Dear President Obama,
(I’m still quite tickled to be able to type that, by the way.) Congratulations on your election, and on your inauguration, which drew, by some accounts, one of the largest crowds of humans ever assembled in one place in human history. If you had thrown up a bunch of speakers, whipped out a set of Technics turntables and started spinning drum ‘n’ bass, you could have totally re-enacted the rave scene from the second Matrix movie, except, y’know, actually cool.
But I digress.
I’m writing you because I have some concerns. “Already?!?” I hear you saying. “Good God, Ellis, I’ve been President for less than a week! What do you want from me, guy?” I know. I’m sorry. You’re new at the office and you haven’t got your bearings yet and I can totally dig that. As an avid reader of my website, Zenarchery — which I’m sure you are, as a sophisticated man of taste — you’ll know that I am one of the shareholders who totally supported your ascendancy. So I hope you’ll take this as what it is — a concern, not a criticism.
Namely, my concern is this: last week, as you were barely setting up your desk gadgets and programming the White House’s office sound system with your favorite jams and presumably installing your GTD productivity apps on your new desktop Mac (well played, there, sir), you held up your predecessor’s request to set aside a ruling by a federal judge that a document obtained by illegal wiretapping in a terrorism case should not be admissable as evidence. I’m sure you’re familiar with the case, but if not, hit that link and check it out.
Now, you are a lawyer and far be it from me to try and school you on legal matters, but even I know that wiretapping American citizens without a warrant is grossly illegal. Beyond the violation of the letter of the law, it also contravenes the spirit of the American Constitution, which is as close to an operational manual as our country has ever gotten. Doing it — even for the best of reasons, even to save lives — is a gross violation of everything that America means.
As a lawyer — as a former Senator, and as President of the United States — you know this, of course. I’m not trying to educate you, which would fall decidedly under the category of teaching one’s grandmother to steal sheep. What I hope to do is persuade you that you cannot let this one slip.
The last eight years have been a nightmare for Americans. Your predecessor, George W. Bush, was the worst president this country has ever had. He was, in fact, an utter imbecile, and in a just world he would have spent his life being displayed for money in street fairs, rather than taking the reins as leader of the most powerful nation on Earth. I have seen lab rats that were more competent at finding cheese in a maze whilst under the effects of psychotropic drugs than George W. Bush was at being president.
You know it, I know it, Joe Biden knows it, Joe the Plumber knows it, Simon Cowell’s personal assistant knows it, the guy who sells tractor tires out of the back of his F-150 in the parking lot of the Flying J Truckstop outside of Preacher’s Corners, Nebraska knows it. Small children playing football with a half-deflated soccerball in the narrow byways of the favelas of Rio know it. People in the village where your father came from, in Kenya, know it. Emperor penguins, floating on rapidly shrinking bits of ice in the rapidly warming waters of the Antarctic, know who is responsible for their fate and curse his name and his vicious redneck ways in their clacking language. The entire world knows that George W. Bush is, for lack of a better description, teh suck.
This is not merely because he was a stupid, venal, incompetent man. It’s not just because his idea of diplomacy looked like a bunch of beer-drunk rednecks trying to pick a fight outside a strip club in the suburbs of Houston. Nor is it simply because his handling of American economic policy showed the same level of financial responsibility, long-term planning and understanding of the larger market issues that you might have gotten from, say, a half-dead wolverine that had been nailed to the corpse of Kenneth Lay and propped up at a shareholder’s meeting, Weekend At Bernie’s-style.
These are all, certainly, mitigating factors. But the worst — the very worst — thing about George W. Bush was that he seemed to regard the Constitution and the Bill of Rights as only being useful when the White House staff forgot to supply the West Wing with toilet paper.
But in our darkest hour — when it seemed like that semi-literate jugheaded cracker was never going to quit lighting firecrackers under the feet of Lady Liberty — you came along, President Obama.
I don’t know if I can make you understand the real despair that I’ve felt, looking at America for the past eight years. It is not theoretical despair, it is not an intellectual exercise. I have wept, at times, at the indignities and atrocities perpetrated by the Bush administration in the name of the American people, of which I am one. I have been ashamed and I have been angry and I have been held powerless to do anything other than shout into the wind…which I have done, long and loud, though I doubt I’ll ever know if it did any good at all.
You, Mr. President, are a beacon of hope for people like me: people who believe in America but despise what has been done in her name; who believe that, for all their flaws, our founding fathers, the framers of the Constitution, genuinely wanted to build a country whose entire raison d’etre was the idea that humans could throw off the heavy weight of history and teach themselves to be free. You are a beacon because I believe, like so many of my friends and family and fellow countrymen, that you believe this too.
And because of this, I beg of you: do not let this decision stand. Do not begin your presidency by following in your predecessor’s footsteps. You have in so many other ways and so very quickly already begun the work of undoing his bad and shameful acts. Undo this one.
If you look through the preamble to the Constitution — surely one of the most remarkable ideas ever put to paper by our species — you will find a good deal of talk about liberty and freedom and the rights of the people. You will find nothing at all about trading those rights and freedoms and liberty for any measure of security. Nowhere does it say that Americans should or will forgo their right to due process because they are afraid of being attacked by outside forces.
In times like these it is hard to know what is right, when we are afraid for ourselves and our families and our people. This is not our first crisis, and it will not be our last. In such times, when looking for guidance, we have that Constitution to serve us. It is part of the oath you took last week to defend the Constitution, by which is meant that you ought to defend the rights and responsibilities that the Constitution places upon every man, woman and child in this nation. All other considerations — economic, security — are secondary.
Is this case a small thing, in the grand scheme of things? Perhaps. But it is no less worthy of your full consideration because of that. Small decisions have large consequences: the decisions you make now, in your first days as leader of this nation, provide precedence not only for your own term of office, but for generations to come.
And so I ask you, Mr. President, to re-consider your decision on this matter, to weigh the full facts, and to make your decision with the same great commitment to the Constitution and transparency in government that you have already shown in such a short time. It is the right and honorable thing to do; and right now, our nation needs her ragged honor more than anything else. To paraphrase a great writer: be one of the good guys, Mr. President, because there’s way too many of the bad.
I believe in you, and trust that you will do the right thing.
I hope this letter finds you well, and bearing up under the heavy pressures of your new job. Like all Americans, I sometimes believe I could do your job better than any of the men who have done it before; like most Americans, I have neither the strength of will nor the capability to ever find out.
Cheers, Joshua Ellis
(A copy of this has been posted to my website, http://zenarchery.wpengine.com.)