The President on the Ropes

In a scene from the new movie, The Fighter, we watch welterweight Micky Ward, played by Mark Wahlberg, take a brutal pounding when he’s thrown into the ring against a bigger boxer. Micky’s been told the fight would be “an easy win,” but he’s driven into a corner, gloves in front of his face, bloodied and helpless as his opponent throws punch after punch.

With just a few days left in the life of the 111th Congress, Michigan’s Carl Levin, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, has been urging President Obama to support keeping the Senate in session past Christmas, one last bid to pass legislation before the 112th convenes next month, Republicans dominating the House and increasing their numbers in the Senate.

“The way I think the President needs to fight is to say that he is going to use all of the power he has of a bully pulpit and urge the Senate to stay in, right up to New Year’s,” Levin said on C-SPAN’s Newsmakers program Sunday. But, he continued, “I don’t see that kind of a willingness to fight that hard, where he will take that kind of a position and that’s what necessary.”

Instead, the president’s on the ropes like Micky Ward. But he could make a comeback, taking cues from his own past and the examples of two men ? each an Obama supporter — whose recent deaths remind us that there are people of actions and words whose very existence advances America and the cause of democracy in the face of seemingly implacable opposition, within and without.

Richard Holbrooke was arrogant, vaultingly ambitious and did not, as the saying goes, suffer fools gladly. But in his decades of public service and diplomacy he displayed, in the words of former Labor Secretary Robert Reich, “the courage of his convictions, and his convictions were on the side of innocent people bludgeoned by the world’s worst bullies and tyrants. His was a foreign policy pragmatic in its particulars but intensely moral in purpose and perspective.”

I first crossed paths with Holbrooke in 1977, just after President Jimmy Carter had appointed him assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs. He was only 35, but already had more than a decade’s worth of work experience in world affairs, including his time in 1963 as an officer with the Agency for International Development in Vietnam and a stint on Averell Harriman’s staff at the Paris Peace Talks in 1968. Just for starters.

His greatest success was as chief negotiator of the 1995 Dayton peace accords that ended in the war in Bosnia, although, as John F. Harris and Bill Nichols recalled on the website, “Colleagues joked at the time that Holbrooke succeeded? because the leaders of Bosnia, Croatia and Serbia preferred to end a generations-old blood feud rather than endure another day sequestered with and being badgered by Holbrooke.” He was the embodiment of Hollywood mogul Darryl Zanuck’s credo,” Don’t say yes until I finish talking.”

At his death, as President Obama’s chief envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, he continued to struggle for answers, desperately hoping to find solutions that might bring to a peaceful end America’s involvement in those two mutually desperate countries. He refused to relinquish his belief, as he told The New Yorker’s George Packer, in “the possibility of the United States, with all its will and strength, and I don’t just mean military, persevering against any challenge.”

Holbrooke embraced the sentiment so beautifully expressed in John F. Kennedy’s 1961 inaugural address: “Let us never negotiate out of fear, but let us never fear to negotiate,” words crafted by Kennedy with his friend, counselor and speechwriter Theodore Sorensen. Sorensen died October 31st, but a memorial for him was held last week here in Manhattan.

If you were one of those politicians and leaders fortunate to speak Ted Sorensen’s prose, his words not only made you sound smart — they actually made you smarter. That’s because echoing through the resonance of his rhetoric there was learning to be had — history and philosophy, eloquent and perceptive allusions from the Bible, Pericles and Jefferson, Shakespeare, Lincoln and Churchill. An historical or literary reference in one of his speeches, well honed and to the point, could not only inspire you to action but also send you running for an encyclopedia.

He came by that knowledge via a love of reading passed along to him by his mother, Annis Chaikin, who paid her way through the University of Nebraska working as a maid, and his father Charles, a lawyer who served as that state’s attorney general. Writing of his childhood during the Depression in Lincoln, Nebraska, Ted Sorensen said reading allowed him to be “carried afar, on the wings of words.”

Sorensen described himself as “a Danish Russian Jewish Unitarian? surely a member of the smallest minority among the many small minorities that made this country great.” Although he was kidding, there was nonetheless within him a compassion and understanding that permanently embroidered his heart on his sleeve, whether it was integrating Lincoln’s municipal swimming pool when he was in college or writing a Kennedy address on civil rights in the hours after Governor George Wallace was made to stand aside from the doorway of the University of Alabama and allow entrance to African American students. Sorensen was a man who sought justice; a man of peace, humanitarianism and idealism; a man of discretion, commitment, and loyalty not only to his colleagues but his country.

“If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich.” Those, too, are words from the 1961 inaugural address Sorensen and Kennedy wrote together, as true today while we’re debating tax cuts and the estate tax.

Just words. But President Obama, as I know Ted Sorensen told you, just words are how a president operates, how a president engages a country. Put up your rhetorical dukes — we know it’s what you’re good at when you want to be and the spirit moves you. At the end of The Fighter, Micky Ward triumphs and becomes light welterweight champion of the world. This fight is only over, sir, if you throw in the towel. Many fear you already have done so. Now’s the time to start proving them wrong.

MICHAEL WINSHIP is senior writer at Public Affairs Television in New York City.


MICHAEL WINSHIP is senior writer of the weekly public affairs program Bill Moyers Journal, which airs Friday night on PBS.