What Obama Can Learn at the Martin Luther King Memorial

Obama should look to the memorials of Martin Luther King, Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Delano Roosevelt for examples of grace under pressure.

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While the president is hanging out—or hiding out—on Martha's Vineyard sands and greens, he's missing a chance for spiritual solace right here in Washington, where he could commune with the spirits and memorial spaces of Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Delano Roosevelt and—yes!—the new sculptural arrival on the National Mall: Martin Luther King, Jr.

Have you heard? Looking for some happy news, I went yesterday with the first wave of Americans to view and walk through the King memorial, with so many profound quotations etched into the curving marble wall that it was like walking through twists and turns of the civil rights leader's mind and life experiences. His Nobel Peace Laureate speech, dated 1964 in Norway, was quoted along with lines written in a Letter From a Birmingham Jail. "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere," is one of his most powerful insights to me. So is the idea that peace is more than the absence of war. Peace requires effort, imagination, and good will in a sea of troubled humanity. A sense of wonder and quiet joy pervaded the site in crystal clear light, as black and white visitors took it all in. A 55-year-old African-American woman, Cynthia Gibbs, told me a tale from her South Carolina girlhood. "The man is dead," her grandfather told her. Four words. A Wisconsin girl, I had wept at the news.

King was slain in April 1968 when Obama and I were among young children who remember the tears shed in our homes. There is no greater inspiration if you are looking for courage to lead your friends and confront your enemies in the eye—on marches, at sit-ins, in schoolhouse doors, wherever ugly Jim Crow dwelled across the South. Actually, Chicago was one of the cities King found most resistant to breaking up racial segregation. King never flinched in the face of his enemies, yet he remained a prophet and practitioner of nonviolent resistance through the turbulent 1960s, during which he opposed the Vietnam War early—as the memorial reminds us. He was no single-issue Southern Baptist preacher. Jobs and economic justice were also part of his agenda. [See a collection of political cartoons on the economy.]

In a dazzling panorama that feels like the nation's album opening to reveal the rhyme of history, the King Memorial is a short walk from the Lincoln temple of remembrance—where King gave his visionary, haunting speech, "I Have a Dream," on Aug. 28, 1963, at the March on Washington. This Sunday, 48 years later, the King memorial will be dedicated and the president is scheduled to be there.

Obama, the public man, serves up speeches that capture majestic moods on a large canvas of humanity. But surely a "fierce urgency,"(in King's words) is afoot now for more than soaring language. Soul-searching is in order for a president who has lately lost a lot of public and party confidence. Obama might leave his Vineyard retreat early to soak in the wisdom of two American presidents and one prophet to stiffen his resolve in the coming months. He needs to spend more time with his friends—they're called Democrats. He also needs to know he has serious enemies among Republicans leaders that he can't charm with a golf game or a beaming smile. House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell are Obama's crosses to bear—his Southern sheriffs akin to Alabama's Bull Connor who turned fire hoses and police dogs on civil rights marchers. After a summer of setbacks, notably on a bad debt ceiling limit deal, Obama shouldn't speak lightly of GOP leaders or the Tea Party House freshmen as "folks." Sorry, we're not living the dream yet.

So I suggest Obama take a walk on his own to the Lincoln and King memorials—and while he's in the cherry blossomed Tidal Basin area, pay his respects to the FDR memorial. Roosevelt is really the most relevant president to Obama's predicament now, faced as he is with leading a nation demoralized by joblessness. Roosevelt condemned excessive profiteering byWall Street plutocrats and declared with relish, "I welcome their hatred." As for Lincoln, he combined poetic prose with stark actions to inflict maximum punishment on the Confederacy throughout the Civil War. He was tough as nails under his informal story-telling demeanor, contrary to dewy portraits. Lincoln generally didn't start fights, but he never lost one throughout his prairie boyhood, adulthood, and presidency. [Vote now: Who won the debt ceiling standoff?]

King has this in common with Lincoln and FDR: he inspired respect in his foes, at the very least. None were underestimated for long, because all were extremely determined and creative about prevailing one way or the other. King was a man of peace, while Lincoln and FDR won the most arduous wars of our history. Despite this contrast, all three major figures were superb at meeting conflict and looking it in the eye.

It's a strange lesson to learn so late, but Obama has to accept his charisma has limits; not everyone wishes him well. If he takes his historical friends to heart, Obama the president will show more grace and steel under pressure.

In a word, courage.

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