The 2008 Race for President and the Search for Our Better Selves

Watching yesterday's Obama rally in Los Angeles featuring Oprah, Caroline Kennedy, Maria Shriver, and Michelle Obama, I was struck by a point that both Michelle Obama and Maria Shriver made but that is rarely discussed during a presidential campaign: the importance of having someone in the Oval Office who can inspire us to tap into the better angels of our nature -- who can stir people to expect more of themselves than they otherwise would.

"The thing I like the best" about Obama, said Shriver, is that "he's not about himself. He's about us... He's about the power of what we can do if we come together." And she quoted from a Hopi Indian prayer: "We are the ones we have been waiting for."

Michelle Obama made a similar point, adding that this "it's about us" dynamic would require all of us to up our game. "[Barack] is ready," she said. "The question is, what are we ready for?... Barack Obama will require that you work. He is going to demand that you shed your cynicism; that you put down your division; that you come out of your isolation; that you move out of your comfort zones; that you push yourself to be better; and that you engage."

This call echoed something that historian and presidential biographer David McCullough had once said about JFK. "The great thing about Kennedy," he told me, "is that he didn't say I'm going to make it easier for you. He said it's going to be harder. And he wasn't pandering to the less noble side of human nature. He was calling on us to give our best."

I'd interviewed McCullough back in 1999, along with a variety of other political observers, for a column I was doing on the 2000 race and what Americans were looking for in a president.

The consensus opinion, one that crossed party and ideological lines, was that while specific policy proposals and nuts-and-bolts plans are an important part of what a candidate brings to the table, more than anything, people are looking for a leader who can inspire and mobilize them, who can tap into America's latent reserve of idealism.

"A great president," the late Paul Wellstone told me, "is one who successfully calls on all Americans to be their own best selves."

"Every presidential election is a renewal," said McCullough. "Like spring, it brings up all the juices. The people are so tired of contrivance and fabrication and hokum. They really want to be stirred in their spirit. That's when we are at our best. The great presidents are people who caused those who follow them to do more than they thought they were capable of."

"The American people," said Cornel West, "want a statesman who will tell the truth about our collective life together, good and bad, up and down, vices and virtues. That is the ultimate act of respect for the American people."

"What a successful president does," William F. Buckley Jr. told me, "is transcend the usual marketplace collisions. FDR accomplished that, and so did Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson. A successful president isn't necessarily one who takes us in a direction I applaud. But he is somebody who does get the country excited about a political purpose."

Presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin agreed: "We need to get away from a political system that is so filled with minute public opinion polls and focus groups and the ability to know what the electorate is thinking at every moment that the leader loses his instincts for boldness. The job is not simply to reflect current opinion but to challenge it, move it forward and shape it. The ability to just take a stand and know that you can move the country to that stand is a lost art we need to recapture."

Back in '99, I also spoke to Sen. John McCain, who hadn't yet begun his 2000 bid for president. He too focused on "the ability to inspire Americans," and reached back to a defining moment in our history -- JFK's speech proposing the Peace Corps: "Young people were willing to live in a village hut in Africa for years and dig irrigation ditches," said McCain. "Why were they willing to do that? Why were they in fact eager to do that? It's because he inspired them to do it." Almost a decade later, McCain is still talking about sacrifice -- but these days he's thinking less of time spent digging ditches in Africa, and more of blood spilled on the streets of Iraq. Alas.

After the dark, uninspiring -- indeed deeply alienating -- years of the Bush presidency, the feeling that I took away from these conversations resonates even more profoundly today: that it is time we recognize that our search for a great president is also a search for our better selves. Finally, a political litmus test that matters: Which presidential candidate can lead us to do more good than we think we're capable of?

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