<em>“You don’t want the truth because deep down in places you don’t talk about at parties, you want me on that wall! You need me on that wall!”</em>
— Jack Nicholson in “A Few Good Men”
It is not difficult to be enthralled by Thomas Jefferson. He was a man of boundless genius and sagacity. I have read three biographies of Jefferson, as well as countless television documentaries on America’s third president. No two readings of the man are completely alike. Nearly two centuries after his passing, we are no closer—and most likely never will be close—to understanding this enigmatic man.
On Jefferson’s tomb, which he designed, are listed three accomplishments. None of them was being President of the United States. I think I know why he left that off his epitaph. The reason, if I may be so bold as to try to think like Jefferson, is that it was during his presidency that he realized political idealism and political reality seldom occupy the same space.
Jefferson feared concentration of power. He bemoaned often that overreach was inevitable with centralized power. And yet, Jefferson helped set the standard by which all future commanders-in-chief would utilize that very same power which he loathed would come to fruition.
Just two examples of this were The Louisiana Purchase and the First Barbary War. In both cases, Jefferson had to come to terms with the reality of exercising executive power. In short, what you think you should do and what you have to do when in a position of extreme power are often in conflict with each other.
That is why Jefferson was not proud at his death to have been president. And that leads us to where we are now, with another philosopher living at the White House named Barack Obama.
President Obama has had a bad few weeks. His administration has looked weak, ignorant and unethical as the spring has lazily rolled by. He had to redefine his terrible misinterpretation of the Benghazi attack. He was compelled to opine why drone attacks on enemy targets are proper and necessary. He showed sincere, albeit ironic anger at the IRS for targeting right wing groups for what amounts to nothing less than political retribution. And most profoundly he and his chieftains are fighting daily to understand why so many Americans of various political opinions are outraged regarding overzealous domestic spying by various agencies directly under the control of the federal government—and, namely, the president.
The sugary platitudes and Forrest Gump-esque simplicity that we saw from Candidate Obama in 2008 has morphed into the Jack Nicholson-esque indignation of President Obama in 2013.
There are more than a few reasons why anyone who refers to the film “A Few Good Men” usually only mentions Jack Nicholson’s courtroom scene rant. Firstly, the rest of the film kinda sucks. Secondly, the speech he gives defends his methods regarding being the commander of a U.S. Marine base in Cuba. Nicholson’s character spews frothy contempt for those who question how a man, who literally could be shot at on a daily basis, conducts himself. It is amazing to watch and worthy of conversation. That is why that scene is repeated and quoted (such as I did for this column) ad nauseum.
President Obama now knows what those who came before him knew. Sitting on top of that wall, knowing guns are pointed at him and the country he loves and serves, he sees the things he criticized as an idealist liberal lawyer with an elite education are beyond one-dimensional definitions.
I am still waiting to hear more about the current spying scandal. The information we have now is very disturbing to me…so far. But there is a balance that must be struck between the government leaving citizens alone and the ways and means by which we obtain information that could prevent those very citizens from being blown up with a bomb planted on a train or inside a baseball park.
It is the thinnest of gray lines that must be walked. The NSA crossed that line. Those who did so should be taken to task. But the methods used to gain information cannot be diluted to the point of impotence. Two wrongs don’t make a right. They make for terrorist attacks.
It must be a frightful thing for the president to get his daily morning briefings. To see what America’s enemies are doing would make my morning orange juice taste bad. And to order military and intelligence officers into hostile areas where they can be killed just to find out if a terrorist cell is having a meeting would weigh on even the strongest mind.
The president must provide answers. He must call out and punish those who abuse their power. He must affirm civil liberties for every citizen. He must hold the intelligence community accountable for their reprehensible actions whilst simultaneously encouraging them to be aggressive in the implementation of their duties.
The thin gray line is always there.
America is a country of great wealth and promise. Those facts alone makes it easy for us to have enemies. What separates us from those who would indiscriminately kill us for who we are is a metaphorical wall. President Obama is atop that wall.
That wall is a lonely place to be. A place where those who love the liberties America provides have to come to terms with the chilling realities as to how to defend and preserve them.