1/2009

A Human Campaign

 

On the 10th of February in 2007 Barack Obama announced he was running for president. It seems like a very, very long time ago now - yet, I remember it like it was yesterday. I remember that I (Ironically, a full blooded Joe Biden supporter at the time) wasn’t really sure if this was the right time for Obama to make a bid for the presidency. However, the speech he gave on that cold winter day in Springfield, IL removed whatever doubts I had about such a decision – and I quickly realized that this was exactly the time for Obama to make his run. Right after his speech I found myself signing up on his website, along with countless others from around the country. People across the spectrum of race, color, age, religion, sexual orientation, and even political inclination - had all been moved to come together in one voice. Their comments were universal in tone; they felt a deep emotional connection to a campaign that was only hours old! It was evident even then that Obama had tapped into something bigger than himself (And he would acknowledge as much later on in the campaign). But what was it? What was it that caused so many to feel inspired by an individual whose background was so different from his or her own?

Obama’s ability to speak to the common humanity that binds all of us was probably one of the biggest non-political reasons why so many people were drawn to his candidacy. He was able to tie the notion of common humanity, the individual in society, and the story of America together as few had done before. This was never more evident than during his ‘A More Perfect Union’ speech at what may have been the darkest hour of his campaign. It was a time when the constant TV loops of Rev. Jeremiah Wright were poised to turn him from the candidate who happened to be black, into the candidate who might just be ‘too black’. There were questions about his patriotism, questions about why he would be close to such a man (Wright), and questions about whether he held some deep secret racial resentment towards whites.

Now as all of this was unfolding, I was thinking to myself; these people (Obama’s critics) just don’t get it! They think he hates America? It’s impossible for him to believe such! They really don’t understand who this guy is; do they? For Obama has identified himself as black (partly because society has) but one tends to forget that he’s bi-racial! His experience is totally unique, and profoundly American. He’s a product of this country; how could he despise it! His ‘A More Perfect Union’ speech was a testament on race by a bi-racial American. It gave me great pleasure to see themes and thoughts I could relate to on such a prominent stage. And it was this section of the speech that I thought provided a beautiful narrative for the notion of America, the individual, and our shared humanity:

I chose to run for the presidency at this moment in history because I believe deeply that we cannot solve the challenges of our time unless we solve them together - unless we perfect our union by understanding that we may have different stories, but we hold common hopes; that we may not look the same and we may not have come from the same place, but we all want to move in the same direction - towards a better future for of children and our grandchildren.

This belief comes from my unyielding faith in the decency and generosity of the American people. But it also comes from my own American story.

I am the son of a black man from Kenya and a white woman from Kansas. I was raised with the help of a white grandfather who survived a Depression to serve in Patton's Army during World War II and a white grandmother who worked on a bomber assembly line at Fort Leavenworth while he was overseas. I've gone to some of the best schools in America and lived in one of the world's poorest nations. I am married to a black American who carries within her the blood of slaves and slave owners - an inheritance we pass on to our two precious daughters. I have brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews, uncles and cousins, of every race and every hue, scattered across three continents, and for as long as I live, I will never forget that in no other country on Earth is my story even possible.

It's a story that hasn't made me the most conventional candidate. But it is a story that has seared into my genetic makeup the idea that this nation is more than the sum of its parts - that out of many, we are truly one.

‘Out of many, we are truly one’. That one phrase best describes the emotional engine that propelled the Obama campaign. Now of course one can’t win with ‘emotional juice’ alone. As with any other political junkie I could run down the list of tangible or practical reasons why Obama’s campaign was successful – whether it was the campaign’s ‘ground game’, his ’50 state’ strategy, or voter reaction to the economic downturn. Yet without the emotional under current, where would the volunteers come from? Why would people who never donated to a political campaign in their lives, donate to this one? What would spur people to fundraise and organize completely by their own accord? Again, the concrete reasons were obvious; the last eight years of governance, and the challenges the country faced brought a heightened sense of urgency. However, something else was happening. If you don’t believe me, remember this for a second; a bi-racial man (who’s identified as black) won a US presidential election by not only winning the ‘solid blue’ states - he did it by winning Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, North Carolina, and Florida. What that ‘something else’ was; I can’t say for sure. Those whose literary talents far exceed my own would be better suited to lend their words to such a description. But what I can say is that the last two major gatherings of the Obama campaign were physical manifestations of whatever was happening (or what had happened already).

