At one point during his hour-long interview with David Letterman, Barack Obama offers some reasoned and detailed remarks about the global economy, at the conclusion of which Letterman responds by saying, “To hear you describe this in a way that I can understand just makes me so happy you’re still president.”
The line gets a well-deserved laugh, but also drives home what Letterman knows we’re all thinking: Dear god, I miss this man’s steady, thoughtful, intelligent leadership.
For his part, Obama makes clear that, even were it not for the two-term limit, he likely would no longer hold the office.
“Let me just say this: If it were not for the Constitution, there’d be Michelle.”
The crowd erupts in cheers, mistakenly assuming Obama is suggesting that the former First Lady might run for office.
“No no no, you guys are misunderstanding me,” Obama interrupts. “What I’m saying is: I’m prevented from running again by the Constitution, but, even if it were not for that amendment, Michelle would leave me,” he jokes, “and I want her around.”
Either way, it’s a moot point. Barack Obama no longer is president … and, if you’re one of the many who feels like I do — which is to say you failed to realize until it was too late just how lucky we were to have him, and failed to fully support him while we had the chance — the only way to make up for those failures is to become now the active citizens we should have been then.
On this Martin Luther King Jr. Day, it is worth reminding ourselves of the sacrifices made by those who came before us, a theme that is front and center during Netflix’s first episode of Letterman’s new series, “My Next Guest Needs No Introduction.”
In addition to filming a sit-down interview with the former president, Letterman also captured his own visit to Selma, Alabama, where he interviewed United States Congressman John Lewis while crossing the Edmund Pettus bridge. The two traced the footsteps of a 25-year-old Lewis, who, just over 50 years ago, led a column of voting-rights activists across the bridge, whereupon they were violently assaulted by police. The day — March 7, 1965 — became known as Bloody Sunday.
“I thought I was going to die,” Lewis calmly tells Letterman without a hint of exaggeration. “There was something, some force, that was just pushing us on. We had been taught not to be afraid, but be determined, and be orderly, peaceful, and abide by the philosophy and the discipline of nonviolence.”
This is the man about whom our current President, one year ago, tweeted the following:
Congressman John Lewis should spend more time on fixing and helping his district, which is in horrible shape and falling apart (not to……
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 14, 2017
mention crime infested) rather than falsely complaining about the election results. All talk, talk, talk – no action or results. Sad!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 14, 2017
“I was hit in the head by a state trooper with a nightstick,” Lewis recounts to Letterman as the two stand in the place where it happened. “My legs went out from under me.”
“All my life, I’ve been active and speaking up,” Lewis continues. “I was arrested and jailed 40 times during the ’60s and five times since I’ve been in Congress.”
All talk, talk, talk — no action or results.
“Symbolically, when the march was completed successfully, what is on the other side of the bridge?” Letterman asks him.
“The vote,” said Lewis. “Barack Obama. If it hadn’t been for the march from Selma to Montgomery, there probably would be no Barack Obama as President of the United States.”
“John Lewis is absolutely right,” Obama later tells Letterman. “He and all the other folks who marched carried me across that bridge — they carried America across that bridge.”
The American instinct that led these young men and women to pick up the torch and cross this bridge is the same instinct that moved patriots to choose revolution over tyranny. It’s the same instinct that drew immigrants from across oceans and the Rio Grande; the same instinct that led women to reach for the ballot and workers to organize against an unjust status quo; the same instinct that led us to plant a flag at Iwo Jima and on the surface of the Moon.
It’s the idea held by generations of citizens who believed that America is a constant work in progress; who believed that loving this country requires more than singing its praises or avoiding uncomfortable truths. It requires the occasional disruption, the willingness to speak out for what’s right and shake up the status quo.”
“The way he represented me as an American, I haven’t experienced that before,” Letterman tells Lewis.
“I never saw a president so committed, so fair, so dedicated,” Lewis replies. “I’ve just never seen anyone like him.”
“How big a setback is the current administration?” Letterman asks.
“It is a major setback to the hopes, the dreams and aspirations of a people,” says Lewis. “Not just African-Americans, but all Americans … because I think what is happening in America today is a threat not just to our own country but to the planet.”
He’s right … and it is up to all of us to respond to that threat. Failure to do so will place squarely upon our shoulders the responsibility for any further injustices to come, as well as the sense of guilt we rightfully will carry for our own inaction.
Letterman underscores the latter point in response to a question Obama poses near the end of the program.
“Here’s one question I did have,” Obama says. “Don’t you say to yourself, ‘Boy, am I lucky’? And one of the things that I think I always am surprised by is when I see people who have been successful in business or entertainment or politics, and they’re absolutely convinced that it’s all because they were so smart. And I’m always saying, ‘Well, look, I worked hard and I’ve got some talent, but there are a lot of hard-working, talented people out there. There was this element of chance to it. There was this element of serendipity. I wonder whether you feel that sometimes. And the reason that, for me at least, is important is so a.) I don’t feel too self important, but b.) you know, you wanna see if you can maybe figure out how to sprinkle that stardust on other people.'”
“OK, Mr. President, this is what I am struggling with at this point in my life,” replies an emotional Letterman. “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 — shitfaced. Why wasn’t I in Alabama? Why was I not aware?”
If you’re reading this, you are among those of us who no longer have the luxury of being unaware. We know what’s happening. It’s time for us to act accordingly.
“John Lewis, Dr. King — what they teach us is, to ask ourselves questions,” Obama tells Letterman. “If we see cruelty, if we see inequalities, if we see injustice: Why is that? Am I a part of this? Am I willing to do something about it? Are there sacrifices I’m willing to make to change it? And that’s not always easy, but it’s necessary. That’s how progress is made, and that’s why I always say that, the way America has become more perfect — not perfect, but more perfect — typically has to do with ordinary people deciding, ‘You know what? That’s not right.'”
What is happening in American today is not right … and we all must do something about it.
Speak out against the injustices you see. Find ways to make your voice heard. And, above all, vote. It is a right for which John Lewis was willing to face death. It is a right for which Dr. King placed his own life on the line. It is a right without which we would never have had a President Obama. We owe it to them, to ourselves, our children, our country, and the world as a whole, to exercise that precious right so that we can fix this mess we’ve allowed to unfold, and to make sure that it never, ever happens again.