Monday, January 23, 2017

A Focused Discipline

President Obama and President Clinton had some things in common, but they also had respects in which they were very different. President Clinton was unlikely to begin a meeting on schedule, but he was even less likely to end it on schedule, so you were likely to get a little more than your allotted time. President Obama, meetings could begin early and so you needed to be in your office and ready to come downstairs in case he wanted to begin a meeting early. You had better be pretty sure that you were able to say what you had to say quickly because when your time was over, your time was over, and he was going to move on.

President Clinton was less than 100 percent certain to have read your memo. But if he hadn’t read it he would read it as you summarized it for him, and he would master it very quickly. President Obama was virtually certain to have read your memo and to have read it extremely thoughtfully.

President Obama brought a focused discipline. He didn’t want to talk about things that the President didn’t need to get involved in. If his economic advisor couldn’t figure out the difference between subordinated debt and preferred stock, he certainly didn’t think it was his job to help. President Clinton was prepared to try to do his job, but was also prepared to offer you a tremendous amount of advice on how to do your job.

President Obama was focused on how, whatever particular issue was being discussed, related to the rest of the issues in his Presidency and the rest of the factors that were present in any political situation. President Clinton was focused on those things, but was likely also focused on things he had read somewhere or conversations he had had at some point in the past. I remember his once telling the Secretary of the Transportation at substantial length about new developments in environmentally friendly concrete and how that needed to be considered. President Obama’s approach was a more sharply focused approach.
Conversations with Bill Kristol: Larry Summers
"He is thoroughly predictable in having gone through every piece of paper that he gets,” said Tom Donilon, Mr. Obama’s national security adviser from 2010 to 2013. “You’ll come in in the morning, it will be there: questions, notes, decisions.”
"Obama After Dark: The Precious Hours Alone"
You have to exercise,” he said, for instance. “Or at some point you’ll just break down.” You also need to remove from your life the day-to-day problems that absorb most people for meaningful parts of their day. “You’ll see I wear only gray or blue suits,” he said. “I’m trying to pare down decisions. I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make.” He mentioned research that shows the simple act of making decisions degrades one’s ability to make further decisions. It’s why shopping is so exhausting. “You need to focus your decision-making energy. You need to routinize yourself. You can’t be going through the day distracted by trivia.” The self-discipline he believes is required to do the job well comes at a high price. “You can’t wander around,” he said. “It’s much harder to be surprised. You don’t have those moments of serendipity. You don’t bump into a friend in a restaurant you haven’t seen in years. The loss of anonymity and the loss of surprise is an unnatural state. You adapt to it, but you don’t get used to it—at least I don’t.”
"Obama's Way" by Michael Lewis
Standing in his favorite classroom in the austere main building, sharp-witted students looming above him, Mr. Obama refined his public speaking style, his debating abilities, his beliefs.

“He tested his ideas in classrooms,” said Dennis Hutchinson, a colleague. Every seminar hour brought a new round of, “Is affirmative action justified? Under what circumstances?” as Mr. Hutchinson put it.
"Teaching Law, Testing Ideas, Obama Stood Slightly Apart"

Addendum: Letters to President Obama + Obama's class Current Issues in Racism and the Law ("Taking Professor Obama's Class") + "Breaking the War Mentality" by Barack Obama (1983)

The Most Complete Man

[Obama] was certainly one of the most complete man I'd ever met.
Junot Diaz
For me, particularly at that time, writing was the way I sorted through a lot of crosscurrents in my life — race, class, family. And I genuinely believe that it was part of the way in which I was able to integrate all these pieces of myself into something relatively whole.

People now remark on this notion of me being very cool, or composed. And what is true is that I generally have a pretty good sense of place and who I am, and what’s important to me. And I trace a lot of that back to that process of writing.

[I started to read Shakespeare] tragedies and dig into them. And that, I think, is foundational for me in understanding how certain patterns repeat themselves and play themselves out between human beings. It gives me a sense of perspective.

