American history it would have been much less easy for the Opposition party to defeat American racial prejudice. Could the sublime have triumphed without the ridiculous as his target?

We will never know. Indeed our chance of such knowledge is daily receding since the Obamas in the White House are making it harder and harder to remember how unbelievable had been the thought that they might be there. Victory over racism must dull the sense of its former strength. What modern youth feels in his guts that it once seemed impossible for a Catholic to be President? What more modern youngster believes a divorcé seemed doomed as a Presidential candidate? Yet these taboos fell as recently as 1960 and 1980 respectively. The serene dignity that the Obamas have restored to the Presidency, at a greater height than any since Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, makes it less credible every day that the office could be imagined as one from which their coloration would have excluded them. And that is not something they owe to any Bush. The Obama dignity is their own. Barack Obama will be tested as head of government till the day he leaves office. As head of state his majesty already rivals that of Washington. This is important. Americans have not had a President of whom to feel so proud since 1945.

In part the lack of experience with which opponents sought to question his advance is on the side of his credentials as head of state. Politically you might argue that experience of the kind of government the United States and the rest of the world suffered under George W. Bush was experience future Presidents should avoid. But ceremonially the want of experience in the political arena (or should we say ‘cesspool’?) is a great advantage. The Constitution presupposes the possibility of a President with no political past, and from time to time Presidents have emerged supposedly with little or none: Washington, Andrew Jackson, William Henry Harrison, Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses Grant, Grover Cleveland, Woodrow Wilson, Herbert Hoover, Dwight Eisenhower, Ronald Reagan. All suggested superiority to political service even when (as in Reagan’s case) their political virginity was an ancient casualty.

This is one of Obama’s great strengths; he is helping to make a new world, but he is doing so partly by rekindling an old dream. The American Presidency was always intended to carry a royalty above politics. In our own time, all the more because of his anti-Americanism, Charles de Gaulle attempted the same thing with the French Presidency. He brought it off, give or take the later 1960s, and gave French politics a stability that observers of 1945-60 would have found unbelievable. The royalty of the Obamas is vital in the renaissance of American idealism. It has nothing to do with remoteness. Obama’s books, Dreams From My Father (1995) and The Audacity Of Hope (2006), make him a familiar friend of every reader; as a writer he has the best of all qualifications, that of being a first-class companion. It rejects pomposity. When after his election Obama was asked about the dog he had promised his daughters in his victory speech he discussed possible breeds and finished “or we may get a mutt, like me”. BBC reporter Justin Webb commented that there were no jokes now, an acquaintance with the American language being apparently beyond his talents. ‘Mutt’ means a mongrel. Obama was luxuriating in the pleasure of a joke about his own multi-ethnic origins which nobody would dare to make now. A President who could teach his people how to laugh in the face of prejudices he had defeated is a regal President. Like Franklin Roosevelt, he can laugh at his enemies. Like Theodore Roosevelt, he can laugh at himself.


“Obama is helping to make

a new world, but he is doing

so partly by rekindling an

old dream.”

Obama’s preparation for his Presidency was conspicuously his apprenticeship to Lincoln. This was expected of Senators from Illinois, but for years American politicians have slavered their Lincolnesque attributes from the moment of openly eyeing his last job. Everett McKinley Dirksen, Republican Senator from Illinois and Senate Minority leader under Kennedy and Johnson, stated that the first thing a politician must do is “get right” with Lincoln. There was nothing odd, or regal, in Obama’s announcement after victory that he had been reading Lincoln. What was less predictable to those who did not know him was the quality he singled out for study: Lincoln’s humility. It was in fact one of Lincoln’s greatest strengths. He had a genius, as had Theodore Roosevelt, for looking at himself as though he were a spectator assessing his performance. To be of any use, this capability must be accompanied by humility, otherwise the selfassessment fails.

At the present time some unscrupulous American Catholic Republicans (including some bishops) and some equally ruthless Italian journalist friends of Signor Berlusconi are trying to stir up trouble between the Pope and the President. When the two men meet in June, they will find they share humility, which the mischief-makers seeking to divide them certainly will not. Benedict XVI, like Obama, can claim to have written one of the greatest books of our time Jesus Of Nazareth (2007), one showing itself to be a dear friend to its readers. Its foreword ends: “Everyone is free, then, to contradict me. I would only ask my readers for that initial goodwill without which there can be no understanding”. Such goodwill is easily given to authors who write as well as these two men. And the readers are the more likely to be won because of the writers’ similar humility.

Pope and President are likely to find common ground on peace (Benedict’s name was chosen mindfully of the previous one, who courageously faced hostility across the world for opposing the Fist World War; and Obama ran for office as another critic of the war in Iraq). They must educate themselves and their nominal followers in conceiving a serious agenda to tackle climate change. Benedict is implacably opposed to ownership of nuclear weapons and Obama at least wants to diminish his and everyone else’s holdings as much as he can deem possible (we have no reason to believe he wants to keep Britain in the nuclear club; and of what use are such financial follies chasing shadows of an imperial past, whose foot-soldiers tortured Obama’s Kenyan grandfather?). The pivot of Papal-Presidential disagreement is Obama’s liberalisation of funding for stem-cell research and for programmes which may involve advice on abortion. Roman Catholic thought is becoming increasingly hostile to the taking of human life in any form, in or out of the womb. Benedict’s hostility to abortion does not assume it to be the only issue, which some American Catholics seem to do: Benedict rebuked them by pointing out that the care of children after their birth is as important as before it, and there is far more likelihood of US federal funding for the care of infants in an Obama regime than in anything the Republicans may propose. But Obama has produced one startling interpretation of the anti-abortion crusade whether expressed with a civility he values or in violent and ugly hostility. In The Audacity Of Hope he reflected, in the light of American slavery:

“It has not always been the pragmatist, the voice of reason, or the force of compromise, that has created the conditions for liberty. The hard, cold facts remind me that it was unbending idealists like William Lloyd Garrison who first sounded the clarion call for justice; that it was slaves and former slaves, men like Denmark Vesey and Frederick Douglass and women like Harriet Tubman, who recognised power would concede nothing without a fight…. I’m reminded that deliberation and the constitutional order may sometimes be the luxury of the powerful, and that it has sometimes been the cranks, the zealots, the prophets, the agitators, and the unreasonable – in other words, the absolutists – that have fought for a new order. Knowing this, I can’t summarily dismiss those possessed of similar certainty today – the antiabortion activist who pickets my town hall meeting, or the animal rights activist who raids a laboratory – no matter how deeply I disagree with them.”

