"That's what hope is: imagining, imagining and then working for and fighting for what has not been done before. Believing in things unseen. Believing despite evidence to the contrary that there is nothing we cannot do as long as we're willing to make the effort and cast aside the fear and the doubt and the cynicism."
— Barack Obama, Jan. 6, 2008
For the last few months, I've been totally immune to the Barack Obama phenomenon. When I heard he was running for president, I thought, "Well, that's nice. That may gain him a little visibility."
But I told people I hoped he wouldn't start believing his own press releases. When longtime friends sent me breathless e-mails about his campaign, I rolled my eyes. Oh, God. They should know better. Look, I told people, I've been studying presidential politics and presidential elections all my life. Yes, Obama is an impressive speaker, and has lived an interesting life. I found his book, Dreams From My Father, spellbinding. I thought he might be a major player in politics and government in coming years.
But I was dismayed by people who took his run for the presidency seriously. Look, he's a hothouse plant, I told them.
Yes, everyone's fascinated because of his exotic heritage (white mother, father from Kenya) and his exotic background (grew up in Hawaii and Indonesia). But, traditionally, you have to be re-elected to the U.S. Senate at least once before thinking about the presidency.
Barack Hussein Obama has been in Washington less than three years, most of it in the minority. He hasn't done much in the Senate. Besides, I'd tell close friends, there is the brutal truth: America won't elect a black president.
Yes, people like Frank Rich of The New York Times have been writing columns about racism being dead in America. My guess is that Frank doesn't spend a lot of time in bars in Sterling Heights.
Shoot pool with the guys in Taylor lately, Frank? I doubt that he knows people who still wear mullets. I do. I couldn't see them voting for anybody named Barack Hussein Obama — if the Democrats were crazy enough to nominate him, or any other black man.
Yes, Colin Powell could probably have been elected vice president, had Dubya put him on the ticket the second time, instead of throwing him aside like a used condom. But Powell was a special case: a tough military hero with charisma and conventional values.
So I figured that if we were lucky, we'd get John Edwards, who at least understands how badly the poor are being screwed in today's America. Yet for some reason, Edwards can't seem to catch on.
Somehow, he doesn't have it, whatever it is. Four years ago, I had dinner with him. Afterward, I was bothered because he didn't say anything about wanting to be president to change America or the world. Yes, he was very smart, and had the best values and life story. But he looked like a young actor playing the president in a summer stock play.
Sadly, he still is perceived that way, despite having been the party's nominee for vice president four years ago. He seems a permanent strong No. 3 in a two-person race.
So a few months ago, I figured we were going to have to put a good face on the fact that we would be stuck with U.S. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, who I felt — and still feel — would be a safe, conventional moderate, if she could just somehow get elected.
Then I started watching the debates. I have never been a Hillary-basher. We are way overdue for a female president, and the people who say nasty things about Sen. Clinton are some of the most despicable people in America. Yet I realized something.
Hillary Clinton has transformed herself into the consummate political apparatchik. Every answer seemed carefully calculated. The only less human figure in the lot of would-be presidentials is Mitt Romney, the corporate android. He is a bright, superbly capable robot, completely conscious of his own superiority over mortals.
Which scares the pants off me.
Then came Iowa, and Obama creamed Clinton. Creamed her and Edwards in a state that is nearly all-white.
I watched her concede, and realized that she didn't have a clue. I watched Obama make his victory speech and was suddenly reminded of something and somebody from a long time ago.
The next day I came home to find my wife watching a replay of Obama's speech on TV and with tears in her eyes. "He reminds me of Robert Kennedy," she said. That is not a comparison you make lightly. I am old enough to remember that campaign, and who he was, and what this country might have been. Bobby Kennedy was someone who never stopped growing, and knew he didn't know everything, and constantly sought to understand those who were not like him. Nobody has been like that since.
Not till now. Barack Obama is the America of the 21st century; multiracial; multinational; rooted in the American dream, but looking like absolutely nobody in the Thanksgiving pageant.
Hillary Clinton and Mitt Romney were born in 1947. Obama was born in 1961. And there is something different in his sincerity and passion and utter, complete newness and desire for change. Not change as in, elect me. Real change.
Somewhere in the bowels of a New York Times story after Iowa, some high-level Clinton staffer said they realized too late that "change" was a much more powerful message than "experience."
They sounded like they were marketing mustard. That day in New Hampshire, Obama was saying, "If you will work with me like you've never worked before, then we will win. And we will win America. And then we will change the world."
This column was written before the New Hampshire results were in. Campaigns can take all sorts of bounces. This one may yet.
But a long time ago, an old reporter told me: "When people start saying things will change next time, that is usually a pretty good indication that they are about to change now."
So keep your eyes on the prize. We'll know soon.
And how will I vote? Journalists, even columnists, are supposed to primly decline to say how they plan to vote. That makes sense if you are a beat reporter covering a campaign.
But I think it would be patronizing for me not to tell you what I think. Alas, I must abandon my earlier plan to vote for Nancy Sinatra to protest the idiots who screwed up Michigan's Democratic primary.
They won't count write-in votes. So I will vote in the Republican primary, for U.S. Sen. John McCain. Why? He is, simply, the best by far of a bad lot. He is an adult, fairly honest, and having been tortured, is the only Republican to oppose torture. He also understands how government works, and that he doesn't know everything. Voting uncommitted in the Democratic primary is meaningless. I can't imagine voting for McCain in the general election, but when all is said and done, a Republican just might win, and it is in our interests that they put up their best one.Jack Lesseberry opines weekly for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org