I don’t know whether you caught this in our July 20 issue. In case you didn’t, allow me to call it to your attention.
Last month, while copy-editing attorney Ethan Okura’s Estate Planning Insights column, which he titled “An Ethical Will,” I came across this paragraph: “Historically, an ethical will stems from early Judeo-Christian traditions. There are examples of them in the Bible and have continued as a practice to this day, especially in the Jewish community. A nonreligious modern example was former President Barack Obama’s legacy letter to his daughters, dated Jan. 18, 2009, the eve of his inauguration as president.”
Hmmm . . . What is this “legacy letter” that President Obama wrote to his daughters, I wondered. So I Googled it. What I found reaffirmed my faith in the goodness of people and in the commitment of one man to instill in his children a simple message: We are our brother’s and sister’s keepers. We have a responsibility to make the world a better place for those who will follow us.
I’ll admit it: I miss the Obama presidency. I try to resist pining for our keiki o ka ‘äina president, who, I think, took to the White House some of the values he inhaled while growing up in Hawai‘i that became part of his identity as a man and as a national and world leader. He wasn’t perfect, but I will always be grateful for the humanity and dignity — and yes, good humor — he brought to the Oval Office. At his core, I think he truly believed in what he wrote to his daughters.
But you don’t have to be an Obama fan to take to heart the message he left in his legacy letter. If you want, replace the names “Malia” and “Sasha” with the names of your children, or your nieces or nephews. The legacy lies in the message.
January 18, 2009
Dear Malia and Sasha,
I know that you’ve both had a lot of fun these last two years on the campaign trail, going to picnics and parades and state fairs, eating all sorts of junk food your mother and I probably shouldn’t have let you have. But I also know that it hasn’t always been easy for you and Mom, and that as excited as you both are about that new puppy, it doesn’t make up for all the time we’ve been apart. I know how much I’ve missed these past two years, and today I want to tell you a little more about why I decided to take our family on this journey.
When I was a young man, I thought life was all about me — about how I’d make my way in the world, become successful, and get the things I want. But then the two of you came into my world with all your curiosity and mischief and those smiles that never fail to fill my heart and light up my day. And suddenly, all my big plans for myself didn’t seem so important anymore. I soon found that the greatest joy in my life was the joy I saw in yours. And I realized that my own life wouldn’t count for much unless I was able to ensure that you had every opportunity for happiness and fulfillment in yours. In the end, girls, that’s why I ran for President: because of what I want for you and for every child in this nation.
I want all our children to go to schools worthy of their potential — schools that challenge them, inspire them, and instill in them a sense of wonder about the world around them. I want them to have the chance to go to college — even if their parents aren’t rich. And I want them to get good jobs: jobs that pay well and give them benefits like health care, jobs that let them spend time with their own kids and retire with dignity.
I want us to push the boundaries of discovery so that you’ll live to see new technologies and inventions that improve our lives and make our planet cleaner and safer. And I want us to push our own human boundaries to reach beyond the divides of race and region, gender and religion that keep us from seeing the best in each other.
Sometimes we have to send our young men and women into war and other dangerous situations to protect our country — but when we do, I want to make sure that it is only for a very good reason, that we try our best to settle our differences with others peacefully, and that we do everything possible to keep our servicemen and women safe. And I want every child to understand that the blessings these brave Americans fight for are not free — that with the great privilege of being a citizen of this nation comes great responsibility.
That was the lesson your grandmother tried to teach me when I was your age, reading me the opening lines of the Declaration of Independence and telling me about the men and women who marched for equality because they believed those words put to paper two centuries ago should mean something.
She helped me understand that America is great not because it is perfect but because it can always be made better — and that the unfinished work of perfecting our union falls to each of us. It’s a charge we pass on to our children, coming closer with each new generation to what we know America should be.
I hope both of you will take up that work, righting the wrongs that you see and working to give others the chances you’ve had. Not just because you have an obligation to give something back to this country that has given our family so much — although you do have that obligation. But because you have an obligation to yourself. Because it is only when you hitch your wagon to something larger than yourself that you will realize your true potential.
These are the things I want for you — to grow up in a world with no limits on your dreams and no achievements beyond your reach, and to grow into compassionate, committed women who will help build that world. And I want every child to have the same chances to learn and dream and grow and thrive that you girls have. That’s why I’ve taken our family on this great adventure.
I am so proud of both of you. I love you more than you can ever know. And I am grateful every day for your patience, poise, grace, and humor as we prepare to start our new life together in the White House.