It’s presumptuous for a film critic to suggest what movie the President should see on any given weekend.
But the film I have in mind isn’t your average drama, and it packs a message President Barack Obama sorely needs to hear.
That’s why he should buy a ticket for Invictus — and take along a notepad.
The new film follows Nelson Mandela’s first days as president of a post-apartheid South Africa. One way the former political prisoner united a fractured nation was by supporting the country’s maligned rugby team. He also extended a hand to those who kept the apartheid system alive for so long.
It’s a story that’s ripe for the big screen, although director Clint Eastwood’s superficial handling of the material dilutes its power.
But my recommendation has little to do with the film’s quality or the fact that Morgan Freeman recreates Mandela’s grace with stunning precision.
No, it’s the South African leader’s ability to bring people together which Obama should heed.
Mandela inherited a country reeling from the horrors of segregation, but he convinced his fellow South Africans to embrace forgiveness, not revenge. Obama, the so-called post-partisan, post-racial president, inherited a nation suffering from far less serious divisions but still managed to make matters worse.
Mandela wasn’t the eloquent spokesman Obama is, but when it came time to administer his brand of hope and change he delivered. Only ideologues with Kool-Aid stained lips could argue Obama has lived up to his pre-election promises of a less partisan administration.
It’s unreasonable to expect Obama, or any modern leader, to duplicate Mandela’s achievements. Yet Mandela proved you could lead while forging alliances with old foes. Obama, for his part, keeps pouring gasoline on the flames of discontent.
Just days ago he implored Republicans to “stop trying to frighten the American people.”
Invictus recalls how Mandela’s leadership and quiet dignity convinced his followers to move the country forward. It would have been far easier for him to punish those who helped keep the apartheid system intact, or at least enjoy some payback for years of degradation.
Few would have blamed him.
Instead, he retained some of the outgoing president’s staff and instructed his own inner circle to treat them with respect.
Mandela’s decision to back Springboks, the country’s underachieving rugby team, proved a critical decision in hindsight. The aged leader could have done the equivalent of voting present — letting citizens change the team’s name and trademark colors since it reminded many of the old guard at work. Instead, he saw the squad as a symbol of redemption, a chance to use sports for the national good.
Obama, by comparison, has shown an affinity for targeting his opponents without mercy.
First it was Rush Limbaugh, the gifted but hyper-partisan broadcaster singled out by the commander in chief. Then Obama stayed mostly silent while key figures of his party called those who protested the president’s policies “Nazis“ and “evil mongers.”
Fox News, one of the few news outlets to hold the administration accountable for its actions, felt the administration’s wrath next.
Worst of all, Obama can’t let go of old grudges. In speech after speech, Obama petulantly blames the previous White House occupant for the challenges his administration currently faces. His talk at the Brookings Institution earlier this month was a textbook example of blaming his opponents — even if the facts didn’t line up with his rhetoric.
Mandela, now in his early 90s, must be watching news reports of Obama’s actions and shaking his head ruefully.
Obama made a few conciliatory gestures toward the other side of the aisle early in his presidency, like nominating Sen. Judd Gregg as his commerce secretary before the New Hampshire Republican declined the offer.
Yet while Obama wisely dismissed talk that his opposition is fueled by racism, he let a gaggle of his acolytes, including former President Jimmy Carter, play the race card with alacrity.
They’re still playing it. Just ask Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.
Now is the time for Obama to make an important speech on race, not after Rev. Jeremiah Wright threatened to sink his campaign last year.
Obama’s inability to bring people together is being reflected in the polls.
A new Gallup poll shows fewer than four in 10 whites approve of the way he’s handling the presidency, even though Obama drew a rainbow coalition of supporters only a year ago.
But Obama can still benefit from Mandela’s political playbook. Obama won the presidency, in large part because he promised an end to partisan bickering. Voters were exhausted by eight years of Bush bashing, no matter how they felt about the former president.
We’re not Democrats or Republicans, Obama reminded us. We’re Americans. And enough voters desperately wanted to believe him. It‘s a safe bet they still do, and America remains a forgiving nation to its core.
What better time for Obama to see Invictus and consider the lessons Mandela taught his fellow countrymen?