“Do what you feel in your heart to be right…”

April 18, 2018 | Swanee Hunt

A letter to Jenny, my 12 year-old niece:

Oh, oh, oh! These pictures of you at the White House! I’m so glad you came across them. You made my day.

My niece with a portrait of Eleanor Roosevelt at the White House

Given my political life of the past 30 years, I know those places in the White House. You fit right in. How splendid that you were there with President Obama. And that one under the portrait of Eleanor Roosevelt. I try to live by her wry admonition: “Do what you feel in your heart to be right – for you’ll be criticized anyway.” Sometimes the first part is hard to discern. The second part is plain as day.

For no reason, just before I opened your email, I watched about 45 minutes of various President Obama videos on YouTube. Never done that before. At first my spirits surged to see an honorable President of the United States of America. Then I crashed, for obvious reasons.

But after a while I more than recovered, with a firmer belief that the integrity, stature, and authenticity I was watching must have left an impression on our national awareness. With President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton, we have a benchmark to which we can aspire as, over the next decade, America regains our self-respect and that of the world.

Barack Obama did more than rise above the overt racism that dogged him from the moment he declared his candidacy. In Biblical proportion he refused to return evil for evil. Instead, he responded with inclusive policies that embraced you and tens of millions of other children across our country – and untold hundreds of millions across the globe. As President, he had a conscience that focused on the poorest among us, and a vision that pierced the scrim through which we view our limitations. How right that he’s now an indelible part of your life.

Oh, and I didn’t tell you about the five-minute video from Chicago 2012, the morning after a long election night. I actually was there! Standing on a desk, no less. (Yep, I’m still your Aunt Swanee.) The President came into a room filled with about 80 campaign workers who had given heart and soul to being sure he had a second four years to carry forward his agenda.  What I found so striking was the lack of political words or rehearsed thoughts as he looked across the bright young faces turned toward him.

He entered in an introspective mode and began talking about when he came to the South Side of Chicago at 25 – the same age as many of those in the room. “I had this vague inkling about trying to make a difference, but I didn’t really know how to do it.” He knew he wanted to help kids get a great education, to be sure people living in poverty could get decent jobs, to make sure people didn’t have to go to the emergency room to get health care. He said that experience listening to the needs of the residents in one of our country’s most dangerous neighborhoods (my words, not his) changed him more than he was able to change others. “It taught me the hopes and aspiration and grit and resilience of ordinary people, and that under the surface differences we all have common hopes and common dreams.”

Those powerful words reflect the heart of this man. But particularly, Jenny, I want you to pay attention to where his mind went next. “And so I come here and I look at all of you, and it’s not that you guys remind me of myself. It’s that you are so much better than I was….” He dabs at the corner of his eyes. “You’re smarter, better organized, more effective….  And last night, even before the results, I felt that the work that I had done in running for office had come full circle…. And I’m really proud of that. I’m really proud of all of you.”

Tears are streaming down his cheeks. “Your journey is just beginning. You’re just starting. And whatever we do over the next four years will pale when compared with what you guys will accomplish for years and years to come…. That’s the source of my hope. That’s the source of my strength. Of my inspiration.”

I guess when I climbed up on that desk with the clapping campaign workers, it was for you. And as he spoke, I was sharing with the President of the United States of America confidence that in this life that stretches ahead of you, you’ll make a profound difference to others.  Perchance to the entire world.

Thanks again, Honey, for sending these exciting but quiet pictures, giving me a moment to steady myself before another day of this new administration’s chaos, mendacity, and sleaze — sadly a typical tomorrow in DC.

Lordy, lordy… wish me well. And one more wish: won’t you please grow up soon and save us.