The first of these was the last official Obama rally before Election Day. It took place during the late evening of November 3, 2008 in Manassas, Virginia – with around 90,000 people in attendance. It was hours before the country would head to the polls, and about 20 months removed from that cold winter day in February of 2007. There was a sense of history, and a keen sense of ‘the moment’ (And sadly, Obama’s grandmother had just passed the day before). Obama chose to end his last speech of the campaign with a story he must have told countless times before (the origins of the ‘Fired up! - Ready to go!’ call and response that had become common at his rallies). However, this time it seemed to resonate differently because of the circumstances – probably because the story itself was a reflection of the ‘emotional undercurrent’ that had carried the campaign throughout. These were the words that ended what might have been the most ‘American’ political campaign in our nations history:

In this campaign I have had the privilege to witness what is best in America - in the stories, in the faces, of men and women I have met at countless rallies, town hall meetings, VFW halls, living rooms, diners, all across America, men and women who shared with me their stories and spoke of their struggles - but they also spoke of their hopes and dreams. They want for their children a sense of obligation and debts to be paid to earlier generations.

I met one of those women in Greenwood, South Carolina. It was back early when we were way back in the polls. Nobody gave us much of a chance back then. I had gone to South Carolina early in the campaign to see what I could stir up in the way of endorsements, and I was at a legislative dinner sitting next to a state representative that I really wanted to endorse me. So I turned to her and I said, ‘I really want your endorsement!’ And she looked at me and she said ‘I'll tell you what, Obama - I will give you my endorsement if you come to my hometown of Greenwood, South Carolina.’ I must have had a sip of wine or something that night - because right away I said, ‘Okay. I'm coming.’

So the next time I come to South Carolina it's about a month later. We fly in about midnight. We get to the hotel about one o'clock in the morning. I'm exhausted. I'm dragging my bags to my room when I get a tap on my shoulder and I look back and it is one of my staff people who says ‘Senator we need to be out of the hotel by 6 a.m.’ I say ‘Why is that?’ He says, ‘Because we have to go to Greenwood, like you promised.’

So the next morning I wake up and I feel terrible, and I think I am coming down with a cold, my back is sore, I feel worse than when I went to bed. I open up the curtains in the hotel room to get some sunlight in and hopefully wake me up, but it's pouring down rain. I go outside my room and get the New York Times, and there is a bad story about me in the New York Times. I go downstairs after I pack, and my umbrella blows open and I get soaked, so by the time I get in the car I am mad, I am wet and I am sleepy.

We drive, and we drive, and we drive. It turns out that Greenwood is about an hour and a half from everywhere else.

Finally we get to Greenwood.

First of all you do not know you're in Greenwood when you get to Greenwood, there aren't a lot of tall buildings in Greenwood. We pull off to a small building - a little field house in a park - and we go inside, and low and behold, after an hour and a half drive, turns out there are twenty people there…Twenty people. They look all kind of damp and sleepy, maybe they aren't really excited to be there either.

But I’m a professional; I've got to do what I got to do! I'm going around, I'm shaking hands, I am saying ‘How are you doing? What are you doing?’

As I go around the room suddenly I hear this voice cry out behind me ‘Fired up!’ I'm shocked. I jumped up. I don't know what is going on. But everyone else acts as though this were normal and they say ‘Fired up!’ Then I hear this voice say ‘Ready to go!’ And the twenty people in the room act like this happens all the time, and they say ‘Ready to go!’ I don't know what's going on so I looked behind me and there is this small woman, about 60 years old, a little over 5 feet, looks like she just came from church - she's got on a big church hat. She's standing there, she looks at me, and she smiles and she says ‘Fired up!’

