Memo From the Mount
Some advice on leadership from the original man in charge
To: Barack Obama, the 44th President of the United States
From: Moses, Israelite Commander-in-Chief
First of all, mazel tov! Up here, we’re all pretty psyched for you. Quite a few of us are registered Democrats—though not Esau, who’s a libertarian (go figure)—and we are immensely proud of your achievement. The Marx Brothers (Chico, Harpo, Groucho, Gummo, Zeppo, and Karl) threw one hell of a bash to celebrate your inauguration; Biggie and Tupac both performed, as did the Carpenters. Up here, they’ve got a lot of street cred.
But I’m digressing. The reason I decided to write to you, dear Barack, is to share with you a few pointers about leadership. I’m sure Lincoln would have loved to do so himself, but he and Liberace booked a cruise long before the election and didn’t want to lose their deposit.
It may seem a bit strange to you, taking advice from someone who’s been dead for a few millennia. After all, you may ask, what do I really know about modern issues like war or welfare or women’s rights? But what I have to say is priceless, the sort of wisdom that only gets truer with time. Don’t worry, I won’t be long. Here goes:
1. People suck: In a few months, something inevitable is going to happen. You’ll turn on the television one afternoon and discover that those throngs of people who support you now, all the millions who braved the cold to see you sworn in as president, no longer care. Even worse, you may find out that despite your passing sound legislation, working tirelessly to protect the nation’s well-being, and making all the right calls as commander-in-chief, the people inexplicably turn against you, distracted by some silly gaffe or filthy slander. You’ll sit there watching and, if you’re human (which Elvis, by the way, doubts), you’ll seethe with anger. In that moment, I want you to imagine how I felt when I ran happily down that mountain, carrying not the Constitution but the freakin’ word of God, and saw that it took my constituents less than a month to abandon everything sacred and make themselves a damn golden calf. And these were folks who had listened to the Good Lord with their very ears; I shudder to think what may happen to people who only listen to Fox News. Understand this, and take it to heart: people can be awful. Don’t get upset, and don’t try to be foolish and change human nature. Just work with what you’ve got.
2. Spare some change: Sure, you speak eloquently about the call of duty and the need for transformation, but don’t expect people to show up ready to work hard and be selfless just because you asked them to. I rescued my guys from a murderous tyrant, and made sure they were well-fed in the desert, and brought them into a covenant with their creator, and they still weren’t happy to follow me into the wilderness. Why? Because I gave them manna, and they wanted meat. Because I promised them holiness, and they wanted a homeland first. This is an important lesson, Barack: if you want people to march, make sure first that their stomachs are full, and that they have a place to lay their heads. Without concrete stuff, all talk is meaningless.
3. You need all the help you can get: At first, I was certain I could lead the Israelites all by myself. When relatives suggested I may be better off appointing deputies, I lost my cool. After all, so much of my campaign was about me—the hail, the frogs, the blood—that I found it hard to relinquish control. But when you’re dealing with stiff-necked people, you need good men and women by your side to help you govern. I see you’ve already begun to heed this advice; congratulations on choosing Dr. Sanjay Gupta as your surgeon general.
4. Get a Josh: I read an article about you and the civil rights movement that crowned you the leader of the so-called Joshua Generation, the youngsters who can safely conquer the promised land that those quote-unquote Moses-figures like Martin Luther King, Jr. could never reach. A sensitive topic with me, as you can imagine. But an important point nonetheless: make sure you, too, have your own Joshua, because none of us, no matter how fortunate, ever really get to enter Canaan. More often, we die on some mountain, alone, our Promised Land within sight but not within reach. And just before we do, we realize that it was really the journey that mattered. Still, make sure that when you step down in four years or eight, you have someone to pursue your vision, someone young and capable and passionate. There are quite a few of them in your party, so don’t worry about petty politics and start mentoring them from the very beginning. Otherwise, you’ll end up like LBJ; even here, he’s surly and lonely, and if it weren’t for the occasional tiff with Nixon, he’d have nothing to do.
5. Time is on your side: You, Mr. President, have four years to change the reality of your nation. I had 40. And I needed every day. As you may recall—and if you don’t, Rick Warren can surely remind you—I didn’t knock about in the desert for four decades because I couldn’t find Canaan. I did it because my people were not yet ready for the Promised Land, because they needed time to purify their hearts and steel their minds and strengthen their resolve. I had to wait for a lot of old people and old prejudices to pass away, had to wait for a lot of bad ideas to die out and for new, good ones to emerge naturally and organically in their stead. Sure, it’s easy for me to talk; there were no opinion polls in the desert, no bloggers to report on my every move. So do what you need to do to maintain your support, but remember that truly great accomplishments take time, and that time takes patience.
I’ll stop now, before I sound too much like Buddha, which happens to a lot of us up here after a while. I hope you find my thoughts helpful, and wish you again the best of luck. Oh, and if you see Bono, please tell him I’m a huge fan.
Yours across time,