It’s my humble privilege as a citizen with my own place in American history to write to you as you’re about to make the most important decision of your presidency. I’m referring to more than a single issue here, Mr. President. I’m talking about the course you are going to chart for the next eight months.
You’re going to show us your idea of greatness, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to do something great. You’ll either decide to follow advisers fixed on minimizing traditional midterm election losses and prematurely launch your own 2012 campaign, or you will use the robust majorities your election rolled-up in the House and Senate and spend the capital you earned in 2008 to fulfill your promise of “change we can believe in.” But you can’t do both.
So, Mr. President, I’m writing to offer the spirit I followed throughout my own public life: “Do right, and risk the consequences.”
In case you don’t recall, I had a meteoric career that ended rather poorly – at least it seemed so at the time. I was governor of Tennessee and served in Congress before I moved to Texas. There, I led a revolutionary army that defeated one of the great generals of our time and won my adopted state its independence from Mexico.
I was the first president of the Republic of Texas, and I forged the political consensus that led her into the Union rather than on a course of independent westward expansion. I was elected governor on the eve of the Civil War and served honorably until a band of reactionary legislators burst into my office in an ersatz coup and demanded I sign their noxious Oath of Loyalty to the Confederacy. Instead, I handed over the state seal and keys to the archives, and walked away from everything I worked for and risked my life to build.
I also refused President Lincoln’s offer of 50,000 federal soldiers to implement marshal law over my fellow Texans, because I knew the bloodshed that would cause. I left the Capitol somewhat broken, and two years later died quietly in an East Texas cabin, murmuring “Texas, Texas” with my final breath. It seemed unlikely in 1863 that generations of school children would be taught I was the greatest of all the great Texans, or that a major university and America’s fourth largest city would bear my name.
Mr. President, your own place in history already is secure. You cinched it just by being elected. The fact that you are our first black executive enhances it even more. So, let me tell you something the people on your payroll won’t: The number of years you serve – 4 or 8 – won’t make you a great president. Abraham Lincoln (who effectively served one term) and George W. Bush (who served two disastrous ones) showed that.
Your presidency likely will end the same most do these days. On Inaugural Day – either 2013 or 2017 – you will walk to Marine One, look back, wave and fly away as your successor takes the oath. That’s it. You’ll never hold office again. Your legacy won’t be the partisan make-up of Congress or the number of terms you served. It will be what you did during your time.
Millions of Americans still believe you are the leader who defines this generation. They are looking to you to bring American troops home from two ridiculous wars and to plow through the rank partisanship that has paralyzed this country. They want to believe you care more about them than you do corporate lobbyists in Washington, D.C., or the firms they represent on Wall Street.
Yet, in your first year, you have escalated American military presence in the Middle East. You’ve given tax dollars to banks and finance companies that this week paid grotesque millions in bonuses – business as usual – to irresponsible and greedy executives. Your fixation on passing any bill you can call “health care reform” has clouded your view of what Americans really need and want.
There is still time, Mr. President, to change the disastrous insurance industry windfall posing as health care legislation into something that puts the needs of the American people over the demands of corporations. You can still stand against the big banks, which are charging immoral interest rates to families who need short-term consumer credit, affordable mortgages and to students who need college tuition assistance. You can continue to make America safe and bring our troops home, as you promised during the campaign.
And you can take a bold step similar to the one Harry Truman took 50 years ago when he desegregated our military by signing an executive order that would end the institutionalized discrimination against lesbian and gay Americans who want to serve our country honorably and help protect us all in this dangerous time.
The world’s tallest statue of an American hero is a likeness of me outside Huntsville, Texas, but I never stood as tall as I did the day I stared down the secessionists who claimed public opinion was on their side. I was banished for the rest of my life to the political wilderness for following my conscience and refusing to lead the state I loved into the most shameful era of its great history.
We are all lucky, if we get one real shot at true greatness, Mr. President. Do right, and risk the consequences.