A Tired Man
By Laura McCollough Moss
There was a particular cast to the eyes of Ellis Boyd “Red” Redding when he sat down before the parole board at Shawshank Prison having served forty years of a life sentence for a murder committed as a young man. Played with characteristic brilliance by Morgan Freeman, Red abandoned the ruse of forced humility. Instead, he laid bare the wisdom gained over decades of living with regret. Reflecting on the misguided youth that he had been, Red said “I want to talk to him. I want to try to talk some sense to him. Tell him the way things are. But I can’t. That kid’s long gone, and this old man is all that’s left. I’ve got to live with that.”
Frank Darabont’s powerful script gave voice to Red’s transition from a thoughtless, cocky youth to a grown man who knew himself, and had taken full advantage of his incarceration to develop insight and a strong moral character. I saw a distinct parallel to this memorable scene in the first presidential debate of 2012 (which aired October 3rd). Barack Obama’s eyes mirrored feelings that Red experienced, and that I understood implicitly.
I am a contemporary of Barack Obama; him, born August 4th, and me on October 26th of the year 1961. While it is true that I have long been drawn to his intelligence, honest countenance, and personal and political values, there has always been that feeling that we could have taken Social Studies class together. In a word, I get him. I watched him react to Mitt Romney’s smarmy assault, and felt certain that I knew what he was feeling.
Afterward, the commentary of liberal broadcasters was passionate. Their president had disappointed them by failing to fight back. Chris Matthews of MSNBC was incensed, and minced no words in his critique of Barack’s performance in the debate. I have to say that even though I remained steadfast in support of my president, and I was, and am, proud of him, I too wondered why he did not object strenuously to some of Romney’s charges. On the subject of Obamacare, when accused of pushing the Affordable Care Act through to legislation without regard for the tenth amendment to the Constitution, why did Obama not remind Mitt, and the audience, that the constitutionality of the Act had been upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court? When Romney repeatedly stated that, under Obamacare, those who were satisfied with their insurance coverage would see it changed, why did Barack neglect to mention the millions without coverage who have been granted access to quality healthcare? As a Registered Nurse, these were moments that distressed me, but there were others that I need not mention. They are permeating the media today, and we all know what they were.
To close the loop, where does Red Redding come into this editorial? Allow me to explain. As I look at video clips from the debate, I see the same wise, tired, time-worn expression on the face of Barack Obama that I recalled from Morgan Freeman’s memorable scene in The Shawshank Redemption. Barack realizes that he entered the office of President of the United States as a young, fully-charged, idealistic public servant. He had every intention of fulfilling his promises of renewing hope and inspiring change. What he found out is what all of us discover somewhere between forty and fifty. He was forced to confront “the way things are”, as Red so eloquently expressed one of life’s largest lessons in so few words.
The way things are is that, as President, you aren’t given a free pass to construct the reality of your dreams. There are countless others with a dog in the fight, with opinions of their own, and with leverage that you cannot ignore. Barack has learned the full extent to which the leader of the free world must compromise, ingest partisan and idealogical excrement (how’s that for a euphemism?), and endure analysis and criticism of every spoken word, every gesture, and every decision. Our president has aged visibly in office. His hearty, confident, booming speaking style has given way to measured honesty. He knows, now, that sober topics on which he is speaking are not grounds for self-aggrandizement or pandering. He also grieves the pieces of himself that he has sacrificed in the fight for equality, empowerment and basic health and safety for all Americans. There is no doubt in my mind that he is fully aware of his responsibility to the citizens of this country. I believe accounts that he sits up late at night reading their letters, and loses sleep over their content.
Barack Obama bore an expression of resignation that closely concealed a simmering indignation. He met Mitt Romney’s glib smirk with a look that said “You have not been where I have been”. Commentators who remarked that sitting presidents are unaccustomed to being challenged should consider how it must feel to be challenged on work that has claimed one’s very heart and soul. Should Barack Obama have to explain what it was like to visit Joplin, Missouri, or Bagram Air Field in Afghanistan? Is he forced to express the responsibility he feels for the daily casualties of war, or the stress and risk accompanying the decision to assassinate an enemy? Imagine what it is like to do the best you can at the most difficult job in the world, and to have the dissection and analysis of your every move be the full-time occupation of millions. Under this microscope, Barack Obama has learned the ropes of American presidency. There have to be moments when he doubts himself, as anyone would. And it is impossible to encapsulate in a two-minute response in a debate all that went into a particular outcome. Concessions were made for the greater good. Ground-breaking, significant processes have been initiated (as in healthcare) for which it will take time and ongoing collaboration and development to reap full benefit. Barack Obama owes Mitt Romney no explanation.
“What do you really want to know? Am I sorry for what I did?” I can almost hear Obama using Red’s words. “There’s not a day goes by I don’t feel regret. Not because I’m in here or because you think I should. I look back on the way I was then…”
It is my opinion that Barack Obama has reviewed his first four years in office. He has asked himself whether the journey has been worthwhile, and whether he has risen to the challenges of office. He can look proudly upon an admirable list of accomplishments hammered out along a harrowing road. And, when confronted by the likes of Mitt Romney, he feels no compulsion to prove himself.
(Red again)- Because, to tell you the truth, he doesn’t give a shit.