Barack Obama has spoken at length about the anguish he sometimes feels when he considers how his political career takes him away from time he would otherwise spend with his two girls, Malia (9), and Sasha (6).
I can hardly imagine how painful it must be to lose so many opportunities to witness and participate in your children's development. When do our responsiblities to our careers, to the world outside, outweigh our responsiblities to our own family?
I happen to admire Obama greatly. I have read both of his books, Dreams from My Father and The Audacity of Hope. I consider him a brilliant, searching, driven, caring man, as well as pretty much the ideal candidate for President.
All that said, I find it difficult to understand how he could leave his children so often.
I find it hard to imagine leaving my kids even for a weekend.
But I suppose that it is a question of the possible influence that you can wield.
In the cost-benefit analysis for Obama, the benefits (leading the nation from the White House in a time of global terror; changing the American narrative of race forever) are far greater than they are for me. And our costs (time lost with our children) are the same. The little brass weights on the "benefits" side of his scales are simply heavier than mine.
The quick conclusion to draw from this is that I should get a life, maybe run for office somewhere, anywhere!
But another way of looking at it is this: How sad for Obama that this great responsiblity, drawing him away from his private life and the presence of his loved ones, has become unavoidable for him.
Perhaps, as a person who has shown a commitment to thinking carefully about consequences, he feels he has no choice. Certainly his public service is something to be praised.
But cannot we also feel sorry for him?
Thinking along these lines I find myself suddenly aware of the strange undercurrent of sadness that flows through gatherings of politicians. Take any debate -- scan the faces of Guiliani, Romney, McCain, Brownback, or Clinton, Edwards, Obama, Gravel, Biden. Or a press conference on Capitol Hill -- Reid, Pelosi, McConnell, Graham, Kennedy, Stevens. Isn't there a palpable sense of loss amid all of the urgency, the clarion calls to action, the passion? These people are driven to fulfill what they see as their responsiblity; they carry on their shoulders the burden of power. Most have actively sought it; for some, it arrived through a chain of events only partly of their choosing. But whatever the history, they are now in a position in which their private lives are severely diminished. And public concerns dominate their waking lives.
This of course goes back to any chapter in the life of our republic. Jefferson famously complained about spending any time away from his home in Monticello. Lincoln wept openly and trembled as he stood speaking to his friends and neighbors on the morning he left Springfield for Washington D.C. Even our current G. W. Bush (a hard man to sympathize with, but I'm trying to be inclusive) gets a jauntier step when he's back in Crawford.
Those whom we ask to lead must lose something that we take for granted: home. For those who, like Obama, cherish the intimacy they have with their loved ones, it must be nearly unbearable at times. For those who don't, I imagine that, sometimes imperceptively, they cross over into a life that is permanently public -- and unmoored from the deepest kind of attachments.
Maybe the pained expression that appear sometimes on Obama's face when he is on the campain trail, or the lines that became deeply etched in Lincoln's cheeks and brow as he drew apart from Mary and his sons (and lost Willie) during his time in the White House -- maybe these signs are the best indication we have that a leader is still psychologically whole.
Maybe great leaders are always sad.