Reporter's Note: President Obama is enjoying his public inauguration today and preparing for four more years of work. I, on the other hand, will be taking a break. The letter below is the same one I sent on the day of his first inauguration when I began this unbroken string of missives. It is also the last one.
Dear Mr. President,
Congratulations! Watching you on that podium today, surrounded by so many hundreds of thousands of Americans I could not help but feel inspired by the miracle of Democracy and the greatness of our nation. I also have a question: Do you have any idea what you’ve gotten yourself into?
I know you are busy today, but call when you can.
Reporter's Note: President Obama’s second inauguration take place today, then tomorrow there will be a big public ceremony.
Dear Mr. President,
Well, we’ve come down to the end. You will raise your hand today and take the oath to continue being President for the next four years, and I’ve already sworn to my wife that I won’t continue writing to you. I’ll send a little note tomorrow, but this is the last time I will send any kind of substantial letter your way.
This all started because you said before you took office the first time that you would appreciate ideas from your fellow Americans. The extraordinary length of this letter writing campaign suggests I took that a tad too seriously, and in any event I think I’d be a little concerned if you’d had time to read them all.
Still, I was thinking back over everything I’ve said and wondering if it could be boiled down to a few key points that might serve you or any president well. So here goes.
1) Listen more than you talk. I realize this is an odd sentiment coming from the guy who wrote 1,463 letters, but I believe it. We learn from others, not from ourselves.
2) Don’t imagine you are the smartest person in the room. Although you seem clever enough, at any given moment in any given place we should all see the wisdom of others.
3) Treat your opponents with dignity and respect, no matter how they treat you. It is not only the hallmark of maturity and intelligence, it is also shrewd politics.
4) Know that people who think you are wrong are not stupid, evil, or shortsighted…and sometimes they are even right.
5) Remember (and this one if unique to presidents): For all the pomp and honor, for all the trappings of success and power, you work for the citizens of America. They do not work for you.
I hope for you, as I would hope for any president, that the next four years go well. I hope you have gained not just experience, but also wisdom. I hope you call one day.
Best of luck.
Reporter's Note: President Obama’s second inauguration is officially tomorrow, and ceremonially on Monday. At which point I will cease writing these letters. I’m sure we’ll both be relieved.
Dear Mr. President,
The weather seems to be a bit more cooperative for the inauguration this time than last. That’s a good thing. I’m sure that you and the other VIPs would be fine either way, but all those folks standing out on the National Mall waiting for the big moment have to endure an awful lot as it is, I’d hate to see them dealing with hypothermia on top of it.
I’m sure it is very exciting for you and your family. Personally if I were a re-elected president, especially in tough economic times, I would opt for a small ceremony in the Oval Office, maybe hold a nice dinner to raise money for charity, and then I’d get back to work. But that’s me. And frankly I imagine even if you wanted things to go that way you’d get a lot of pushback from fundraisers, advisors, and supporters who would be disappointed.
Under the circumstances, my biggest concern is just being able to drive to the office on Monday. We are, as you know, only a couple of blocks from the Capitol so I think I can come in only from the north on one open street. We’ll see. If I get into a bind I’ll give you a call and see if you can issue an executive order to open the way. Ha!
Anyway, I’m in the office working again on this Saturday. Pretty much standard fare with big events like this. If you have a moment, give me a call. Otherwise, the countdown continues: one letter for Sunday, and one for Monday, then that’s it. You’re on your own.
Reporter's Note: President Obama’s second inauguration is now just days away. Which, in a way, could be a relief for a lot of people…
Dear Mr. President,
You may notice the number at the top of the page with confusion, as did I. At first, I assumed that I must have lost count since one letter per day for four years ought to be 4 x 365 =1460. Then I went back and checked and sure enough 2012 was a leap year, we picked up an extra day, and tomorrow will officially mark the complete four year mark in my letter writing campaign to you. And even though the official ceremony is on Sunday, I plan to write to you through the big public ceremony on Monday, so the final count will be 1,462 letters. And then I intend to stop.
Yes, sad, but true. We've been at this quite a while, haven’t we? Me writing letters to you each day, offering my heartfelt advice and wise counsel…or whatever I think might pass for that…and you steadfastly ignoring it. What a kidder you are! At least I think you are ignoring it. Perhaps you start every day with a shout down the hall, “Biden! Bring me the latest letter from Tom!” But I doubt it.