So the Pope will find a startling level of understanding if he and Obama sideline the sidekicks who want to keep them from intellectual conversation. Obama’s awareness of the multi-dimensional perspective given his (or more precisely his wife’s) inheritance of American African suffering, helps him understand much more anti- American figures than the benevolent Benedict. He has already shown how that his awareness of the dark side of American history (in every sense) is a necessary and valuable diplomatic instrument. Thirdworld anger against the USA shares what he knows of non-white anger in the Untied States itself. Every attempt was made to injure him after from his wife’s honest statement of her difficulty in believing non-whites would ever get equality, and his pastor’s vituperations against what he took to be the oppressor of the African American peoples. Obama is brilliantly making these supposed wounds to his campaign into credentials for trust in him even in Cuba or Iran.

The effect of this is to reassert the regal role of the Presidency in startling form. On the one hand Obama wins diplomatic leverage for the USA by pre-empting the anti- American campaigns with shrewd and dignified acknowledgements of such truth as they may have. On the other, his actions in so doing place him above the contestants, i.e. the anti-Americans versus the USA of yesteryear. His revolutionary situation gives him legitimacy as arbiter even when the past conduct of his own country is the prime grievance. It is not the first time when the USA has played the role of moral arbiter, and the most famous example of it in world history, Wilson at Versailles, is as ironic as Alexander Pope could ask. Wilson conspicuously sacrificed that role while trying to retain it, by becoming one of the victors dividing the spoils, however elevated his view of his own conduct. Obama’s Latin American diplomacy is a classic reversal of Wilson whose sanctimony was all too easily revealed as self-interest, above all in his readiness to admit US shortcomings where Wilson fanatically insisted on his own righteousness. The racist Wilson removed as many African-Americans from federal service as he could; it is gorgeous that where he failed as an international moral arbiter, his first African-American successor should succeed, as he shows every sign of doing. Wilsonian figures on both sides of the American political divide continued to use his rhetoric with even more obvious self-interest, notably John Foster Dulles in the Eisenhower administration. But Obama’s frankness in self-accusation as a weapon of American foreign policy is in itself an indictment of the hypocrisy of his precursors.


The term ‘pragmatist’ is insufficient to explain Obama. He is receptive to an extraordinary degree, and his whole philosophy is one of listening, as he listened and learned to the voices of the poor of Chicago. He will not allow the realities of the situation, moral or otherwise, to be swept aside in fulfilment of fashionable fads. For instance, his insistence on ending the torture of kidnapped prisoners in Guantanamo will not be followed by a witch-hunt smelling out CIA torturers. He is therefore denounced by persons who think they own him, and complain when they discover he intends to be nobody’s slave. But in fact his refusal to smell out the Bush regime’s military thugs is the greater indictment of his predecessor. Ultimately the torturer was Bush himself, and all actions undertaken at Guantanamo took place because of his authority. To winkle out some miserable sadist who whistled while he worked is to distract attention from the real enemy of humanity. It is the same wisdom that should keep us dismantling the system which has plunged the world into depression, instead of wasting our time denouncing wealthy scapegoats. And Obama himself is following the example of Franklin Roosevelt in building up national and therefore economic confidence. Obama knows too much African-American history to approve of lynch mobs, and the restoration of economic health requires very different statements and actions. Meanwhile his radio opponent, Rush Limbaugh, whoops up his dwindling audience with his spoiled-child demand, ‘I want Obama to fail!’ As it is patently clear that failure for Obama means failure for America, Limbaugh will merely saw off the branch on which he sits. To support the Republicans at this point is to seek dividends from one’s own undertaker.

Two cheers for Canongate, who have won honour for Scotland in so brilliantly seeking Obama’s publication rights before the existence had impinged on the majority of British publishers . Canongate’s third Obama publication, Change We Can Believe In, was originally a collection of Obama position papers and speeches, collected and put on sale in the US in September 2008. To these documents have been added the text of the victory speech, and the Inaugural address.

How far will Obama’s success infect the politics of his various followers and admirers? Well, there are those like Mr Tony Blair’s friend Mr Berlusconi who would simply melt into a noisesome puddle if he even flirted with honesty of the Obama variety. In the case of the more reputable (if not too reputable) avowed Obama disciples in the UK, France and Germany, the answer is simple. You too can be your country’s Obama, but only if you actually model yourself on him, not on whatever your court toadies may make of his image. You will have to listen; you must be ready to admit errors; you may no more proclaim your country right or wrong than Obama would; you will have to reply to critics with acceptance of their wisdom if you can find it; you must be ready to make allies in improbable places; you will have to laugh at yourself in public and in private. In a word, every man his own Obama. CAN THEY DO IT? Answers on a (very) small postcard.


Change We Can Believe In – Barack Obama’s Plan To Renew America’s Promise
Barack Obama
Canongate, £8.99
pp299, ISBN 9781847674890

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