Sunday, January 27
Miracle drugs, better angels, and the real meaning of hope.
They played the U2 song "Miracle Drug" as he walked onto what would've been the court at Bartow Arena, shaking hands beneath a canopy of outstretched arms holding cell-phone cameras. It was a noticeable change from the '60s soul music they'd been playing for the previous two hours as 11,000 people crowded into the buiding; maybe they were really trying to imply that Barack Obama is a magical panacea to cure all the nation's ills, or maybe they were just trying to throw a curveball at a punditocracy that's still expecting him to walk out to Public Enemy's "Brother's Gonna Work It Out" one of these days. Me, I think the campaign just wanted some soaring guitar chords that would resonate with the substantial number of audience members who were still in diapers when "Where The Streets Have No Name" came out.
But whatever their reasoning, the energy of this particular song was matched and exceeded by a crowd fully prepared to make Obama the next president of the United States, or at least do their part from the state of Alabama. It was more or less his standard stump speech, numerous parts of which I'd already read or heard reported from other campaign stops around the country, but it was still one of the most inspiring -- and inspired -- campaign speeches I've ever heard, at least since 1992, when I skipped school to see Bill Clinton's campaign stop in Columbus, Georgia, and got interested in politics to begin with.
The people who constituted Bartow's largest-ever crowd, larger than the official-record 9,354 who attended a UAB-Louisville basketball game three years ago, included a black gospel choir and wealthy white folks from Mountain Brook. There were wheelchair-bound people in their nineties and little kids sitting on the floor, peeking through the railings for a glimpse of the candidate. There were Protestants, at least two Catholics (me and my sister), a number of Muslim students I recognized from the Arabic class I took last semester. There were even a few people whom I've traveled in various political circles with since 2004 and whom I could've sworn were preparing to get on board with Hillary last year. Whatever else you can say about the Obama campaign, the diverse coalition of supporters you've no doubt heard people talk about is very real.
And I don't want to get too flowery and "I believe the children are our future" about that crowd, but the group of people packing Bartow this afternoon really does speak volumes about why Obama's campaign is so important, and it wasn't just because of their diversity. What was even more inspiring, I thought, than the speech itself -- which, in spite of what you've probably heard, was a fairly equal mix of soaring rhetoric and actual policy -- was the way the crowd reacted to it. Some of Obama's biggest applause lines came from parts where he placed responsibility for bettering the country on the people in the crowd themselves: his assurance of college-tuition assistance in exchange for post-graduation public service, for example, or his line about how he could shovel all the money in the world into our public schools and it wouldn't matter if parents didn't do their part. Rather than just rattling off a list of insincere promises and calling it a day, Sen. Obama told his supporters about the role they were going to have to play -- and the hard work they would have to put in -- to make his vision of an American renewal become a reality. And from what I could see, at least, those supporters appeared to be willing to answer the call.
It's no coincidence, then, that both Caroline and Ted Kennedy, the two living people who knew John F. Kennedy better than anyone, both endorsed Obama in the last couple days: Obama gets what that "Ask what you can do for your country" line meant back in 1961 and what it should mean today. One of the biggest things that's caused me to pull my hair out over the past seven years is how little we've been asked to do for our country; we're fighting wars in two different countries, trying to rebuild one of America's largest cities, and doing so under a $9-trillion mountain of debt, yet we're still being fed a diet of upper-class tax breaks and full-size SUVs. Barack Obama, however, has the temerity to believe that the can-do spirit and willingness to sacrifice that we've lauded in "the greatest generation" hasn't completely disappeared from American society, it's just atrophied over the last couple decades. If called upon, Americans will make the sacrifices and put in the grunt work necessary to ensure that we leave a decent world for our kids and grandkids.
Is that faith misplaced? Apparently some people think so -- the people who've been pooh-poohing Obama's candidacy as a lot of naive optimism, anyway. And there was a time when I was at least that skeptical, if not more so. You live through the Clinton impeachment, the travesty of the 2000 election, and the disappointment of 2004, and you come out the other side just a little bit jaded. But cleaning the filth and decay out of Washington and restoring our country's moral authority on the world stage was always going to require an effort on the part of 300 million people, not just one man, and there came a point when I realized that Obama wasn't promising to conjure all that up on his own; he was declaring a willingness to organize and lead such an effort on the part of an entire country. And so far, he seems to be the only one who's done so.
The "hope" he talks about that the punditocracy has tried so hard to marginalize is not, as they would have you believe, a matter of Barack Obama saying, "You just sit back there and hope while I wave my magic wand and make everything better"; if anything, that seems to be the provenance of his opponents, those on both sides of the aisle. Rather, the hope he's selling is the hope that one's hard work, sweat, and tears will actually make a difference. We haven't been able to believe in that for a while now, partly because we haven't been given a coherent plan or even been asked to do anything. Obama, however, is telling us things can be different. Is that such a bad or naive thing to hope for -- that we can achieve a better future through hard work and sacrifice? I thought that was the whole point of America to begin with. (Not to mention the whole point of hope.)
Some people criticize Obama as being nothing more than a symbol. Look, everyone who dares to run for the position of Leader of the Free World is a symbol of something, whether they want to be or not; they might as well be a symbol of something good. To me, Obama represents a political system where we can vote for a guy who's for something rather than just being against what the other guy is for. He represents an America that doesn't shy away from its responsibility to set a democratic example for the rest of the world to follow. He isn't promising to be a miracle drug, but he is promising to try to be the kind of leader we haven't had in a while -- one who appeals not to our worst instincts but to our better angels, and who helps us channel our hope and hard work into something real.
Is that dumb? Eleven thousand people at Bartow Arena didn't seem to think so. Two hundred ninety-five thousand people in South Carolina -- more than the people who voted for McCain, Huckabee, and Giuliani in that state's Republican primary combined -- didn't think so. And I'm more confident than ever that come November, a majority of America's voters won't think so, either.
What about you?