Looking for greatness in small gestures

Looking for greatness in small gestures

When leaders write their memoirs, it is the finer points that remain

If I had blinked, I would have missed the gesture. The crowd in the East Room of the White House grew more hushed, as it became clear that U.S. President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh would be coming out any minute now. The room had an equal mix of officials and journalists, both Indian and American, waiting to record their initial remarks of the visit, which was the first state visit the Obamas had hosted since Mr. Obama’s swearing-in that year (2009).

I found myself jostled into a corner that would allow me to see only the backs of the leaders when they came out, and resigned myself to getting no great pictures. But what I saw instead gave me a glimpse of the small gestures that go into being great. As Mr. Obama finished speaking, he stepped back to make way for Dr. Singh, but not before putting out one shoe, and neatly pulling out a footstool that would allow the considerably shorter Prime Minister Singh to stand at the podium with the mike at the right height for him. The move was done with respect and a smile for Dr. Singh, and it showed a leader not unwilling to carry out a task normally handed to staff or security officers.

I covered Mr. Obama a few more times after that, during 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 that small gesture is the first thing that comes to mind.

In a similar way, when leaders write their post-retirement memoirs, it is the small details that remain. The focus of most readers of Mr. Obama’s memoir, A Promised Land, released this week are on his presidential decisions, and political summits with various world leaders. But the best bits in any leader’s autobiography are often the human stories that flesh out a character more than the cut-out figures we see addressing the media, giving grand speeches or signing major agreements.

In Mr. Obama’s book for example, it is his brutal honesty about Michelle Obama’s distaste for politics, and his description of the tensions over his decision to run for office, that make the book relatable. His relationship with his daughters, who he fears are growing up too fast, or moments with his dogs; the mementos Mr. Obama holds most dear (a magazine cover of the Selma March, a brick out of Lincoln’s legal office, a pair of Muhammad Ali’s boxing gloves); or the ordinary emotions like fear and nervousness he feels when taking major decisions on the campaign trail, the invasion of Libya, or ordering the raid that killed Osama bin Laden make the experiences memorable.

The President himself ends an account of his visit to the pyramids in Egypt just after his famous Cairo address, where he finds a rock carving of a man with big ears “like handles” quite like his own.

Comparing his plight to those of the Pharaohs, Mr. Obama recounts how the ruins made him realise the impermanence of his actions.

“Just as every speech I’d delivered, every law I passed and decision I made would soon be forgotten. Just as I and all those I loved would someday turn to dust,” he writes.

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