In search of greatness in small gestures
If I had blinked, I would have missed the gesture. The crowd in the East Room of the White House fell silent, as it became clear that US President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh would be stepping out at any moment. The room had an even mix of officials and reporters, Indian and American, waiting to record their initial remarks on the visit, which was the first state visit the Obamas had hosted since Mr. Obama was sworn in this year. there (2009).
I found myself jostled in a corner that would only allow me to see the backs of the leaders when they left, and I resigned myself not to take good pictures. But what I saw instead gave me a glimpse of the small gestures that make greatness. As Mr. Obama finished speaking, he stepped back to make way for Dr. Singh, but not before pulling out a shoe and carefully removing a footrest that would allow the much smaller Prime Minister Singh to stand on. the podium with the microphone at the right height for him. The gesture was made with respect and a smile for Dr Singh, and it showed a leader who did not refuse to perform a task normally given to staff or security guards.
Pictures | Obama rolls out the red carpet for Manmohan
I have covered Mr. Obama several times since, in subsequent visits to Washington by Prime Minister Singh (2013) and Prime Minister Narendra Modi (2014), and two visits to India by President Obama (2010 and 2015), but this little gesture is the first thing that comes to my mind.
Likewise, when leaders write their post-retirement briefs, it’s the little details that remain. The object of most readers of Mr. Obama’s memoirs, A promised land, published this week are on his presidential decisions, and political summits with various world leaders. But the best parts of a leader’s autobiography are often the human stories that flesh out a character more than the cut-out figures we see speaking to the media, making big speeches, or signing major deals.
In Mr. Obama’s book, for example, it’s her blunt honesty about Michelle Obama’s dislike of politics, and her description of the tensions surrounding her decision to run for office, that makes the book relevant. His relationships with his daughters, whom he fears that they will grow up too quickly, or his moments with his dogs; Mr. Obama’s fondest memories (a Selma March magazine cover, a brick from Lincoln’s legal office, a pair of Muhammad Ali’s boxing gloves); or ordinary emotions like the fear and nervousness he feels when making important decisions about the election campaign, the invasion of Libya or the raid order that killed Osama bin Laden make the experiences memorable.
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The president himself ends the account of his visit to the pyramids in Egypt just after his famous speech in Cairo, where he finds a rock carving of a man with large ears “like handles” quite similar to his own.
Comparing his fate to that of the Pharaohs, Mr. Obama tells how the ruins made him realize the impermanence of his actions.
“Like every speech I made, every law I passed and every decision I made would soon be forgotten. Just like me and everyone I loved would one day turn to dust, ”he writes.