I think Toni Morrison’s writings — particularly “Song of Solomon” is a book I think of when I imagine people going through hardship. That it’s not just pain, but there’s joy and glory and mystery.

I think that there are writers who I don’t necessarily agree with in terms of their politics, but whose writings are sort of a baseline for how to think about certain things — V. S. Naipaul, for example. His “A Bend in the River,” which starts with the line, “The world is what it is; men who are nothing, who allow themselves to become nothing, have no place in it.” And I always think about that line, and I think about his novels when I’m thinking about the hardness of the world sometimes, particularly in foreign policy, and I resist and fight against sometimes that very cynical, more realistic view of the world. And yet, there are times where it feels as if that may be true.
Transcript: President Obama on What Books Mean to Him
A dark view of humans, a certain resignation to the imperfectibility of things, is what marks literature out from the idealistic arts [...] It is there — more than anywhere else — in Naipaul, whose circuitous route to Britain via India and Trinidad does not show up in cosmopolitan pieties but almost the opposite: an unsentimental attitude to developing countries, a commitment to the culture he has fought to join.

Graham Greene detected a “splinter of ice” in the heart of a writer. There is sometimes a shard of the cold stuff in an immigrant, as well. To endure the upheaval, to brave the new, to make a success of it all requires (or inculcates) some of that sub-zero Naipaulian attitude. They cannot allow themselves to become nothing. This sentiment is not always captured by the immigrant fiction of the past decade or two, which comes in jaunty multicoloured dust jackets and seems to showcase diversity as an end itself, as if any actual migrant ever has that in mind.

For more than a century, anglophone literature has thrown up masters who look slightly askance at the modern world and its sensibilities. It is not a political conservatism, as such [...] It is something more like a sceptical habit of mind and a preference for dismal truths over well-meaning lies (which is what political correctness often amounts to).

[A] writer must believe that human nature is universal and more or less unchangeable. Most non-conservative schemes — social-democracy, the wilder edges of identity politics — are efforts to refine or deny that nature through bureaucratic tinkering.

As the arts despair of the world, it may fall to novelists to do more than vent. Theirs is the only medium with the scope to air complex ideas, which is why film adaptations feel so diminished. It also has unique conservative pedigree. Do not wait for a film, album or image to do justice to our times. A novel might.
"In praise of literary conservatives" by Janan Ganesh
When I think about how I understand my role as citizen, setting aside being president, and the most important set of understandings that I bring to that position of citizen, the most important stuff I’ve learned I think I’ve learned from novels. It has to do with empathy. It has to do with being comfortable with the notion that the world is complicated and full of grays, but there’s still truth there to be found, and that you have to strive for that and work for that. And the notion that it’s possible to connect with some[one] else even though they’re very different from you.

[...] Occasionally, you’ll be disappointed, but more often than not, your faith will be confirmed.
President Obama & Marilynne Robinson: A Conversation—II
Whatever our current travails, we now have a literate president capable of coherent discourse, but too many other politicians are devoid of syntax and appear to have read nothing. Aggressive ignorance in aspirants to high office is another dismal consequence of the waning of authentic education.
"Get Lost. In Books." by Harold Bloom (2008)

Addendum: Every book Barack Obama has recommended during his presidency

Sunday, January 22, 2017

The Mistakes We Have to Make Up

Someone once said that every man is trying to either live up to his father’s expectations or make up for his father’s mistakes, and I suppose that may explain my particular malady as well as anything else.
Barack Obama, The Audacity of Hope, p.3

Dream that is Very Real Nevertheless

A national dream need not, indeed may not be clear-cut and exact. [...] For Americans too the wide and general dream has a name. It is called "the American Way of Life." No one can define it or point to any one person or group who lives it, but it is very real nevertheless, perhaps more real than that equally remote dream the Russians call Communism. These dreams describe our vague yearnings toward what we wish were and hope we may be: wise, just, compassionate, and noble. The fact that we have this dream at all is perhaps an indication of its possibility.
from John Steinbeck's America and Americans, p.41