Sunday, January 17, 2010

An Open Letter to President Obama

Dear Mr. President:

I thought you might use some advice from someone who is neither a right-wing-nut nor a true-believer in your status as a knight-in-shining-armor who was going to make every boo-boo on our nation's psyche heal within the very first year of your term of office. Oh, yes, I willingly voted for you and cried when I watched you and your beautiful family stand before a crowd of a hundred thousand in Grant Park in Chicago that night to declare victory. I did not work for nor donate to your campaign because it became evident to me early on that, while you were not prone to sudden outbursts of emotion while over-amplified (as another promising candidate did not so long ago), neither were you the type to rock the boat by making the kind of drastic turnaround that the country so desperately needed. Now that your public approval rating has slipped into George W. Bush territory, I thought you might be looking beyond the usual advisory insiders for some clues as to how to get back in the good graces of Mr. and Ms. America.

First, Mr. President, short of a personality transplant, you need to ditch the entire Mr. Cool routine, assuming that you can still muster up true-blue, honest-to-God feelings and a congruent affect to go with it. (Your predecessor had an embarrassing tendency to display facial expressions one would more expect to see on a preschooler while delivering the most sobering news.) When everything you say emanates from a visage that never changes, you are sending the message that either everything matters equally or nothing matters at all. "Is he lying or telling the truth? What does he really care about? Does he know that I exist?"

Second, Mr. President, and concurrently with the above, you need to talk less like a contracts lawyer and more like a trial lawyer. Talk like your audience is a jury in a murder trial and not the judge sitting on the bench. (Note: this is not "talking-down", it is "talking to.") People want to hear words that stir their hearts and imaginations. They do not want you to "win them over". Most voters in the middle, independent, or undecided columns do not really know how they feel about the complex issues that you deal with day-in and day-out. What they want to hear from you is that you have a sincere conviction as to the right course and are willing to explain to them why in your gut you know you are right.

Last night, my husband and I attended a concert by the Colorado Symphony Orchestra. On the program were two highly contrasting works: Peter Lieberson's Neruda Songs and Peter Tchaikovsky's Romeo and Juliet Fantasy-Overture. One hundred and thirty-five years separated the creation of these two works about romantic love. The first was receiving it's premier performance by the CSO. The latter can only be described as a workhouse, it has been performed so often. The first had Spanish lyrics, the English translation of which was written in the program, sung by a very talented mezzo-soprano. Lieberson had written his piece out of love for his wife, herself a first-rate mezzo-soprano, who he knew was dying of breast cancer. She lived long enough to sing his work at its world premier.

Lieberson's musical setting of five poems, written by Chilean Pablo Neruda in the late 1950's, might have been as stirring as Tchaikovsky's earlier fantasy on Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, given its context within Lieberson's life. Both stories involve incipient love needlessly and far too early lost. Yet, the audience's reaction to the two pieces was starkly contrasted. Lieberson's music was like Obama's speeches--fresh, sonorous, and melodious, in a 21st century kind of way. When it finished, the audience applauded politely, some even stood. There was no doubt that the rendition they had heard was exemplary. But the music and poetry plucked the strings of the mind more than the heart.

Tchaikovsky, on the other hand, cares little for plucking strings that aren't connected to emotions, as I'm sure you are aware, Mr. President. His Romeo and Juliet Fantasy, with its love theme that has been on every best-love-songs-of-all-time album since the days of wax cylinders, blasts out "try to top this, Mantovani" from every measure. Predictably, when it ended, the crowd "went wild", standing, clapping, and hooting en masse.

Why the difference? Was it purely a matter of familiarity? Doesn't familiarity breed contempt? I think the answer holds a secret to your success, Mr. President. Here it is: whether listening to you or a symphony orchestra, people want to be reminded what it is they care about. What they care about isn't mind games, elegance, or eloquence. It's about heart-to-heart human connection. What they care about is knowing that the person or persons they are listening to care about those things too. This is especially true of their president. They don't care how many times they've heard it said (played) by someone else; they want to hear it from you. You are America's lover. When we are hurting, we need to know that you feel our pain. (Clinton said it but didn't prove it.) Not only feel our pain but will continue to feel it until its gone.

Great conductors make you believe that the music comes from inside them. If the "Great Health Care Symphony" is programmed, they don't hand the baton over to the Principle Guest Conductor or the Principle Pops Conductor. Great trial lawyers take classes in acting, just as some football players take ballet. It's time to get a little theatrical, Mr. President. The jury is still in the box and they're getting restless.

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