Barack Obama and John Lewis Serve a Double Netflix Helping of MLK Day Respect and Dignity

President Barack Obama awards the 2010 Presidential Medal of Freedom to Congressman John Lewis in a ceremony in the East Room of the White House, Feb. 15, 2011. (Official White House Photo by Lawrence Jackson)

Last night Bob and I watched Episode 1 of Netflix’s latest entertainment experiment, My Next Guest Needs No Introduction with David Letterman. Though the program is instantly addictive, audiences will not be able to enjoy the familiar, sedentary luxury of binging – at least not for a while. Billed as a “monthly event,” Netflix is taking a light gamble that the next act of David Letterman’s storied career will prove to be destination television. Future A-list guests include Oscar-winner and humanitarian George Clooney, and international social justice icon Malala Yousafzai.

If Episode 1 proves a standard, Netflix has an important, topical non-fiction hit on its hands.  My Next Guest is must-see TV, but don’t expect the old Letterman throwing postcards through fake windows to cheesy sound effects. This is an older, wiser, more confident David Letterman – with magnificently groomed Ralph Waldo Emerson facial hair to underscore the shift. As Esquire’s Matt Miller writes:

“Though the beard might suggest Letterman is in a gives-no-fucks stage of his career, this show is far more mature, more relaxed, and at many times more touching than his previous one…This isn’t a stand-up special. It’s not a late-night talk show. Letterman’s new show is something deeper, more valuable.”

Anytime your guest is former President Barack Obama, value is a given. And not just because of ex-POTUS’s self-deprecating comedic timing. In these troubled times, Obama’s return to the public stage proves a soothing tonic to wounded, exhausted and humiliated political spirits. The quiet wisdom of a Nobel Prize-winning leader, a scandal-free, empathetic human being who’s never done learning and reflecting. Barack Obama is always going to be one of the smartest, most thoughtful people in any room. And in conversation with a transformed, more outwardly self-aware Letterman, an engaging, witty and touching hour unfolds. The communion is a true give and take.

Toward the end of the program, Obama turns the tables on his interviewer, asking Letterman if he ever feels the serendipity of fortune combining with his natural talents. A question to which the former Late Night and Late Show host gives a forceful reply:

“This is what I’m struggling with at this point in my life – I have been nothing but lucky… When John Lewis and his friends, in March of ’65, were marching across that bridge … in April of ’65, me and my friends were driving to Florida to get on a cruise ship to go to the Bahamas because there was no age limit to purchase alcohol, and we spent the entire week – pardon my French – shit-faced. Why wasn’t I in Alabama? Why wasn’t I aware? I’ve been nothing but lucky and the luck continues here this evening.”

Letterman’s honestly earned white guilt is more than academic exercise. Cut throughout the rich Obama interview are segments of the comedian’s visit to Selma, Alabama. There he connected with Civil Rights legend and longtime Georgia Congressman John Lewis to discuss the 1965 Bloody Sunday March, where a 25-year-old Lewis was beaten, and his skull fractured, as he and demonstrators tried to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge.

Letterman purposely keeps himself out of the conversation’s center. He is there to listen and learn, because Lewis has plenty to teach all of us about courage and conviction. There is no celebrity here. Just Dave the American Everyman (or Woman) looking desperately for reason, humility and a path to salvation from our self-inflicted, xenophobic national predicament.

I watched My Next Guest on the eve of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, just removed from Donald Trump, the anti-Obama in every conceivable way, labeling Haiti and African nations “shithole countries.” It’s a particularly on the nose time to consider the long-term loss the country experienced as a result of last year’s transition of power from 44 to 45.

This is not to engage in Obama hagiography. I was often a dogged critic of the cautious rationalism that prevented bolder action on a number of generational issues. But to compare the basic goodness and global respect enjoyed by our previous President, to the moral cesspool and international laughingstock (when he’s not hated outright) that is Donald Trump? As tragic as it is unfair to the three million plus Americans who popularly preferred Hillary Clinton and the legacy of Obama’s economic, environmental and social policies.

On Martin Luther King Jr. Day, David Letterman’s reverence for the sacrifices of John Lewis stand in stark contrast to Trump’s childish taunting of the Civil Rights icon. Lewis’ steadfast refusal to accept a self-aggrandizing, ignorant white supremacist as the legitimate leader of a free and diverse nation chafes the Narcissist-in-Chief. That chafing also drives the current administration’s singular mission to dismantle every achievement of the Obama era, from greater access to healthcare to important steps toward protecting the planet.

Trump’s racist bullying – at least it pertains to Obama and Lewis – stems from a place of naked envy. Because one can’t buy or tweet the way dignity and moral authority. Esteem is built by time and consistency, two currencies of which the racist pseudo-billionaire is acutely short.

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The Year in Tears, Fears and Cheers

I’ve done a lot of the right kind of crying this week – big, fat tears of hope, awe and relief. More fantastic than the cathartic sobs themselves, however, is the direct connection between them and national politics. For most of the year, emotional inspiration from the country’s elected leaders has been in short supply.

