Monday, May 18, 2009

Where Angels Fear to Tread: What I Learned from Our President this Past Sunday

During the last few months of the last election campaign, an incident occurred which I think characterizes the ambition as well as the mettle of our president. It also serves as a lesson for those seeking to become successful.

President Obama had taken his campaign into North Carolina. At the time no one thought that he could win North Carolina; the television pundits were even questioning why he was there. Before a rally, he stopped the campaign bus at a diner filled with whites, and it was assumed, whites who would not vote for him if their very lives depended on it. In the news coverage, it was also noted that a diner frequented by African Americans stood just a short distance away.

The moment President Obama entered the diner, the place became deadly silent. Perhaps, this was the last person the white diners thought they would see on this Sunday afternoon. Some lady even began to taunt him with “Socialist!,” yelled repeatedly at the top of her lungs.

But President Obama kept a smile on his face as he went around the diner greeting the customers and shaking hands. He even stopped at the obnoxious diner’s table and offered his hand to her, but she refused to take it. Undaunted, and with a smile on his face, he then attempted to engage her in dialogue.

Let’s take a look at this past Sunday’s speech at Notre Dame. The president knew what he was heading into even before he arrived in South Bend. The hullabaloo erupted soon after his selection as the commencement speaker was announced weeks ago. And the angry debate has only crescendoed since then, but he went anyway. And in doing so, he managed to drown out the enraged shouts and chants of the protesters outside with a message calling for thoughtful dialogue and compromise.

Both in North Carolina and at Notre Dame, Obama deliberately inserted himself where he was not necessarily wanted or, at the very least, expected. I can almost bet you that he did not win any votes among those patrons in that North Carolina diner. Likewise, he did not change the parameters of the abortion debate at Notre Dame. However, he did exhibit a willingness to face critique and dissent; he did exhibit a certain courage in his willingness to assume and play out his role as outsider.

Too often we never step outside the familiar as we push toward our goals and objectives. Too often we reserve our message for those most apt to say amen, rather than those who might disagree but might otherwise need to hear the message. Too often we disregard the road less traveled for a more amiable route, the familiar beaten path, only to be surprised at the crowd gathered once we reach our destination.

I do not agree with every action or position the president has taken since he assumed office; in some instances I disagree even if I understand the rational and in other instances I am still scratching my head. But in seeking out those places, those public spheres, where he is unwelcome, in seeking out those voices of dissent and incredulity, and offering the hand of friendship thereby opening the door to dialogue and effective discourse, he has earned my respect and admiration, and in the interim, left a clear trail to follow in achieving success.


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