November 6, 2008

From Symbol to Service

I'm thrilled about what Mr. Obama's election represents in the way of race relations in this country. As a child of the deep South, I am especially mindful of what it will mean come January to watch a black family move into our white house. Were she still alive, my paternal grandmother would be mortified at the sight. And for all my great love for her, my feeling is she would deserve the lonely company of her own pitiful indignation. "Pride cometh before a fall."

Still, the proof of Mr. Obama's greatness will be in the pudding of his decisions. The only thing wrong with the current brand of youthful idealism that has bumped him into office is its hasty willingness to elevate symbol too far over service. Any among us who choke on his skin color should be called out for what you are, but social progressives can also be (unwittingly) condescending when they look straight through a man and only see their cause on the other side. Symbols don't save. Said Ms. Doolittle to the Professor: "Don't talk of love. Show me."

After 72 hours of happy celebration, let us remember that symbolic figures are only as helpful to the common good as the quiet decisions they make behind closed doors. Thomas Friedman, himself in awe of this week, is still right to ask, "Obama will always be our first black president. But can he be one of our few great presidents?" To his query I add my own: Will he call us all to do the hard work of rebuilding our country by tightning our belts, or will he let us continue to think we can live today on tomorrow's bill?

Given the terribly complex matters we face at home and in the world, what will matter most in the end is how Mr. Obama inhabits his new role, how he functions as a consistent tone-setter and example. Words matter a great deal, but only those who have never had to make any hard decisions out on the lonely point of leadership would impulsively, even if innocently, smother the burden of private character under the blanket of public cause.

Hopefully, four years from now, we will not have had to choose between the two.

Mr. Obama, we celebrate the skin you are in. Absolutely we do. Still, what we need now is sagacious leadership--red or yellow, black or white.