The lion’s share of 2017 blubbering has been of the traditional disappointment/rage strain. It’s been a tough year with many challenges to moral authority, character and justice. It may seem incongruous to sexist hate mongers like defeated Alabama senatorial candidate Roy Moore, but a liberal, atheist, feminist can also believe that standard codes of conduct should straddle all walks of human life. Righteousness is not the spiritual property of Bible-banging, racist, homophobic straight white men who condemn everyone outside their circle of privileged ignorance.

Regardless of gender, faith, geography or race, there should be a few universal agreements. We should reject white supremacy, violence, sexual assault, pedophilia, corrupt looting of the public treasury, heartlessness toward the poor and the war-torn.  When an American territory is ravaged by natural disaster, we should offer all forms of recovery assistance and skip the Ayn Randian self-reliance lectures. We should support science and research and take care of the only Earth we have. When hundreds are publicly gunned down at a concert and children are not safe in school, its way past time to ask ourselves if the Second Amendment should supersede all other rights.

Moderates, cynics and self-styled realists will be quick to say that we must make our way through the world as it is. Indulging idealistic daydreams is a waste of time. To which I reply in the words of my favorite former Vice President, Joseph R. Biden III: “That’s a bunch of malarkey.” Despite the unaccountable example elevated by President Trump, we can admit when we’re wrong. We don’t have to live with the choices we’ve made when empirical and experiential data illuminate error. If we’re not here to try our best to build a greater and more just world for ourselves and our children, what’s the point? If all we’re meant to do is take what we can and run, what sets humans apart from scavenger species like rats and vultures?

2017 has made it painfully clear that at the highest levels of American government and industry, a shared vision of social justice and opportunity has fallen out of favor. The Trump administration has appointed numerous leaders to public agencies with the express purpose of making it harder for us to breathe, receive a quality education or equitable treatment within the justice system, among other taxpayer scams. See, as just one absurd example, the decision to install Scott Pruitt, tool of the fossil fuel industry, as leader of the Environmental Protection Agency.

Never in modern history has it been so obvious that the public trust and tax dollar are being misused. The heavy-handedness of it all has elicited buckets of my impotent, despairing tears throughout the year. It’s been overwhelmingly tempting at times (Charlottesville, Republican tax “reform,” a sexual assaulter as POTUS) to view the country’s oligarchic, cynical tailspin without hope.

I recently took a personality test shared via link by a Facebook friend. I scored high on the quiz’s concept of reverence. Although the word has taken on a religious connotation, as applied in the personality assessment, it denotes a humbling of the self in respectful recognition of something perceived to be greater. I recognize this existential need. I’m a devoted planner and tactician, but always in service of a motivating larger concept. Shake my faith in the efficacy of action and I’ll quickly devolve. More Law & Order marathons, less self-confidence and movement. Reverence and I have been estranged for months at a time this year, replaced by tears of bitter shame as 45 debases this great nation with Twitter feuds, misogyny, bigotry, feckless and dangerous domestic and foreign policies.

But as we approach the end of the calendar year and the conclusion of the first twelve months of the Trump presidency, I’m starting to get my reverent groove back. On Monday night, Bob and I went to the Chicago Theatre to see the aforementioned Joe Biden on the Windy City leg of his book tour. Promise Me, Dad: A Year of Hope, Hardship, and Purpose, according to The New York Times Book Review, “splices a heartbreaking story with an election story and a foreign affairs story. And in so doing, he offers something for everyone, no matter which strand draws you in.”

Reading the words of Joe Biden is a privilege. Hearing his earnest, human good sense and compassion live is better still. The 75 year-old public servant is an American hero. A man who has weathered enormous personal tragedy with grace, intelligence and a steadfast commitment to bending the arc of humanity towards justice. I was, am and will always be inspired by Papa Joe. The choked sobs I released on Monday were full of gratitude – for Americans like the longtime Delaware senator, and for a husband who knew that walking down Obama/Biden memory lane would sooth my battered soul.

Then last night, voters in the deep red state of Alabama rejected a twice-sacked, child molesting, bigoted judge in favor of a pro-choice Democrat with a demonstrated commitment to civil rights. Much has been made in the media about urban and suburban white distaste for Moore. But the real story is the 93 percent of black men and 98 percent of African-American women who overcame all disenfranchisement odds and pundit expectations to put their state on the right side of history. As Esquire columnist Charles Pierce noted:

“Voter suppression is a scandal and a crime and an offense against the Constitution. John Roberts’s declaration of the Day of Jubilee in Shelby County v. Holder was an act of historical butchery. The laws enacted since that day should be torn out, root and branch, and burned to cinders. However, what the results from Alabama demonstrated is that, with good candidates and a solid message and tireless work, you can swamp the bastards and all their works just by showing up.”

2016 went out for me with a disillusioned, distressed whimper. Hillary Clinton’s loss was my despair for the country, for womanhood, for immigrants and any chance of addressing the nation’s increasingly stratified economic and social opportunities.

At the end of 2017, I’m rediscovering reverence for the American proletariat. The wise and compassionate words of a retired public servant and the empowered, forward-looking agency of Alabama voters make great holiday gifts.