Barack Obama and I go way back to May 2004, when he was running for the senate. I met him via a profile by William Finnegan in the pages of The New Yorker. Describing Obama in his Chicago neighborhood, Finnegan wrote,
Every few minutes, our conversation was interrupted by passersby congratulating Obama on his primary victory. The people who stopped to shake his hand were black and white, old and young, professors and car mechanics. Some Obama obviously knew. Others seemed to be strangers. He was affable with everyone, smiling warmly, but in exchanges that lasted more than a few seconds it was possible to see him slipping subtly into the idiom of his interlocutor—the blushing, polysyllabic grad student, the hefty black church-pillar lady, the hip-hop auto shop guy. Black activists sometimes say that African-American kids need to become “bi-dialectic”—to speak both black English and standard English—to succeed. Obama, the biracial kid from Hawaii, speaks a full range of American vernaculars.
Nice, I thought. The man has a good ear for the language.
In July 2004, I heard Barack’s speech at the Democratic National Convention in Boston and I got religion. Do remember that speech? No red states or blue states; the United States. He used phrases and, ohmygod, whole sentences that seemed to heal the million little paper cuts inflicted upon the English tongue by W.
Gosh, I thought, wouldn’t it be great if someone like him… someday .. maybe … oh well.
My next encounter with Barack came a few months later, in Chicago, were I was on a book tour. I had hurried back to my hotel room to see if the Yankees were still beating the Red Sox in the playoffs, but there was no coverage of my home town team. I kept flipping from station to station but they kept showing the Cubs getting killed. And then the news flashed on the Illinois senate race. “Hi Barack,” I said to the TV screen. “I’m rooting for you.” He won that election with 70% of the vote.
Two years later, I saw him in person at Boston campaign rally in support of gubernatorial candidate Deval Patrick. For $15 contribution, I brought my then-college-age daughter with me to a crowded ballroom at Hynes auditorium.
Barack spoke first, though not for long – five minutes tops — and I honestly cannot recall what he said. He made it abundantly clear that he was there for Deval and not on his own behalf. He was the warm-up act and gave a great introduction. Then he stepped back, out of the spotlight, to listen to the candidate’s speech.
I was standing on the side of the stage. He was maybe 30 feet away from me –sort of sitting, sort of leaning up against a stool – in profile. And for the 15 minutes of Deval Patrick’s speech, Barack did not move. He was still, not stiff, and clearly not bored. He listened attentively, modeling both respect and deference to the man with the microphone. He smiled at the good lines, but he did not move. There was no Bill Clintonian lip-chewing. He didn’t need to be looked at.
He was perfectly still, which made he think of … Mt. Rushmore. “Aha,” I thought, “So that’s what is meant by the word presidential.”
Barack announced for president in February, 2007, and while I wished him well, I must confess that I was afraid to get my heart broken. I said, “I’ll support whatever Democrat wins the nomination,” unwilling to let myself…uh … hope.
But in January, 2008, Barack won the lily-white Iowa caucuses and his victory speech sealed the deal between us. You heard it, right? And it wasn’t only the things he said but the way he spoke. The music in it, the poetry. It set me free and I will never again apologize for voting for the person who understands that we need and deserve poetry in political discourse.
Poetry is fierce. It burns through the baloney. And it’s why young people turned out to work for his election; because the generation of hip-hop, rap, and poetry slams knows that words can cause the heart to flex and heave … and hope.
Of course I supported Barack Obama because of his positions on the issues: on war and peace, on choice. I trust him to make good Supreme Court nominations. His election has already helped restore America’s good name abroad. His flawless campaign bodes well for his steering us out of the many awful messes that we’re all in, together.
But I also supported Barack Obama because he has the gifts and the soul to speak, on occasion, with the tongue of an angel. And because he can be silent and still when it’s not about him.
Now that he is president-elect Obama, he appears to be the very same man described in that 2004 New Yorker profile. This long strange campaign trip hasn’t changed him. Which gives me even more faith in his ability to accomplish great things.
Yes We Can.