Truth be told, whether you've enjoyed it or not I have. As they say in Maine, “took to it like a duck to water.” Well, I’m not sure they say that in Maine, but seems as good a place as any to hear such a thing. In any event, within just a couple of months of starting this quest back on that cold January of 2009, I came to look forward to it each day. I liked setting aside a few minutes to set down my thoughts and send them your way. Sure, sometimes it was hard to find the time, and this past year it was harder and harder to come up with things to write about, but still I think I will miss it in some ways.
The question is, will you?
I have wondered many times if you have ever seen these letters or if you even know that they exist. (Word of advice: If you haven’t been following along I would not try to catch up now. Way too much reading.) I’ve also wondered if someone wrote to me this often would I bother to read every letter? Probably not. In fact, if I were you I likely would have sent the Secret Service to tell me to knock it off. Ha!
Look at this: Here the clock is fast running out and I’ve wasted my last Friday letter talking about how I’m down to my last few letters! Ah well. I have too much work yet to do to be ready for your inauguration, so I guess I better wrap it up.
More tomorrow (at least for now) and I hope your weekend goes well.
Reporter's Note: President Obama is no doubt preparing for his inauguration, as am I.
Dear Mr. President,
Well, here the week is winding down again and the work just seems to be growing right before my eyes. And yet at any given moment I feel as if I am getting nothing done. Do you have that sensation?
I imagine you do, since the ocean of matters surging around your desk is infinite. No matter how much you bail it never seems to change, I suppose.
Still, the big inauguration is coming up and you must be excited about that. Speaking of which, I talked yesterday with one of your fans. I won’t put his name here, since I didn’t say anything about mentioning him to you and I would not want him to be embarrassed. But he really is a big fan. He voted for you last time and this time too, and he’s also coming to the inauguration!
I have to say that I am impressed by that. Of course, as a journalist I am paid to never get that “into” any candidate, but even if I had, I can’t imagine that I’d ever feel so strongly about an elected official that I’d pack my bags and get onto an airplane just to cheer for him or her from a distance. But hundreds of thousands of our fellow Americans are going to do that in just a few days because that is how they feel about you. Isn’t that something?
I always feel good when my wife just stands on the porch and waves goodbye when I leave for work. The idea that people I’ve never met, and never will meet personally, would go to such pains to wish me well…just amazing. Fortunately, I don’t think I’ll ever have to contemplate such a puzzle. Ha!
Still, I hope it crosses your mind as you make your final preparations. I’m sure taking the oath will feel just as special this time as last…maybe it would feel that way if you took it a dozen times. But remember as you stand there that just witnessing that moment from a distance…maybe a great distance…is also a great moment for many of your fellow citizens, whose hopes for the next four years may be even greater than yours.
Call if you can. I’m busy, but around.
Reporter's Note: President Obama has unveiled his plans for more restrictions on who can get guns and under what circumstances. I have unveiled my latest letter to the White House.
Dear Mr. President,
So I saw you signing those new provisions to tighten up on existing gun laws, and proposing even more if Congress will join your effort; new restrictions on assault weapons, the size of clips, and more extensive use of background checks.
Considering the terrible shootings we’ve seen lately in Connecticut, Colorado, and elsewhere, I’m sure a great many Americans are happy to see anything happening on this front. On the other hand, as best I can read the polls, not many people have much faith that new gun controls alone will make much difference.
I know, I know, that the gun lobby has been railing about that very idea for some days now, suggesting that an effort aimed purely at guns is punitive and will be ineffective. I don’t mean to buy into their line, but then again I’m just telling you what the polls suggest: Many of our fellow citizens, while willing to consider new gun controls, really do want to see a much more comprehensive approach to tamping down violence.
Certainly it is a complicated issue. There are indeed a lot of guns in our country, but we’ve had a lot of guns for a long time. There are guns that look very menacing and have the capability of releasing a stream of shots very quickly, but we’ve had versions of that for a long time too. And there is a lot of violence in our movies and games, but we’ve had that for some time as well…maybe not in precisely the same form, but there nonetheless.
I think the key lies in figuring out what has changed. What is different about our culture? What alchemy has occurred between our guns, our society, our behavior, our demographics, our economy, and our health care? What tipped us over the edge so that massacres of innocent people became commonplace?
