I caught Obama’s farewell speech, along with the ceremony where he bestowed the Presidential Medal of Honour with Distinction, on Vice President Joe Biden. What has been interesting to watch has been the way that almost no-one has criticized the character of either man.
If you can’t admire Joe Biden as a person, you got a problem. He’s as good a man as God ever created.
Senior Republicans have almost been unanimous in the praise of the character of both the first family and the Vice President. In the very next breath, they move to talk about Obama as one of the worst Presidents America has had, but they don’t criticize his character.
It was interesting that when Joe Biden got over the shock of receiving the award, it was Obama’s character that was what he mostly spoke about:
And we’ve disagreed, and we’ve argued, and we’ve raised our voices, one of which we made a deal we’d be completely open like brothers with one another. But, Mr. President, I watched you under intense fire. I will venture to say that no President in history has had as many novel crises land on his desk in all of history. The Civil War was worse, the World War Two was worse, but, Mr. President, almost every one of the crises you faced was a case of first instance — a case of first instance. And I watched that prodigious mind and that heart as big as your head — I’ve watched you. I’ve watched how you’ve acted.
Last September, conservative commentator, David Brooks wrote:
[O]ver the course of this campaign it feels as if there’s been a decline in behavioral standards across the board. Many of the traits of character and leadership that Obama possesses, and that maybe we have taken too much for granted, have suddenly gone missing or are in short supply. […]Obama radiates an ethos of integrity, humanity, good manners and elegance that I’m beginning to miss, and that I suspect we will all miss a bit, regardless of who replaces him.
It is true that the Obama Whitehouse has been largely scandal-free, and that all the real things that have focused people’s strong feelings about him have been about policy and not about character.
I watched the movie about Obama’s early life on Netflix a few weeks ago, and read his autobiography 8 years ago. In both it becomes clear that Barak Hussein Obama has had to fight to find his identity in the face of lots of competing messages he received from society and those around him.
Joe Biden too has had to overcome tragedy (the loss of his wife and little girl in a car accident just as he entered politics, and the more recent loss of his son) and fight to find his bearings in the complex world of Washington.
It seems that we live in a world where celebrity is prized much more highly than character, which is crazy but understandable. I don’t believe there is any cheap or easy way to obtain character, but there are many easy ways to gain celebrity.
The Apostle Paul characterizes immaturity, or the lack of character, as being “tossed back and forth by the waves and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming.” (Ephesians 4:14)
It is interesting that Paul chooses to define maturity in naming it’s negative. I think that is because the opposite of maturity is much easier to define than the positive. To be immature is to have your behaviour and emotional world defined for you by circumstances and other people.
A mature person is anchored and won’t get blown away by external circumstances, which is exactly what Biden was saying of Obama.
In reflecting back on my own life, and watching my children grow up, I can see there simply are no shortcuts to this anchoring.
The Apostle Paul lays out the process of growing up when he says:
We rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope. (Romans 5:3-4)
This is the last thing any of us really want to hear. I remember so well as a teenager lying in bed, procrastinating about study and just wanting holidays so I could do whatever I felt like doing. We live in a society where you have “made it” when you have enough money to do whatever you feel like doing. I have written before that “the pursuit of happiness” is actually one of the most dangerous aspects of the American declaration of independence. At it’s core, a life dedicated to doing “whatever I feel like” is a life lost to immaturity.
We live in a world where immaturity is taught and sought, and where suffering is thought to be the ultimate evil. This is understandable, none of us wants to suffer, or wants the people closest to us to suffer, but if Paul is right, and I think he is, by avoiding suffering, we avoid maturity, and by avoiding maturity we condemn ourselves to live only partial lives.
I heard a few reporters say yesterday that they can’t think of another example of a President and Vice-President who were as close as these two men became. Pundits labelled their relationship a “Bromance”, which does both of them a disservice. Their relationship seems to be much stronger than that. Joe Biden gave a clue as to why that was yesterday when he said:
I knew it was the right decision. I really did. Because, Mr. President, the same values set — the same values set.
These two men had both lived complex lives that forged values that anchored them as individuals, and because they could recognise those values in each other they could build a strong relationship of trust. I love that both of them talked about the disagreements that they seemed to regularly have.
Only people who have suffered, grown, matured and developed real values can actually have relationships of trust. It is silly to trust an immature person, because they will let you down the moment things get difficult.
The relationship I saw between Biden and Obama is the kind of iron-sharpens-iron fellowship that we all need… unfortunately very few of us get it, because we are too busy pursuing happiness.