by Dr. Jeffrey Lant
Etienne de Silhouette (1709-1767) was Controller General of France at an important point in the fast developing Revolution. M. de Silhouette was no more successful in solving the tremendous problems of French finance than any of his hapless colleagues. He talked about them, and talked about them some more. But at the end of the day, he had nothing to show for his regime but pictures cut out to resemble the outline of the sitter without the trouble of creating a truer and more formidable work of art. In short, M. de Silhouette did nothing, and left nothing but his title behind as his contribution to the surging events which became 1789.
His name has become attached forevermore to a party game; namely, he had families all over Europe cutting out profiles of their nearest and dearest, often before a wintery fire. These pictures, which captured the linear essence of the subject, saved the bother and expense of having the complete portrait done. You didn’t need to spend money on a portrait when you could do it cheap as a silhouette.
And so, the silhouette was born, enabling Barack Obama to take advantage of it, which he fully did at the 2017 John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award. Here, each year, at the John F. Kennedy Library and Foundation, the Kennedy tribe and entourage gathers to tell themselves just how good they are, and that there are people, important people too, who are willing to come and tell them all just exactly what they want to hear about themselves.
This rite of spring occurs each year, and has as its task saying too many good things about people who wish to believe them, and are happy to come to Boston to hear themselves lauded, and laud in their turn their colleagues worldwide.
This year, the poohbahs of the Kennedy Library and Foundation inducted recently former President Barack Obama into the fraternity of “I love you, you love me”, and invited him to do his part by getting up on his hind legs and lathering the audience with an avalanche of frothy compliments.
And so, Obama, honoree, gave a 30 minute speech which proved more than anything else that Barack Obama did not deserve a Profile in Courage Award.
Now you and I probably have a pretty good idea of what constitutes courage. That is to say, facing a situation where defeat is a very real likely possibility, and where the outcome depends on you, what is in you, what you believe, what you can do, what you must do to change reality, and bring about a lustrous and even unexpected conclusion. All of us have the ability to be courageous, but the person who stands forth in courage does not just think, but acts, and acts again, and again as necessary to achieve the goal which was once thought impossible.
And so with this definition in mind, see Barack Obama coming to take his place at the podium, and launch into his political beliefs, and what he intends to do to help the country that made him President for two terms. He chose, as well he might, the subject of Obamacare, whose official name is the Affordable Care Act, and which was created to sustain the sick and vulnerable, the people who need the care the most, and have the fewest means of getting it.
Now you would think, but you would be wrong, that it would be a pleasure to take on the task of saving the poorest and most vulnerable among us, and when it is all said and done smile to himself and reassure his friends that he had not lost one scintilla of his high and mighty purpose, or the energy needed.
You would think, but you’d be wrong, that he would enjoy the prospect of ripping Donald Trump, shredding him, happy in the good fight for universal healthcare, and be ecstatic to undertake even one more bold battle in the war that is by no means ended.
You would think, but you’d be wrong, that before this audience of like minded souls, he would have found an energy, a joy, an exuberance, that would carry him across the nation, with the good wishes and prayers of the millions he was pledged to assist.
You might say, but you’d be wrong, that Barack Obama knows Browning’s great lines, “The best is yet to come. The last of life, for which the first was made.” You would think that being an older man capable of doing a young man’s work, he would undertake the great crusade that could make America healthy, strong, and resilient.
You might think all these things, and in every case you would be wrong. What you got instead was a silhouette… a thread… a mere line without blood or tenacity. The real man, the man of courage and certain purpose and sure touch made no appearance that night. The silhouette of a President had been there, and it was disheartening to see nothing more.
This speech, which should have commenced with high purpose, excitement, and enthusiasm for the good cause, went on paragraph by paragraph, thanking every member of the Kennedy family, present and deceased. As I read these compliments, I thought to myself here was a man who was President of the United States, the proudest office of the land, who came to pay obeisance to the members of the Clan who needed him and his compliments to make themselves and their followers feel certain that the great days of Camelot have not gone by.
