Though I don’t know why Oprah Winfrey puts herself on every single cover, her magazine — called, of course, O — consistently features insightful, thought-provoking essays. In April 2008, the writer Terry Tempest Williams wrote movingly of her stay in the county jail in Soda Springs, Idaho. Arrested for speeding without a valid driver’s license, she chose to forego posting the $200 bail. Instead, after a call to her husband, she replaced her nice clothes and Prada slippers with a standard-issue orange jumpsuit and Keds. Entering a cinder-block pod with 12 other women, she soon found that most of them were there because of a different sort of speed: crystal meth.
In her essay, Williams describes her jail stay as a powerful “note to self”: accept personal responsibility for one’s actions. Too often, having the money to bail ourselves out can get in the way of consciously accepting what one has done and failed to do — and what the ensuing consequences are for oneself and others. The mind-set epitomized by George W. Bush’s various Wall Street bailouts shows this way of thinking writ large in our society, with far-reaching damage when reality finally intrudes. As Obama’s team struggles to deal with the train wreck, our country needs a collective moment of clarity comparable to what Williams experienced at the Soda Springs jail. Obama tried to provide it in his inaugural address, but fundamental change does not necessarily happen in one fell swoop.