Sunday, November 15, 2009

The First Pacific President

The longer I live, the harder it seems to be to anticipate what people will get worked up about next.

Sometimes it isn't hard to guess. A good example is the attack at Fort Hood, Texas. It comes as no surprise to me that, in the aftermath of that event, people are discussing the red flags that always seem to be so abundant in hindsight.

Many years ago, this was called "going postal." I can't tell you how many times I have seen news reports about a tragedy that is similar to this one in which former co–workers and neighbors seem shocked — and then someone says something like, "You know, he wasn't quite the same after [pick a traumatic event]."

It is, perhaps, an unfortunate coincidence that, while the people at Fort Hood were honoring the memories of their fallen colleagues, news reports included the plans to hold the trial for 9/11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed in New York, only a few city blocks from the site where the World Trade Center once stood.

Those seem to be the high–profile topics these days, although some journalists, like Bob Herbert of the New York Times, write that "it's fair to wonder why the president and his party have not been focused like fanatics on job creation from the first day he took office."

I think it's reasonable to ask that — and I have, frequently. Perhaps Mr. Herbert, being black, won't be accused of racism for wondering that, as I have.

In my opinion, the topics of employment and war and peace are always legitimate subjects for discussion. But sometimes there are topics that take center stage that I find bewildering.

Like Michael Scherer's item in his blog for TIME in which he takes Barack Obama to task for calling himself the "first Pacific president."

Scherer said he felt "obligated to object" to that assertion because of his California roots. He went on to point out that "two of our recent presidents" — Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon— won statewide elections in California before being elected president.

The coast of California, of course, sits on the Pacific Ocean — as do the coasts of Oregon, Washington and Alaska. But many of Scherer's readers appeared to interpret Obama's remarks as referring to Pacific islands — presumably because he delivered his remarks in Tokyo.

But also because he spent his formative years in Hawaii and Indonesia.

This apparently strikes some readers as a case of splitting hairs, although many seem guilty of the same thing in their responses. I read comments that implied that Obama was referring to Pacific islands, not nations. One reader wrote, "i completely knew what he meant. the 'pacific' is the islands. california isn't in the pacific, it's on the west coast."

I must say that I often wonder how such people reach the conclusions they do.

If they had bothered to read the text of Obama's remarks, they would have found that he spoke repeatedly of America's alliance with Japan. The word "island" never appeared in the approximately 4,300–word statement, but very early on, Obama said, "The United States of America may have started as a series of ports and cities along the Atlantic, but for generations we also have been a nation of the Pacific."

The phrase "Pacific president" appears only once — at the end.

In that context, Obama spoke of "America's agenda." And he spoke of himself as America's first Pacific president — not the first Pacific islands president of America.

His remarks clearly labeled America as a Pacific nation.
"This is America's agenda. This is the purpose of our partnership — with Japan, and with the nations and peoples of this region. And there must be no doubt: as America's first Pacific President, I promise you that this Pacific nation will strengthen and sustain our leadership in this vitally important part of the world."

Let's see. Early in the statement, he told his listeners that America had considered itself a Pacific nation for generations. Based on the text of the statement, I got the impression he was speaking of nations that touch the Pacific and are, therefore, part of the Pacific region. Hawaii is the only state that is surrounded by the Pacific, but I would argue that the phrase "for generations" (plural, therefore two or more) would suggest that Obama was saying America looked upon itself as a Pacific nation before Hawaii became a state 50 years ago.

And the states on America's west coast have been part of the United States for a long time — California was admitted in 1850, Oregon was admitted in 1859 and Washington was admitted 1889. That's a century and a half of being a Pacific nation.

And if having those states in the Union made the United States a bona fide member of the Pacific region's nations, any president with connections to one or all of the states on the Pacific coast would qualify as a "Pacific president." Because those states formed the nation's physical link to the Pacific Ocean.

That would include Reagan and Nixon. It could even include Herbert Hoover, who was born in Iowa but attended college at Stanford University in California and was a registered voter in the state as an adult.

"For generations" could mean only two generations — it is a vague phrase — but I found nothing in the statement that made me think Obama was limiting his remarks to a period that is only slightly longer than his own lifetime. Some people, like the reader I quoted, will insist that they know what Obama meant.

The problem with that is, he didn't say it.

No comments: