Sense and sensibility

January 20, 2009|By Robin Weiss

I am older than the next president. For me, this is a first, and I wondered how it would feel. I remember the moment when I realized that I was older than most major-league baseball players. It was disorienting; the athletes suddenly looked more like schoolboys - goofing around, scratching themselves, spitting in the dirt - than like the graceful, super-humanly cool adults I had, as a child, imagined them to be.

President-elect Barack Obama, on the other hand, has extinguished the qualms I harbored about his relative youth. Compressing a lifetime of rich experience into his 47 years, he has extracted a distillate of mature wisdom. I don't know him personally, but I listened to his speech on race, watched him debate and read his memoir Dreams From My Father. He is brilliant, yes, but - more crucial to his tenure as president - he seems to possess those rare and sparkling qualities that coalesce into wisdom: good sense, equanimity and a profound capacity for empathy.

In March, Mr. Obama responded to the furor over the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr. with a remarkable, unflinching speech about race. He addressed us as adults who could tolerate contradiction: "I can no more disown him than I can disown the black community. ... I can no more disown him than I can my white grandmother, who once confessed her fear of black men who passed by her on the street." With this speech, he declared that he would not back down from reason in the face of complexity, that he would not reduce nuanced problems to pablum, and that he would trust us to understand complicated issues.

Some scientists believe that individual temperament is inborn - encoded in our DNA. If so, Barack Obama came equipped with an inner gyroscope. Unflappably calm and deliberate in his responses during the debates with Sen. John McCain, his demeanor and soothing voice seemed to say, "I am a moderate and thoughtful person." If there really is a red phone in the White House bedroom, I want someone with Mr. Obama's even temperament to be the one saying, "Hello?"

Jonathan Raban wrote in The Wall Street Journal recently that Mr. Obama's writing does not reach the "impossibly high bar" Abraham Lincoln set for brilliant, lyrical and witty prose. Still, it is music to my ears when a politician reveals that he can put himself in your shoes. Dreams From My Father is filled with minute observations about the inner lives that he imagines inform others' reactions, whether on the high school basketball court or in the Chicago projects. I may be reaching here, but Mr. Obama's sensibility as a writer reminds me of that of Leo Tolstoy, who in his novels describes the barely discernible blush, or the slight averting of eyes during a polite conversation, unmasking the subtly shifting, emotionally charged exchange unfolding just below the surface.

Some of Mr. Obama's decisions will disappoint us. A dean of a medical school once told me, "Every time I make a decision, half of the faculty members hate me and half of them love me. Then, the next time I make a decision, half of the ones who loved me before now hate me." Yet, in spite of a tone-deaf appointment that enrages some of us, or a policy misstep that infuriates others, I don't believe that he - this man who has all the makings of a wise leader - will let us down.

Dr. Robin Weiss, a psychiatrist who lives in Baltimore, hosted a health care forum in her home at the prompting of the Obama campaign. Her e-mail is

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.