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If I Could Ask Obama One Question

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I am imagining that I get to ask Obama one question, and I'm assured of getting a truthful answer. (Truth serum, perhaps.) The exchange is not a public one, so there is no worry about the answer having an impact on events.

Here's what I'd ask:

Senator Obama: Your rise in the political ranks has been quite precipitous. It wasn't very long ago that you first held elective office. Even more recently that you lost your attempt to win the Democratic nomination for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. It was by virtue of a series of lucky breaks --the scandal that eliminated the Democratic front-runner, disarray among the Illinois Republicans-- that you were able to win just four years ago the Senate seat you now hold. It's hard to think of anyone in American history who'd have come so far so fast as you, if you should succeed in your present bid to become the President of the United States.

In view of how fast you've come so quickly, and in view of how little you've had of the usual kind of preparation and seasoning that most American politicians have had before making a run for the presidency, the question arises: WHAT IS IT THAT ACCOUNTS FOR YOUR MAKING SUCH A BOLD AND UNUSUAL MOVE, AS A RELATIVE NEWCOMER, AS TO PUT YOURSELF FORWARD AS THE MAN WHO SHOULD ASSUME, IN 2009, THE HIGHEST AND MOST POWERFUL POLITICAL OFFICE IN AMERICA?

Two sorts of answer occur to me: one I hope would be the truth, one I hope would not be.

The answer I hope he'd give would be along these lines:

I saw that under the Bushite regime, America had descended into a dark and dangerous place. I saw also that the conventional politicians that were going to offer themselves up for the presidency were NOT going to be able to provide America with the kind of leadership we so badly need at this perilous moment. And I saw that there might be a particularly fortunate match between what America needs at this particular moment and what I have to offer. [More on the key components of this "match" in a later posting.]

Out of a rather unusual life story, I've developed an unusual set of skills, of understandings, of approaches, of ways of dealing with conflict and healing, with the interplay between the forces that build and those that destroy. And I saw that by some quirk of fortune the historical moment called out for my unusual set of assets, and so I felt called upon --even obligated-- to make the unusual move of offering myself NOW rather than "wait my turn."

And I believe that events have thus far borne out my intuition. For if there were not this fortuitous match between the man and the moment, my candidacy would surely have died out like so many "first forrays" of young politicians have in the past in such presidential races. But instead, as I've gone around the country offering myself in the very kinds of terms that I sensed that America needed, the people of this nation have responded to me. As the Sufis said that thirst is the surest proof of the existence of water, so also is the thirst of the American people for the message of hope and inspiration and possibility and coming together the proof of the validity of my feeling CALLED to offer myself "prematurely" as a leader for the country.

How else to explain that I am now in the position I'm in now-- not only a newcomer, not only a younger man, but even as a man of color in a country that's never even come close to seriously considering an African-American for the White House before?

So I'm running for the presidency now because I feel I can accomplish something, in collaboration with the American people, that this country so desperately now needs.

The answer I hope he'd NOT give, with the truth serum operating on him, would be that he's driven by personal ambition and vanity, by a grandiose sense of himself and by a narcissistic needs.

Of course, inevitably there are such elements in anyone who runs for the presidency. Obama himself referred in the debate last week to that element of ambition and vanity that's inevitably a part of political striving. (One thinks of that idea, heard now and then, that the people whom we should most wish to serve as president are people who'd never seek it.)

The question is not whether ego is involved in a person's desire to be president, but whether ego runs the show. The question is whether the person can be counted on to serve the Good, serve the Whole.

From my own personal experience, I've concluded that the ego, even if tending toward vanity or grandiosity, need not impede the devotion to the good. To be able to subordinate the petty self to the larger self, a person requires two assets: self-knowledge and moral discipline.

SELF-KNOWLEDGE is necessary, so that one can see the broken parts for what they are and not fool oneself into be unconscious of their motivating force.

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Andy Schmookler, an award-winning author, political commentator, radio talk-show host, and teacher, was the Democratic nominee for Congress from Virginia's 6th District. His new book -- written to have an impact on the central political battle of our time -- is (more...)
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