What do you see in a game of spades?
Or to be more specific, in 15 of them. Or even more specific than that, in 15 games of spades played by President Obama during the Navy SEAL operation that took the life of Osama Bin Laden.
As soon as the news surfaced that Obama spent much of the time during the operation playing cards—while still receiving constant updates, it should be noted—a conservative acquaintance triumphantly posted on Facebook, claiming this story as proof that Obama is merely an empty suit who deserves little to no credit for Bin Laden’s death.
And, when placed in contrast with the famous picture of that night—the stone-faced president in the crowded situation room watching as the SEALs stormed Bin Laden’s compound—the idea of Obama arching an eyebrow before throwing down a Big Joker and setting the other team seems a touch out of place.
I’m sure Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck and that noxious tub of congealed fart gas known as Rush Limbaugh will try to make ideological hay out of the anecdote, and, for a number of Americans, they’ll probably find traction. For some, the story will resonate simply because it involves a black dude playing spades. For those with (slightly) less hidebound minds, it will resonate because it speaks to a betrayal of what many perceive as the president’s role during important moments.
We, as a culture, are conditioned by Hollywood and television to think of special forces operations as fast and lethal, possibly accompanied by a bitchin’ soundtrack, while the commander-in-chief character watches the entire thing unfold from beginning to end. The idea of the POTUS taking a spades break seems almost offensive, in that construction. Thing is, real life is a stubborn beast that rarely matches up with Hollywood depiction.
The reality of special forces operations is similar to the reality of combat in general: hours of mind-numbing boredom punctuated by seconds of absolute chaos and terror. In the case of the Bin Laden raid, which lasted a total of 220 minutes, around three hours consisted of travel time to and from the compound, when the only thing coming over the comms would have been heading and altitude adjustments.
During that time, the president would have contributed approximately zilch by remaining in the room, and really, when it comes to an operation like the one that killed Bin Laden, the president’s only real tasks are making the final decision whether to go ahead with the mission and then telling the American people about it afterwards. Sometimes that second task is triumphant, as was the case with Obama. Other times—Kennedy’s speech explaining the Bay of Pigs fiasco, for example—not so much.
But as to the first task, the president needs two things: the best available information and a cool head. In times of great moment, I don’t really want the president sitting on pins and needles, staring at a dot crawling along a flight path like the progress bar of a slow download, with nothing to do but imagine the disaster he’ll be faced with if things go south.
I’d much rather he spend that time keeping himself occupied and relaxed, so when it comes time to play his role, he is in the best possible state to do it. Whether that involves playing spades or prayer circles or whatever the case may be, I’m all for it.
It’s time we stopped asking our leaders to perform according to expectations crafted by Hollywood and the infotainment-based media, and focus on how effective they are at their jobs. By that metric, the Bin Laden raid—and President Obama’s role in it—remains a success, despite the fact that Obama didn’t spend the entire time glowering at the satellite feed.
This is the part where I must insert the obligatory disclaimer that I have my criticisms of the Obama administration (short list: disturbing embrace of police state powers, lack of solid public works initiatives, and a disappointing willingness to dance to Wall Street’s tune). However, one thing I have respected about the guy from the beginning was his willingness to puncture the bubble most candidates create around themselves, both with his books and his willingness to be candid during interviews.
So, from the jump, we knew about his smoking (pot when he was younger, cigarettes now), we knew about his internal issues with his father, and a whole host of other personal, human details; the kind of things most candidates (and presidents) keep close to vest until long after they’ve left office.
To a large degree, this was political savvy on Obama’s part, both in his recognition that the Internet Age demands a greater degree of openness from candidates and his perception that there is a demand among the electorate for politicians who allow themselves to come across as human beings, instead of focus-grouped automatons.
But he still deserves credit for letting the people get a more realistic glimpse of both his background and his presidency. What the people will do with it remains to be seen.