The Eternal Sunshining of the Obama Mind

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Nine days after a gunman killed nine Black churchgoers at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, then-President Barack Obama spoke at the funeral of Rev. Clementa Pinckney, senior pastor at the church and a former member of the South Carolina state senate. (He had spent the last day of his life campaigning with Hillary Clinton.) The President was mournful, as stricken as the rest of the country, when he suddenly did something amazing: He began to sing.

It’s remarkable to watch. To see him hesitate, not certain he should really go for it, aware of how wrong it could go — the most powerful man in the world looking … nervous? And then he takes the plunge, and that week of grief found its catharsis. It was a profoundly moving moment. It was one of the most incredible things I’d ever seen a president do.

The Way I See It, a new documentary about White House photographer-turned-anti-Trump activist Pete Souza, features this moment prominently, and contrasts it, as Souza himself has consistently done both on social media and in his book Shade: A Tale of Two Presidents, with the empathy-free void currently residing in the White House. And what surprised me most about experiencing this moment again, a moment that caused me to weep openly when I watched it live in 2015, was that I had mostly forgotten about it. Seeing it again conjured up the memories, but it occurred to me that I hadn’t thought about that moment since … well, since November 2016. I hope you will forgive me this political amnesia. Like the rest of you, I’ve had a lot on my mind.

The whole documentary, which is currently playing in a limited number of theaters and will air on MSNBC on October 9, is like that: It feels a little bit like the Obama nomination film at a mythical 2020 Democratic Convention. Obama was not perfect, but the film sure treats him like he is, and when you compare the way he is captured by Souza’s camera with the way we see Donald Trump on a daily basis, you’ll be tempted to agree.

But what’s most striking about the film is how faded that history feels. It’s a little like watching an old ’90s television program, a sort of “Behind The Music: The Obama Years.” From the moment Barack Obama appeared at the 2004 Democratic Convention, speaking not of a blue America or a red America but a United States of America, he has been at the center of the American conversation, a transformative figure in American history. One of the reasons it was so exciting to be an Obama supporter—and this Illinois kid was entranced by him long before that 2004 DNC speech — was that every day was unprecedented, history written in real time. I truly believed that my children would someday ask me what it was like to be alive when Barack Obama was president.

It’s fair to say that, if they ever ask me what it was like to live through any particular president’s time in office, it won’t be Obama’s they’ll be most curious about. All of these moments that felt immortal during the Obama era now feel less urgent and powerful; they feel hazy, like fading memories of fonder days that are now long gone. Indulging in them, like in this movie, feels like hazy nostalgia, a way to look at the good old days, before … all this.

That’s the hardest part about watching The Way I See It: Knowing that moments like that eulogy in Charleston have become, because of what we’ve been through since Obama left office, less relevant. That incredible show of empathy and courage, a way to draw on our universal sense of compassion and shared loss, sure does lose some of its luster when you realize that the man who killed the Rev. Clementa Pinckney and eight other devout Christians has become, among many supporters of the current president, an actual cult hero. The Obama era was meant to be a shining example of the inexorable march of history toward justice, but when that era is followed by a man whose primary ideology is to destroy everything his predecessor accomplished, it feels erased. It feels like something that barely registers anymore. It feels like a gift from a beloved family member that a bully then smashed into a million pieces.

That might be what hurts the most. The current president set out to dismantle Obama’s entire legacy. He hasn’t been entirely successful in that, at least not nearly as successful as he wanted to be. But he has smeared those memories of Obama; he has made much of the progress we thought we were making look like a long-faded, half-remembered dream. Watching these clips, and The Way I See It, partly reminds me how hopeful and inspired they made me at the time, how I believed the world was going in the right direction, how I felt like, yeah, it was all going to be all right.

But mostly, I’m sad to say, watching them made me feel like that version of me was very young, very naive and very stupid. He truly had no idea what was coming.

Will Leitch will be writing multiple pieces a week for Medium. He lives in Athens, Georgia, with his family, and is the author of five books, including the upcoming novel “How Lucky,” released by Harper next May. He also writes a free weekly newsletter that you might enjoy.

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Writer, New York, NYT, MLB, WaPo, others. Founder, Deadspin. Author of four books, with fifth, “How Lucky,” coming May 2021.

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