It turns out that she was a city Councilwoman from Greenwood who also moonlights as a private detective - I'm not making this up. And it turns out that she is famous for her chant. She does this wherever she goes. She says ‘Fired up!’ and the people say ‘Fired up!’ and she says ‘Ready to go!’ and they say ‘Ready to go!’

For the next five minutes she proceeds to do this. ‘Fired up?’ and everyone says ‘Fired up’ and she says ‘Ready to go!’ and they say ‘Ready to go!’ I'm standing there and I'm thinking - I'm being outflanked by this woman! She's stealing my thunder! I look at my staff and they shrugged their shoulders, they don't know how long this is going to go on.

But here's the thing, Virginia. After a minute or so I’m feeling kind of fired up! I'm feeling like I'm ready to go. So I join in the chant - it feels good! For the rest of the day, even after we left Greenwood, even though it was still raining, even though I was still not getting big crowds anywhere, even though we hadn't gotten the endorsement from the people we were hoping for, somehow I felt a little lighter, a little better. I'd see my staff and I would say ‘Are you fired up?’ and they would say ‘We are fired up, boss, are you ready to go?’ And I'd say ‘I'm ready to go!’

Here's my point, Virginia. That's how this thing started. It shows you what one voice can do. That one voice can change a room. And if a voice can change a room, it can change a city, and if it can change a city, it can change a state, and if it can change a state, it can change a nation, and if it can change a nation, it can change the world!

Virginia, your voice can change the world tomorrow. In twenty-one hours if you’re willing to endure some rain, if you’re willing to drag that person you know who is not going to vote to the polls. If you‘re willing to organize and volunteer in the offices, if you’re willing to stand with me, if you’re willing to fight with me, I know your voice will matter.

So I have just one question for you Virginia, Are you fired up? Are you ready to go?

Obama:  Fired up!  Crowd:  Fired up!

Obama:  Ready to go!  Crowd:  Ready to go!

Obama:  Fired up!   Crowd:  Fired up!

Obama:  Ready to go!   Crowd:  Ready to go!

Virginia, Let's go change the world! God bless you and God bless the United States of America!

And with that, the campaign was over. The next day the country would choose a new president during a time of great upheaval and uncertainty. Almost all Americans felt like the 2008 election was one of (if not the) most important elections in their lifetime. There was an underlying feeling that the country wanted a clean break from the previous eight years. However, Obama didn’t just represent a break from the past; he represented a seismic shift in the landscape of American culture, history, and politics. In other words, the country was ready for change – but was it ready for change on such a massive scale?

That question was answered on the evening of November 4, 2008. It was a night that would see crowds gather across the country (and the world for that matter). And each one had its own share of tremendous anticipation and optimism. However, the crowd that would gather in Chicago’s Grant Park would come to embody the spirit of the occasion. It was as diverse as it was wide; a sea of humanity that was ready to cap off one of this country’s most improbable journeys. But most importantly they were there because of ‘a love of country’. They were there because the ideals that they believed in (and the ideals they believed America stood for) were intertwined with the man and the campaign they supported. It was ‘idealistic patriotism’ (if there even is such a thing) at its finest. And they would get their chance to celebrate when the clock struck 11pm on the east coast.

With the calling of the west coast states came the calling of the election. It was one of those rare moments that changes everything and nothing at the same time. To see a black man elected president of these United States made me think about all of those who came to this country in chains and enslaved; All of those who were lynched and persecuted; All of those who marched, bled, and died for future generations. It made me think of Emmett Till, Jackie Robinson, Rosa Parks, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr., and the countless others whose shoulders this moment rested on. Yet I also realized that on the morning of November 5th, all the problems that the country faced would not disappear after the celebration from the night before. The road ahead for the new president would be far more difficult than the one he had just traveled. Nevertheless, the night of November 4, 2008 was undoubtedly a seminal moment in the history of the nation. And it was a strong reminder of what America could be when it was at its best. Ironically, the best summation of the nights events might have gone to the staunch conservative Bill Bennett – who stated with simple reverence on CNN:

‘It’s a great country... It’s a great country, and I hope he’s a great president.’

I couldn’t have said it any better myself.