Thursday, November 6, 2008

Obama thoughts

I got an e-mail from a friend yesterday — subject line: "You were right" — reminding me that in 2004, after hearing Barack Obama speak at a community college, I said that he'd be president one day. I'm grateful for the reminder.

I didn't think back then that it would happen in 2008. In 2004, Obama was running for the Senate. Michelle Obama came to "east-central Illinois" that June, and Elaine and I heard her speak in the back room of a local restaurant. That Michelle Obama was here was in itself extraordinary: candidates for statewide office virtually never show up here. Everyone in our family heard Barack Obama speak at a nearby community college that August. The people we met then are the same people we've seen countless times since on our screens: graceful, knowledgeable, passionate, serious, and very, very smart. Seeing a crowd of downstaters moved and inspired by a "Chicago politician," much less one who's African-American, was surprising indeed. Obama's huge victory in 2004 didn't surprise me. Nor did it surprise me that he came back to our area in 2006 to talk about what he had accomplished and hoped to accomplish in the Senate.

In February 2007, we cheered Obama's announcement of his presidential candidacy from our cozy living room. Hillary Clinton seemed the inevitable nominee, but our hopes were with Obama. As the campaign developed, we found ourselves with an ever growing stake in the outcome. Elaine and I made calls before the Iowa primary. We signed up for e-mail messages. We began making small donations and soon lost track of how many we had made. Little windfalls — publishing royalties and such — went straight to the Obama campaign. I called the national office to explain why the campaign needed to rethink its e-mail etiquette. (It seems to have worked — I know at least that my suggestions were bumped upward.) Our son Ben volunteered with the campaign during the summer. Elaine and I knocked on doors in Illinois and Indiana. For every voter who closed the door ("I don't need that shit," one told us), there were others who not only supported Obama but were eager to talk with us — at length — about him. Their human variety undid any assumptions I might have had about midwesterners.

This election marks the first time I've ever done anything for a candidate beyond casting a vote. And I've realized over the past few days that the last two years have been my immersion course in the political life of my country. My daily online reading now includes at least a half-dozen or so sources for political news and commentary. The blue and red projection map at is tattooed on my brain. I know details of House and Senate races across the country. I have followed (with disappointment) the apparent success of Proposition 8 in California. I understand the significance of "bellwether counties" and am slightly dizzied to know that I went canvassing in one. And I've come to feel that I can comment with some intelligence on a small subset of matters relevant to political life, particularly those concerning ready-made phrases and sinks.

For me, the history that happened yesterday is still sinking in. The "first black president," yes, but also, as Colin Powell says, a president who "also happens to be black." I think that Obama's election is also historic in putting to rest, at least for a while, the absurdly swaggering, masculinist version of a leader that for so long has been compelling in American culture. (I still remember the idiotic chant from Reagan–Mondale, 1984: "Fritz is a wimp.") Obama is brainy, skinny (as he jokes), a member of Hyde Park's Seminary Co-op Bookstore. And he's a wonderful example for young people — of any color — of what a man might be: a gentle, loving husband and father and grandson.

When our family met Barack Obama in 2004 — yes, reader, we each shook his hand — my daughter Rachel told him that she was too young to vote. "I'll have to give you another chance," he said. I am very happy that this election gave my daughter and my son their first chance to vote for a president.

comments: 2

Elaine Fine said...

I remember that it was Matt Titus, a high school student who worked as a student intern in Springfield, who clued us in on the fact that Obama was a "good guy." I believe Matt was one of the people who arranged for Michelle Obama to come here when our soon-to-be president was running for the Senate. It seems that it is the little things that people do, one after another, that make the biggest difference.

Michael Leddy said...

Your memory is better than mine, Elaine. Thank you, Matt — huzzah!