One looks in vain for the sense that every Red Sox fan had for 86 long years: “Next year”. For the Democrats, for the country, for the faithful assembled in this ornate dining hall, there must always be a next year. And Barack Obama, on this count as with so many others, let these people down.
I told my father that Obama always acted the lawyer’s role. That is to say, that he knows how to divide pies, but not how to bake them. Dividing pies, as most every lawyer does, enables you to sit high above the teeming masses in the expensive accouterments of the legal office, and divide up the hard work and lifetime achievement of others.
But that is not how money is made. That is not how societies are built. That is not how great events are shaped. For this, we must need the bakers of the pies… the people who know what to do and get out dirtying their hands and doing it.
As I read Obama’s speech to the glitterati of Camelot, I thought to myself, what would happen if he were ill? Don’t we all know. And what about his daughters, and his wife? He and they are well taken care of, to a degree which none of us can even imagine. He doesn’t need you and me to get his healthcare, but all the rest, you and me, need all the help we can get.
We look through his printed remarks of just the other day, and something nauseating rises to the surface. There as Gertrude Stein said, “There’s no there there.” There was the man who had held all the tricks, who could have gone anywhere, said anything, helped anyone. But he is a pie divider, not a pie maker. And one senses about Mr. Obama that it is the little things of life, and the insignificant things about life, that grab his attention. For this man, this word spinner, is no fighter.
Where was he when healthcare facilities across the nation needed his assistance? He had White House-itis of course, the condition that makes you think your presence is more needed in the Rose Garden than in the health establishments around the nation, which could have used a President of the United States and his moxie to help their difficult and often disheartening tasks.
What does Mr. Obama care? For him, only one place in Obamacare counted, and that was his place. Thus, what matter does it make that he comes to accept a dubious award, supposedly given to those of exemplary courage and joy? For let us make sure that joy is not forgotten.
Yes, those with such courage can feel unhappy, distressed, fearful, or tormented. Their work, after all, never ends and often drains them to the very dregs of their humanity. They are not in the business for the reward, no matter how nice it is, no matter how pleasant it is. They are in the good fight for victory.
Barack Obama had the tools of victory in his pocket for 8 years; they came with the job. A nation awaited, prayed, hoped, that he would use the great powers of the Great Republic to succor, heal, and yes love, for those who are greatly courageous are greatly loving, and greatly loved.
Remember this: courage does not come with the job, or the Oval Office. Courage comes from within each of us. It may be found anywhere, may reside in anyone, and exists everywhere to change the world for the better… a thing more and more difficult to imagine, much less do every single day.
And so we find ourselves at this unhappy point. We have the book “Profiles in Courage”, which was not written by John Fitzgerald Kennedy, although his name is on the cover. His assistant, Theodore Sorensen, wrote most of the book and Kennedy’s name was then placed on the cover because the family knew he knew too little, and was of too insignificant a stature to be President.
This book was not originally nominated for the 1957 Pulitzer Prize. Indeed, John F. Kennedy’s father got his friend, columnist Arthur Krock to make some calls so that the book which was not even nominated, ended up winning the Pulitzer Prize. The research to this book was shoddy, the kind of thing a Harvard undergraduate submits for a rushed dissertation.
There is little hint of JFK in the book, because there was little hint that he wrote a single page. What matter that, when you have a father willing to twist the rules, and twist them again, to achieve his objective. Eight Senators were chosen as examples of members of the Upper Chamber who had stood forward on behalf of courage. Subsequently, historians have pounced on these eight selections as being gratuitous, even frivolous. In other words, while there may have been courageous Senators from time to time, they did not necessarily end up in the book dedicated to such people.
And so, sadly, we are able to see the entire situation more clearly. A former President unwilling to use whatever power still remains, whatever prestige he still has, to aid the nation. An annual event which selects honorees with a cavalier nonchalance. What matters who is selected and who comes, so long as that person brings a lustrous name and a willingness to waft incense at them? For don’t they deserve it after all?
And so we began where we started with M. de Silhouette. At least he created a party game of joy. His name will last forever. But can any of us even imagine Barack Obama moving steadily through the eternal future? His remarks, his actions, his commitments, even worthy of any remembrance at all?
And surely that is his tragedy… and ours.