Those are not easy questions, I know, but I don’t suppose solving the riddle of how to stop gun violence will be easy either. And whatever you accomplished today…at very best…is likely to be just a start.
Hope all is well.
Reporter's Note: President Obama’s Democrats…and some Republicans…were arguing in Congress today about an emergency funding measure for Superstorm Sandy.
Dear Mr. President,
I spent pretty much the whole afternoon listening to the torrent of arguments in the House over this emergency aid bill for the communities hit by that big storm, Sandy. I must say it was enlightening. I’ve covered plenty of things like this before, but I was struck by how clearly I could hear both sides talking past each other. Over and over again they launched versions of competing views as if utterly deaf to what the other side had just said.
From the Republicans: “This bill should be solely about direct, emergency aid to the communities that were hit. Future funding may be needed. Future funding may even be wise. But Democrats can not use an emergency spending measure as a stalking horse to sneak funding to all sorts of pet projects. For example, money to improve the government’s hurricane predication capability should absolutely not be included.”
From the Democrats and Republicans who live in the storm area: “This bill should be about a comprehensive, long term recovery plan. Sure, some of these measures may not seem to be directly connected to the disaster, but they really are. For example, money to improve the government’s hurricane prediction capability should absolutely be included.”
Both sides, I firmly believe, have great majorities of members who care about what happened to the people when that storm hit, and who care about the recovery of their communities. Both sides had impassioned, clearly intelligent speakers. Both sides, seemingly, could have recognized the other’s concern and addressed it… reasonably …fairly. But neither side did. In the end, it came down to a vote, and the money was approved. There were winners and losers, but I think the public at large lost …because serious issues on both sides that deserved serious consideration once again were swept up in posturing that probably, in the long run, serves nobody well.
Hope all is good with you and the family. Excited about the Inauguration? Getting close…
Reporter's Note: President Obama held the last news conference of his first term today.
Dear Mr. President,
As you know, I tend to make more observations than suggestions here, but this time I am leaning toward the latter. I have an idea for your second term that I really hope you’ll consider. Hold more press conferences.
Despite all of your claims about the transparency of your White House, the evidence suggests you’re hardly been a model of openness up to this point. You’ve had question and answer sessions with the media less often than President Clinton, or either President Bush. According to The American Presidency Project, since Calvin Coolidge only Nixon, Carter, Ford, and Reagan were less inclined to talk to the press than you are.
Granted, those of us in the mainstream media are not the only game in town. And sure, you’ve beefed up the White House website with a lot of features ostensibly to allow regular folks to find out information on their own. But honestly, I’ve looked over a lot of the information on your sites and most of it is thinly veiled political propaganda. I know that your fans would probably like to string me up for saying it, but your PR folks have just come up with smart ways to make press releases look like something else.
I know you’re always tweeting or popping up on social media sites and that’s part of your claim to transparency too, just like your appearances on talk shows. But you and I both know that as much as people may mistrust the MSM, all these alternative venues are custom made for avoiding tough questions. Rarely in such circumstances will you run into a cadre of well-informed professionals who know their subjects as well as you do, and who are ready and able to challenge your claims.
Hats off to you for the way your team has sold it. You’ve talked up the idea that you’re connecting directly to “real people” and not allowing the media to distort your message. You’ve convinced a lot of voters that they don’t need anyone to help them navigate the nuances of your policies or point out when you are…well, wrong. (Hey, it happens to the best of us.) Again, good for you. That makes your job a lot easier. But I am not convinced that it is better for America, or that it will be better for you in the long run.
Good ideas need robust challenges against which they can be tested. You should welcome voices of skepticism and dissent. You should, as Bill Clinton said, be grateful for your opponents because they point out the flaws in your position. Only by recognizing those flaws, can you address them.
So consider my suggestion. Hold more news conferences. Face tough questions from knowledgeable people more often. You don’t have to. You can meander along as you have if you wish. But the path to a great legacy can only be found through facing great challenges…even the kind you most dislike.
Meanwhile, give me a call if you have the time.
Reporter's Note: Vice President Biden spent a fair portion of last week presiding over discussions about gun violence.
