Letter to Obama from a Dying Man

With an Introduction by Paul Rogat Loeb

My friend Robert Ellis Gordon is dying of lupus, with months
left to live. He's spent more than a decade teaching writing to prison
inmates, written a terrific book called The
House Mirror from those experiences and crafted a rave-reviewed
When Bobby Kennedy was a Moving Man,
on Kennedy being sent back to earth to determine whether he deserved Heaven or

I often quote something Robert said to a group of fellow
prison teachers, which seems an apt metaphor for any effort at change:
"Some of the people we work with will already have redeemed their lives.
Others, no matter what we do, will be back in here again. And for some, our
efforts will make all the difference. We will never know which group is which,
but that should not serve as a deterrent to our efforts."

Robert just wrote this open letter to Obama, challenging him
to reach for his deepest levels of courage in being honest about what we face
after decades of pillaging our economy. I'll miss his wise voice.

-Paul Rogat Loeb

Dear Mr. President:

I am one, among millions, who recently received an email
regarding your health care plan. Mr. Plouffe's email requested personal

As a fifty-five year old man who has lived with a rare and
serious illness since 1989, and who was recently referred to hospice, I am, I
suppose, no less qualified than others to write about the challenges and
unlooked-for blessings that accompany a fatal disease.

Upon reflection, however, I realized my story would be less
compelling than others. For I come from a generous family. True, we were raised
to make our way in the world and I started to work at age fourteen. Some
forty years later, however, when it became evident that I could no longer hold
down a job, my family cut back on their expenses so that my basic needs would
be met. Hence I will not die, as thousands of my counterparts do, alone
and anonymous in a hospital room or in the streets.

So? I deleted Mr. Plouffe's email and returned to the
task at hand. But deleted or not I was distracted by the email, so much so that
I left the computer and took my dog for a walk. At the park, as I tossed the
squeaky ball to Rose, I asked myself a question: if given the opportunity to
write a letter to the President -- a letter in which illness and
impending death served a larger agenda-- what would I say to him?

The answer was immediate and impassioned: "Please
level with the people. Now."

What do I mean by level? And why this sense of urgency?

The urgency stems from the peril I see in an unbalanced
presentation of your economic scenario. I do not mean to suggest that you speak
only of the most dire predictions. We need a substantive message of hope.
It's been a long forty years since we heard one. But authentic
hope, as you know better than most, is founded upon truth. You had the
courage to speak it throughout your campaign, and the magnitude of your victory
revealed a public yearning to hear it.

In order to sustain the trust of the people, it is
imperative that you continue to feed this yearning. That you do as you did in
your speech on race: speak to us as adults. Speak even more deeply from
the heart as well as the head. Above all, speak in the spirit of Judge Learned
Hand: "The spirit of liberty is the spirit of not being too sure.

So even as you speak words of hope and quell our fears with
your steady presence, let us know that you proceed in the spirit of not being
too sure because you cannot be; because no one can be; because a global
economic meltdown is unprecedented in scope and nature.

Tell the people, as FDR did, in a style that is true to
yourself, that there's no panacea for this catastrophe. A catastrophe
that was decades in the making and is not yet fully understood. And that
your approach, therefore, must be a flexible one that allows for a sliding
scale of eventualities, among which is the possibility-remote or
not-- that this economic Katrina may outrace your best efforts to
both remedy the cause and mitigate the effects.

What is to be gained by leveling with the people now? And
what are the consequences if you do not do so?

Your most precious resource, Mr. President, is neither your
brilliance nor the elegance with which you wield the language. Your most
precious resource is your credibility.

The consequences of an unbalanced presentation, one that
tilts too heavily toward the rosy?

No adverse consequences if that scenario unfolds.

But if worse continues to lead to worse as numerous
economists predict, and you deny yourself political cover by not allowing for
that eventuality?

Your popularity will prove thin and short-lived. You will
lose your credibility. Quickly. And once relinquished, it can't be

Should you lose your credibility the people will, at the
least, dismiss you as yet another president in a long line of presidents
who opted to not be statesmen. As for your ability to summon our better
angels? That remarkable gift will be squandered.

And that's the best case scenario, Mr. President.

The worst?

If , in the absence of a credible President, tens of
millions-millions who are ill-prepared for adversity-find
themselves living in a state of deprivation and want? And if fear of the
unknown starts feeding upon itself?

The people may, as they have in the past, turn to a leader
who uses the energy of ignorance and fear to summon our darkest impulses.
We don't have to travel back to the Trail of Tears to recognize our capacity
for looking the other way while our government pursues a policy of

We don't have to travel back to the torture and murder
of Emmett Till to recognize our capacity for denying the humanity of a child.

Joe McCarthy's sheet of paper?

Ancient history.

A mere nine months ago John McCain chose a running mate who
proved masterful at inciting fear and hatred of "the other."
And if worse continues to lead to worse in the absence of a credible president,
the hatred we saw on the periphery of her crowds could move to the center and
burst into flames that consume our better angels as they fan out.

On June 2nd the headline for the New York Times lead story
ran beneath this headline: "Obama Is Upbeat For G.M.
Future On A Day Of Pain."

Upbeat on a day when the lives of 21,000 autoworkers and
their families were shattered.

Upbeat on a day in which the closing of seven plants will
translate into tens of thousands of shattered lives in other sectors of the
auto industry.

Upbeat on a day when the Times ran an editorial
devoted to yet a new wave of home foreclosures.

There's a dissonance here, Mr. President. And
even from the standpoint of political calculation- of the coldest
Machiavellian calculation-this dissonance does not have to be. Last
November the people rejected the politics of fear, rigidity, half-truths and
lies, and embraced the politics of unity and truth. This was a
tribute to our ability to discern and to the authentic nature of your
message. A message of hope to be sure, but one that calls not for ease
but sacrifice. And perhaps above all we came to appreciate a creative and
compassionate vision that is tempered, at long last, by reality. Your vision
represents the best and perhaps last hope for our children and for theirs.

