Office of Citizen

Vanity Fair Magazine ran President Obama’s interview to the writer Doris Kearns Goodwin. It’s more an easy conversation than an interview, on decision-making, the change in the political environment over the last half century, and presidents past. 

Some bits caught my interest in how they contrasted with Indian political norms: 

– The idea of the ‘office of citizen’ ingrained in American democracy, that fundamentally the president is a citizen who has assumed office for a period, as opposed to a different class of human being, as many countries tend to treat their senior politicians. This is more significant when you consider that the American president is the head of state and the commander of the armed forces, not the seniormost administrator like a prime minister. This is an office where, during the course of an interview, a senior journalist like Goodwin can get in a line like ‘… I’m teasing you!’, a line that can still make it to print. 

– The political neutrality of presidents’ legacy after they remit office. Presidents are judged almost exclusively as an individual and an office holder; their political affiliation is just one attribute. This may be changing in very recent years, the most common example being appropriating Reagan as the forerunner of today’s extreme conservatism. However, most presidents have been examined, criticized, written about and learnt from across the political divide. There are no holy cows. This is remarkably egalitarian. It’s also an important factor in maintaining perspective; that the past wasn’t entirely better or worse than today, and that not one single individual was responsible for any phase in history. Politics and policy making is complex with enormous externalities, and viewing leaders of nations in that context is critical. India has mostly failed here.

– The idea of a presidential library, the idea of all presidential communication being archived and made available for the public, save classified information. The progression of the idea of public availability of presidential information is, to me, fascinating:  and doing a road trip of the US connecting the Presidential Libraries is something I’ve wanted to do for a long time now. 

I would also love for India to have this put in place as soon as possible. I can imagine the throng of historians, politicians, lawmakers, policymakers, publishers and bloggers at these centers (think libraries of the papers and correspondence and photographs of Vajpayee, Narasimha Rao, Modi) and what works they could produce out of this information.

– A hint of what Barack Obama’s post-presidential passion (currently) is: “creating a platform for the next generation of young leaders across disciplines to work together”, and what a wonderful thing that would be if it were done right; a variation of the United Nations where people that mattered met for the sole purpose of getting things done as opposed to a warren of bureaucrats periodically hosting leaders for displays of pomp and theatre, where driven people from science and engineering and philosophy and marketing and business and politics and the arts learnt, prioritized, traded, synthesized and solved issues that matter in the long term, require the application of multiple areas of human discipline and needed to be packaged & sold to the public.