Dear Mr. President,
I suppose people have never been big on taking responsibility. Most of us don’t want to admit that we are wrong, let alone that we have done wrong. I certainly know that few of you politicians are very keen on it. Ha!
Still, it’s on my mind because I have watched coverage of Biden’s talks this week about gun violence, and once again I find myself thinking that as much as well–intentioned folks from many sectors may genuinely want to do something about this, it is just too easy to suggest someone else must act first; that the problem originates in someone else’s kitchen.
The gun lobby likes to point to weaknesses in our mental health systems. They’re right. We do have problems identifying, treating, and keeping track of the dangerously mentally ill.
The entertainment industry likes to point out that millions of Americans enjoy movies filled with gun play, and countless teens dive into first-person shooter games with no attendant savagery in real life. They’re right, too. Most people can separate truth from fiction pretty well.
Gun control advocates like to point to the successes of some gun laws in some places and explain away their failures in other places as unique to the particular terrain and demographics. They’re also right. What works in one town may not work in the next for a wide and complicated array of reasons.
Politicians blame the private sector for its irresponsibility, the private sector blames deranged individuals, institutions blame the families, families blame society, and the march of troubles goes on.
I guess I’ll never live long enough to see it, but I’d love to see a conference on any major issue that began with all the parties involved admitting and accepting what they’ve done wrong…or at least the possibility that they may have made mistakes along the way. Because, honestly, I think some issues…gun violence being one of them…are so complex, it is ludicrous to suggest they can be solved by requiring one giant change from one giant player. It is at least worth considering that gun violence may be about all of the things cited above. Only when everyone is ready to take responsibility and openly consider what changes are needed…whether or not those changes affect their interests…will we likely move closer to agreeing on a plan.
Hope everything is good for you and the family. Call if you’re around and want to go for a bike ride or something.
Reporter's Note: The president continues to push for bringing most if not all of our troops out of Afghanistan in the not distant future. I continue writing letters to the White House.
Dear Mr. President,
You appeared a tad uncomfortable as you stood next to the Afghan president yesterday. Is everything ok? I assume it was just the subject matter that had you ill-at-ease, and well it might. It seems so very, very long ago that we stormed into that distant land following the attacks of 9/11, and I don’t think many citizens had any idea back then that we’d still have boots on the ground there now.
It has been a long, tough, and at times confusing struggle.
To say, as you did, that we’ve accomplished what we initially set out to do…meaning, I presume to strike at the heart of Al Qaeda and disrupt the Taliban government for harboring those terrorists…is true. What you added to that is also true: “Have we achieved everything that some might have imagined us achieving in the best of scenarios? Probably not.”
For all of your soaring speeches, that statement struck me as truly presidential. I admire any leader, any time that he or she can admit that life does not work out the way most of us wish, much of the time. Well placed plans can fall by the wayside. The battlefield devours strategies and disrupts marches to victory all the time. Great leaders know it, accept it, and adjust…and always remember that it is the struggle that matters most, not their generalship.
Afghanistan still faces so many difficulties and its future remains so murky, I suspect, it will forever be something of a question mark for America. In fifty years, I expect school kids will puzzle over not why we went, but why we stayed so long, and what we thought we would accomplish in all those years. Nation building? Yeah, I guess. Long term stability? Hmmm. Not betting on that.
Oddly enough, the on-again/off-again public and political confusion over what we are doing there has increased my admiration for our troops. After all, fighting is always hard, but it is arguably even harder when one has no idea what one is fighting for. And yet thousands of our smart, talented, brave young Americans have walked the hills of Afghanistan for years now doing their duty. Like Tennyson’s poem: “Theirs not to reason why, theirs but to do and die.”
This afternoon, as I wrote this, I read up briefly on the actual Charge of the Light Brigade that inspired the poem. Online I found a link to an 1890 recording of one of the old troops blowing the command to charge on the very bugle he used in that battle. It was recorded in London at one of Edison’s studios. More than a century later and a continent away, I listened and wondered at the amazing bravery of troops who fulfill their duty against sometimes impossible odds, in terrible circumstances, and with unstoppable courage.
I hope our fellow countrymen, in all the years that come, even though they may not understand what this war in Afghanistan was all about, still appreciate that our troops did a heroic thing for a very long time. They made sacrifices that deserve to be remembered. They kept the faith much longer than many of us even kept watch for their return.