You forged a bond with the people, Mr. President. But the
glue hasn't set and the glue will not set if you do not
re-calibrate your message.

The last and most important question: what is to be gained
by leveling?

Perhaps the best way for me to address the positive, the
potential for realizing your vision, is to circle back to Mr.
Plouffe's request, and speak to you in personal terms about the lessons
of illness and impending death.

You may be familiar with this quote from the poet, Sylvia
Plath. "If only you could see me forge my soul, fighting and fighting to
forge my soul."

Sylvia Plath succumbed to her despair, committed suicide in
1963. But her words still stand, maybe now more than ever, as tens of millions
face the potential, at least, of entering the forging fire. And should that
come to pass the people will look to you, just as the British looked to
Churchill, for guidance, solace, and above all hope in the midst of their

And where does my twenty-year dance
with the fire fit into all of this? Where do you and I intersect?
What have I learned that could possibly be of use to the President of the
United States?
What have I learned that might help this good man forge the soul of a

Maybe something. Maybe nothing. But for what it's
worth I offer a glimpse of my journey and a couple of nuggets
I've picked up along the way.

The first nugget?

That we forge our souls not for ourselves but in order to be
better disciples of compassion.

And how does an obscure writer and former prison teacher
make a contribution this late in the day with a timeline, in all likelihood, of

Below, an excerpt from a recent note to the doctor who saved
my life on numerous occasions over the past two decades.

Suffering may teach but it is not an end in and of itself. And when the pain
abates, during windows of peace, I write.

I have
a book to complete before I die. It is different from the others. I want to
leave something behind that may serve as a source of solace to a reader here or
there; a reader who wrestles with despair during this era of
incomprehensible suffering.

those high-risk infusions? The fatal infection you warn me about? And my
choice to continue, to run the risk, in order to buy time to write?

any man I fear a painful death. But after receiving Extreme Unction on multiple
occasions, I no longer fear death itself. What I fear is a life not well-lived.
And the best way for me to do so during the time that remains is to complete
that manuscript.

just my body (not my soul) that is weary...

So that is my final task: to forge my soul on the page. I
may die before I finish. Or I may risk all on the page and find that my skill
is wanting; that the story implodes on itself. But if I fail in this task, I will
do so in obscurity.

Because you sit where you sit, you don't have that

What you do have is the opportunity and
responsibility to explain how we got here and enumerate the full panoply
of outcomes.

If the rosy scenario comes to pass? The people will know, by
dint of your honesty, that you are neither above nor below but of them.

And if worse continues to lead to worse? If tens of millions
find themselves living at the extremes of deprivation and want? And
you've retained your credibility?

The dreams you've resurrected may still be
realized. Realized in ways and to a degree that would be unlikely during
less uncertain times.

You'll be able to protect us, protect the children,
from those who would prey upon fear and unleash violent thought, language and

And as this economic Katrina continues to strengthen? As the
people become increasingly aware that economic security is not a birthright?
And are overwhelmed by a sense of vulnerability?

As the people walk through the fire together, the
differences so artfully exploited by your predecessor will assume their proper
perspective. And compassion may well fill the void. Shared adversity has a way
of doing that.

And after the worst has passed, Mr. President? And the
people, having been tempered by the fire, emerge stronger and more
compassionate? Emerge with a visceral understanding of what it means to
be dispossessed?

That, Mr. President, is when your vision may be
realized. For the people who revealed a desire to serve at the outset of
your candidacy, during times of relative prosperity, will still be here when
the fire is extinguished. But the people will not be the
same. They'll be more able and willing to answer your call.
And their progeny will learn through their example.

This is not to say that the fire is pleasant. At times
it's excruciating. I know that well. At times I want nothing more than to
escape, and it is only faith that sustains me. Faith in God, yes, but also in
man. Indeed, as I approach the River's edge, the distinction between
divinity without and divinity within seems merely to be one of choice. And a
simple choice at that: towards violence or towards compassion.

This is your hour, Mr. President.

I, like you, am both a child of God and a member of the body
politic. And as I ready myself to leave this bittersweet world, I want you to
know that it affords me much peace to know that you are the President. A
President who quietly rescued the Constitution. Who can forge the
nation's soul if the need arises. And who re-ignited the flame of hope
and compassion months before the general election. A flame that was muted
but not extinguished some forty years ago.

And this speaks to the most important lesson I've
learned from my twenty-year dance with the fire. Certainly all people
wish and deserve to be treated with dignity and compassion. But the human heart
is bigger than that. We wish, as well, to experience our magnanimous natures,
the divinity within. This is what Gandhi knew and tapped into. This is what my
favorite saint knew: "It is in the giving that we receive." And
this, Mr. President, is what you know.

So. A dying man's prayer for you and the nation: that
the light that burns so brightly in you and your family will extend through
generations. And if the children of the children choose to be their
brothers and sisters' keepers simply because they listen to their hearts;
hearts that tell them they're here to improve the lot of others?

Well, they may never know it was you who reminded
their forbears of who they truly are. They may never even know your name.

But what of it?

If the words you spoke on election night come to fruition,
they will not bring an end to suffering. But they will bring forth the better
angels of which you speak; of which the last great candidate for president

And when I hear you summon our better angels forth, I hear
echoes of the poet Robert Kennedy quoted on the darkest night of his brief
campaign. And what greater legacy could he ask of you, and you, in turn,
ask of us, than a renewed commitment to the age-old call to tame the savageness
of man and make gentle the life of this world?


Robert Ellis Gordon
Seattle, Washington

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