“What am I building that lasts?” President Obama on legacy

President Obama told a great story about coming to understand the kind of legacy he could leave.

After he gave a speech in Cairo, the government flew him out for a private tour of the pyramids.

Seeing the pyramids in Egypt helped President Obama think about his legacy
Photo from History.com

Here’s how he explained it to historian Doris Kearns Goodwin in last month’s Vanity Fair:

“…you’re going to these tombs and looking at the hieroglyphics and imagining the civilization that built these iconic images. And I still remember it—because I hadn’t been president that long at that point—thinking to myself, There were a lot of people during the period when these pyramids were built who thought they were really important. And there was the equivalent of cable news and television and newspapers and Twitter and people anguishing over their relative popularity or position at any given time. And now it’s all just covered in dust and sand…”

It helped him find perspective for his presidency. That what ultimately matters is not what anyone says or thinks in the moment. That’s not the stuff of legacy. Obama said:

“What is relevant is: What am I building that lasts?

And here in the United States, hopefully, what we’re building are not just pyramids, are not icons to one pharaoh. What we’re building is a culture and a way of living together that we can look back on and say, [This] was good, was inclusive, was kind, was innovative, was able to fulfill the dreams of as many people as possible.”

The legacy of “good, inclusive, kind, innovative”

The president had his sit-down with Goodwin before the election, when the values of goodness, inclusivity, kindness, and innovation seemed as solidly rooted in our culture as the pyramids are in the sands of Egypt. At least they seemed that way to many of us. Which is why the tide of vitriol and hatred the election unleashed just gobsmacked us. (By “us” here I mean straight white people, or those of us who unknowingly pass as same.)

But in a world that may pull us to build “icons to one pharaoh,” let’s remember that these icons always fade and fall in time. And the “pharaohs” who seem so important today will become specks in the sands of history.

Ancient Egyptians may have built the pyramids to honor their leaders, but today they stand as testament to the strength of thousands of people—not enslaved people, but privileged workers—who together built something that lasted. (See this fascinating article from Harvard Magazine on the construction of the pyramids.)

The culture of goodness, inclusivity, kindness, etc. that President Obama mentioned can live on in our hearts, and in our individual actions. Looking at each other—as Gloria Steinem said in my post yesterday—rather than at the pharaoh, we can maintain what’s important to us.

Language is at the heart of that. So I’ll keep writing; you keep reading.

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