If you want to understand the mystery that lurks behind that grand title "President of the United States," a good place to start might be the classic 1939 film The Wizard of Oz. In the pivotal scene, Dorothy and her friends are cowering before the terrifying image of "the Great Oz" when Dorothy's little dog, Toto, scurries to a corner of the room and pulls back a curtain, revealing a man pulling levers and spinning wheels.
"Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain," the Great Oz thunders. But the jig is up. Oz stands exposed as an ordinary mortal, using smoke and mirrors to transform his puny self into something larger than life.
"You're a very bad man," fumes Dorothy, to which the chastened Wizard replies, "No, my dear, I'm a good man - I'm just a very bad wizard."
When Dorothy threatens to tell the Munchkins their Wizard is a fraud, he becomes flustered: "No, no, you must not do that; they need to believe in me." He was simply stating the obvious: People must have myths to live by, and we must be careful not to casually destroy those myths with brutal truth.
There you have it: Most presidents aren't bad men; they're just bad wizards.
In times like these, times of difficulty and peril, an anxious people clamor for leaders - men and women who can guide and protect and inspire the nation. The elements of the leadership they seek are really not all that complicated: vision, courage, tenacity and an ability to inspire hope and confidence. But no matter how great or small their powers, at the end of the day, our presidents are ordinary mortals whom we expect to perform extraordinary miracles. The wonder is not that they so often falter, but that they occasionally succeed and even rise to greatness.
The Italian philosopher Antonio Gramsci spoke of "the pessimism of the intellect; the optimism of the will." Surely no one grasps the truth in those words more clearly than the man with the improbable name of Barack Hussein Obama. The new president must know that his success or failure will hinge on the degree to which he can summon the confidence of the people that he has the determination to prevail, no matter how bleak the outlook, how daunting the odds, how terrifying the imminent peril.
Ray Jenkins is a retired Evening Sun editor and former aide to President Jimmy Carter. His e-mail is email@example.com.