In 1952, my father was a young sailor in the US Coast Guard, on leave in Washington. Early one morning, he’d gone to a shop to buy cigarettes, stepped outside for a smoke and was startled by the sight of the President of the United States strolling briskly toward him, trailed by a single security man. He tossed the cigarette away, straightened and saluted. "At ease, sailor," said Truman with a grin, stuck out his hand and gave my father a quick handshake before breezing past and was gone. By 1952, Truman’s popularity was at an all-time low, but that single moment turned my politically apathetic dad into a life-long Democrat, and he measured the worth of every president thereafter by how close they were willing to get to ordinary American citizens. He treasured a newspaper clipping with a photo of me as a small child riding on his shoulders to see over the heads of the crowd during a visit by Lyndon Johnson, with the president smiling and waving and shaking hands as he rode by in an open car – not that long after his predecessor had been shot in one.
After eight years of George Bush and his obsession with security that earned him the sobriquet ‘Bubble Boy’ we have a President who has received an average 30 death threats every day since he took office, more than another president in our history, 400% more than Bush, and has been so vilified by the likes of Sarah Palin and Ted Nugent gleefully whipping up lynch mob hysteria that he has real reason to worry about his personal safety. But yet…. when President Obama landed in San Francisco this past February, rather than hurriedly jumping into the safety of his bullet-proof limo, he strolled across the tarmac to greet people eagerly reaching over a chain-link fence to shake his hand, stopping to chat and even receive a kiss from an elderly woman.
After what has to be the most contentious month of his presidency thus far, President Obama chose to greet crowds of tourists at the Lincoln Memorial, much to the delight of surprised ordinary people, in order to stress that despite the Republican mania for cutting every public service they can think of rather than raise taxes on corporations and the rich, national parks, monuments and museums are still and will remain open.
And just this past Father’s Day, he stopped at Georgetown’s Thomas Sweet Ice Cream shop with his daughters, Sasha and Malia. The Secret Service did arrive first, but simply asked people to just go about their own business – they didn’t clear anyone out, they didn’t stop anyone from chatting with the President while he and his daughters ordered scoops of cookie dough and vanilla ice cream.
It’s probably just not possible any longer for a President to take an early morning stroll nearly unchaperoned down a city street and shake hands with an astonished Coast Guard sailor, but Obama comes close. As a progressive liberal, I have to admit I’ve been disappointed lately with Obama’s unfathomable fixation on "bi-partisanship" and these continually disastrous negotiations with an obdurate right-wing whose only objective is to crush Obama’s presidency regardless of the cost to the economy or the American people. But I can’t remember Bush ever getting this close to actual human beings. I don't think I ever saw him wading into a public crowd, even when they were thoroughly vetted and screened and anyone so much as wearing a subversive t-shirt whisked off to jail, just in case.
Even with the death threats, even as his popularity declines, even as he’s losing the backing of his base, I can’t help but admire Obama’s continued trust in ordinary Americans, and the example he sets for his daughters. He's still got more courage than any of the witless wonders on the tea party-controlled right.
Happy birthday, Mr. President.