Friday, November 14, 2008

One reason I'd never want to be President.

Today's New York Times talks about some of the very practical ways in which life has changed for President-elect Barack Obama in the last ten days:
A couple of weeks ago, Barack Obama headed to the Hyde Park Hair Salon for a trim. He greeted the staff and other customers and plopped down in the same chair in front of the same barber who has cut his hair for the last 14 years.

But when he wanted a trim this week, the Secret Service took one look at the shop’s large plate-glass windows and the gawking tourists eager for a glimpse of the president-elect and the plan quickly changed. If Mr. Obama could no longer come to the barber, the barber would come to him and cut his hair at a friend’s apartment.

Life for the newly chosen president and his family has changed forever. Even the constraints and security of the campaign trail do not compare to the bubble that has enveloped him in the 10 days since his election. Renegade, as the Secret Service calls him, now lives within the strict limits that come with the most powerful office on the planet.
To read more, click here. What struck me most was this comment from an Obama associate: "Little things, like going to the gym, going to the movies, going to dinner with his wife, none of that will ever be the same again. Things that we take for granted." President Harry S. Truman once described the White House as "the finest prison in the world," and this at a time when the occupant of the Oval Office was still able to take morning walks in Washington (albeit in the company of Secret Service agents). Even after his retirement, Truman was able to live a fairly ordinary life in Independence without serious interference from the agents charged to guard him. Presidents and ex-presidents simply can't do that anymore, so Barack Obama will probably never be able to take another leisurely stroll down to the barbershop, the bookstore or the cafe - or, for that matter, go anywhere without having to deal with elaborate precautions imposed by the Secret Service.

Though the President of the United States is charged with very grave responsibilities, the enforced isolation that comes with the office strikes me as a very sad and poignant sacrifice that those who aspire to national leadership must make. Something similar might be said of those who become pope, who may be said to make an even greater sacrifice in that they cannot anticipate their election in nearly the same way as those who reach the presidency. I thought of this when Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger became Pope Benedict XVI; never again would the old professor have the pleasure of vacationing at the little house in Germany where he had planned to retire, and never again would he have the time to devote himself as fully as he might like to the work of scholarly reflection, writing and teaching that occupied him for a good part of his life.

There is a definite asceticism involved in the transition from cardinal to pope, as the Successor of St. Peter must sacrifice his own desires and interests for the sake of a greater good and a higher call. Though one could argue that this sacrifice is a part of the life of every priest, it seems to be realized most completely in the life of the pope. In reflecting on this, I wonder what the men who have served as President of the United States in recent decades have made of their own transition into the splendid isolation that comes with their office. Though they probably haven't conceived of the shift in theological terms, I would hope that they see the loss of privacy and autonomy that comes with their office as a sacrifice to be made for the good of the country. I pray, too, that those who have made this sacrifice in order to reach the White House will be at peace with their decision. AMDG.


At 11/17/2008 8:16 AM, Blogger Unknown said...

You might as well give in to the trend :) and include -- in connection with your discussion about restrictions on the personal freedoms of presidents -- this piece on Pres. Elect Obama's likely inability to use Blackberry/email for business purposes, which has been one of the most-blogged and most-read articles on NYT for several days:


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