Unlike His Successor, Obama Recognizes His Good Luck
Toward the end of David Letterman's recent interview with Barack Obama, the subject turned to the matter of luck. The former president acknowledged the role it has played in his life. Yes, he had talent, he said, and he had worked hard, but neither of those could fully account for how a mixed-race kid who had known his father for only one month of his childhood had wound up president of the United States. He had been lucky.
Letterman, absurdly bearded, agreed. He, too, had been lucky. Not only that, he had been clueless. When others of his generation were putting their lives on the line for civil rights, he and his friends had cruised to the Bahamas so they could spend what sounded like their spring break falling down drunk. Letterman was sorry for that. He admitted to guilt as he admitted to being lucky.
Some of the reviews of Letterman's Netflix interview noted that Obama did not directly discuss Donald Trump. Nonetheless, Trump loomed over the entire hour. Not only did Obama remind you that a president could be articulate, even eloquent, and come into and out of office with not whiff of scandal, but his obeisance to luck was so totally un-Trump that it was almost shocking. Here was a man who, by acknowledging the role of luck, was acknowledging his own limitations: He could not do everything on his own. He needed the coin to come up heads.
I can't imagine Trump saying anything even close. I cannot imagine him saying that it was not his self-proclaimed genius nor his well-advertised negotiating skills that made him the billionaire he asserts he is or the president he's become. To do that would confess humility, which Trump sees as weakness, and would bring him down to the level of a more or less ordinary guy -- one who, as luck would have it, had a millionaire for a father and the birthright of good looks and excellent health.
I sometimes think of luck as a secular way of thinking of God. Whatever it is, it accounts for the bizarre course a life can take. Good luck has been my constant companion. It was my great good luck to be born in America and to have grandparents who had the gumption to leave Europe, where most of my extended family was murdered in the Holocaust
It was my great luck to have loving parents. It was my good luck to have some marvelous teachers, a few of whom managed to brush aside my defenses and teach me a thing or two about writing. It was sheer luck that took me to Washington to do some graduate school research -- and to leave town with a job offer from the Washington Post.
I stood once on a pier at the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base in Cuba as desperate Haitians, having been scooped out of the ocean by the Coast Guard, were brought to safety. I looked at those people -- their skin baked from the sun, their eyes uncomprehending, their entire wealth consisting of the shirt on their back -- and praised my astounding good luck. I turned to the fellow next to me and remarked how smart we had been to be born in the U.S.A. Otherwise, it could have been me floating in the ocean.
Obama understands what I mean. He would never have disparaged Haiti as Trump so recently did -- or, for that matter, black African countries such as Kenya, where Obama's own father was born. Few people would call Obama humble, but he knows the importance of chance and that he did not blaze his own path. He had mentors, heroes from the civil rights era who made his own presidency possible. One of them is Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., beaten bloody in 1965 by Alabama state troopers in a march for voting rights. Last year, Trump responded to Lewis' criticism of him by tweeting about the congressman, "All talk, talk, talk -- no action or results. Sad!"
A friend recently asked me why I had often been critical of Obama during his presidency. It would take at least another whole column to explain. But the hour with Letterman reminded me of how decent a man he is -- how effortlessly presidential. All former presidents, once they get detached from their policies, take on a certain charm -- even the hapless George W. Bush. But Obama is enormously helped by his successor in that regard. He is lucky in that, too.
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