In my short twenty-seven-year life, I have had the great fortune of meeting six U.S. presidents. The circumstances around each encounter were all different, as was the age and season of life I was in when each meeting took place. In each case, I have tried to learn something from them.
These six men couldn’t be any more different from one another: six distinct personalities, styles, and histories. Encountering someone face-to-face is a radically different experience from only knowing them through the filter of distance. Each of these men were human —asked to perform an almost inhuman job. Each of these men were at one time boys with mothers, grandparents, homework assignments, and pets. An easy thing to forget through the filter of screen, distance, and sound bite.
Jimmy Carter was a gentle ambassador of peace; Barack Obama was as eloquent off camera as he is on; Bill Clinton was easy to like and had a way of making you feel truly “seen.” George H.W. Bush was dignified but soft spoken; George W. Bush was down-to-earth and warm with a very generous and kind spirit; Donald Trump was forceful, physically imposing, and had a way of capturing one’s full attention.
In a few of these circumstances, I was in the presence of someone whose politics I do not share. In some cases, strongly so. But in each meeting, regardless of party, politics, or their vision for the country, I cried. Of course this isn’t a surprise for someone who feels things deeply and expresses their heart openly. But regardless of how much I might disapprove of someone’s vision for our republic, their presence moved me, and profoundly so.
This is not just something I’ve experienced with American presidents. Last year I crossed paths with the president-elect of Mexico, Andreas Manuel Lopez Obrador, at the Tijuana airport, and had a chance to briefly speak with him. While I was not born in Mexico, it is a country that I hold residence in and will one day soon be a citizen of. Seeing him and speaking to him, moved me. Profoundly.
I’ve realized that my bipartisan and bi-national weeping has nothing to do with politics and everything to do with hope.
When I look at Donald Trump, or Barack Obama, or Andreas Manuel Lopez Obrador, I don’t see them, per se. What I see are the millions of people who voted for them. I see the faces of people who put their hope and trust in them. I see the faces of people I love. I also see the faces of those who didn’t vote for them. And I see the faces of all the people who make up these great republics — people who are trying to chart the course of our futures together.
I pray that every woman or man who holds this office can see what I try to see when I look at them. I hope they see the 60, 70, 80 million faces that said a silent prayer and filled in a bubble next to their name. I hope that when our current President touts his Electoral College victory—as he often likes to do—that he follows that up with a “and this is why” statement. “I got 304 electoral votes,” he often says. But I would pray that he follow that statement up with, “And this is why I have a great responsibility to conduct myself with honor, integrity, and mindfulness.”
Of course, what one should do and what one ends up doing are radically different things. I just wish that our current President would see himself the way I see him. I wonder if it would make him pause, rethink things, and be different. I represent a religion that proclaims that redemption and goodness are accessible to all. I never lose hope of that.
You see, I don’t cry before heads of state because of them. I do so because I love people. And heads of state are heads of state in democracies because the people made them so. People I am called to love. People who are broken, blessed, sinners and saints simultaneously. People who are blessed beyond imagining. People created in the image of the living God. I pray that we choose leaders who each day think about what this means — who remember the single mom, the new citizen, who is a first time voter and immigrant, the caregiver spouse, the voter who rushed out of work to make it to the polls on time, the 18-year-old first time voter, the scared new small business owner, and the newly diagnosed who all darken a small circle next to a name with the hope of something more.
A good leader will be haunted by this every day. May we work to make that so.
Rev. Tim Seery is pastor of The Congregational Church of La Jolla, which is part of the United Church of Christ.