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Letter to Obama from a Dying Friend

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Message Paul Rogat Loeb
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My friend Robert Ellis Gordon is dying of lupus, with months left to live. He's spent more than a decade teaching writing to prison inmates, written a terrific book called The Fun House Mirror from those experiences and crafted a rave-reviewed novel, When Bobby Kennedy was a Moving Man, on Kennedy being sent back to earth to determine whether he deserved Heaven or Hell.

I often quote something Robert said to a group of fellow prison teachers, which seems an apt metaphor for any effort at change: "Some of the people we work with will already have redeemed their lives. Others, no matter what we do, will be back in here again. And for some, our efforts will make all the difference. We will never know which group is which, but that should not serve as a deterrent to our efforts."

Robert just wrote this open letter to Obama, challenging him to reach for his deepest levels of courage in being honest about what we face after decades of pillaging our economy. I'll miss his wise voice.

Dear Mr. President:

I am one, among millions, who recently received an email regarding your health care plan. Mr. Plouffe's email requested personal stories.

As a fifty-five year old man who has lived with a rare and serious illness since 1989, and who was recently referred to hospice, I am, I suppose, no less qualified than others to write about the challenges and unlooked-for blessings that accompany a fatal disease.

Upon reflection, however, I realized my story would be less compelling than others. For I come from a generous family. True, we were raised to make our way in the world and I started to work at age fourteen.  Some forty years later, however, when it became evident that I could no longer hold down a job, my family cut back on their expenses so that my basic needs would be met.  Hence I will not die, as thousands of my counterparts do, alone and anonymous in a hospital room or in the streets.

So? I deleted Mr. Plouffe's email and returned to the task at hand. But deleted or not I was distracted by the email, so much so that I left the computer and took my dog for a walk. At the park, as I tossed the squeaky ball to Rose, I asked myself a question: if given the opportunity to write a letter to the President --  a letter in which illness and impending death served a larger agenda-- what would I say to him?

The answer was immediate and impassioned: "Please level with the people. Now."

What do I mean by level? And why this sense of urgency?

The urgency stems from the peril I see in an unbalanced presentation of your economic scenario. I do not mean to suggest that you speak only of the most dire predictions. We need a substantive message of hope. It's been a long forty years since we heard one.  But authentic hope, as you know better than most,  is founded upon truth. You had the courage to speak it throughout your campaign, and the magnitude of your victory revealed a public yearning to hear it.

In order to sustain the trust of the people, it is imperative that you continue to feed this yearning. That you do as you did in your speech on race: speak to us as adults. Speak even more deeply from  the heart as well as the head. Above all, speak in the spirit of Judge Learned Hand: "The spirit of liberty is the spirit of not being too sure."

So even as you speak words of hope and quell our fears with your steady presence, let us know that you proceed in the spirit of not being too sure because you cannot be; because no one can be; because a global economic meltdown is unprecedented in scope and nature.

Tell the people, as FDR did, in a style that is true to yourself, that there's no panacea for this catastrophe. A catastrophe that was decades in the making and is not yet fully understood.  And that your approach, therefore, must be a flexible one that allows for a sliding scale of eventualities, among which is the possibility--remote or not--  that  this economic Katrina may outrace your best efforts to both remedy the cause and mitigate the effects.

What is to be gained by leveling with the people now? And what are the consequences if you do not do so?

Your most precious resource, Mr. President, is neither your brilliance nor the elegance with which you wield the language. Your most precious resource is your credibility.

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Paul Rogat Loeb is the author of Soul of a Citizen: Living with Conviction in a Cynical Time, and The Impossible Will Take a Little While: A Citizen's Guide to Hope in a Time of Fear,winner of the 2005 Nautilus Award for the best book on social change. See (more...)
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