Photo - Callie Shell, Time Magazine, 2008
More than four years ago, while covering the Democratic National Convention in Boston for my college newspaper, I was walking into the FleetCenter and a man was walking out. He was tall, slender, graceful. He was eyeing the ground, walking alone with his hands stuck in his pockets. As I had been up to my ears in politics since traveling to Iowa for the caucuses earlier in the year, I immediately recognized him. He was running for an open U.S. Senate seat in Illinois. He would be delivering the keynote address that night. Part of me thought I should stop him and say hello, ask him a few questions for my article while he had a moment, shake his hand and tell him I was looking forward to his speech. But I turned my head downward and kept going.
I've never forgiven myself of the opportunity to shake Barack Obama's hand. I don't imagine anything in my life would be different today if I had done so, nor would I want anything to be different. But if only to shake his hand in a moment of solitude and say hello, to share the center of attention with him and perhaps chat for a few minutes like I had done with other politicians, journalists, and celebrities at the time – that would have been a memory.
Here's part of what I wrote in my report: "Barack Obama, a Democratic candidate for the Senate from Illinois, delivered the convention's keynote address Tuesday night. The delegate audience responded with a standing ovation multiple times for Obama, the 42-year-old son of a Kenyan immigrant father and a Kansas mother, who electrified the audience. Obama tried to shorten the gap of what some see as a different value system between the Republicans and Democrats, and criticized the characterization of red Republican states and blue Democratic states. Young black politicians who are considered to be rising stars in the Democratic Party have delivered the keynote address now at two conventions in a row. Rep. Harold Ford, D-Tenn., delivered the address at the 2000 convention in Los Angeles."
There's no way of predicting what the future will hold for Obama should he become president, as in all likelihood he probably will. But the older I become – and the less doctrinaire I become – the more I realize that elections are about agendas but they are also about the person we are choosing as a leader. I flocked to Obama originally out of the crowded Democratic field because of who he was: a break from the past; an opportunity for a new direction; a man of calmness and focus and determination; a man of intellectual curiosity (always a great trait in a leader); a former constitutional law professor; a talented writer; a rough-and-tumble Chicago politician; an inspirational figure, someone clued into the pulse of America so much that while his opponents struggled to find a successful message, he found one and stuck with it for twenty-one months. By creating a hybrid of Howard Dean's netroots campaign in the 2004 primary and President Bush's disciplined ground game in 2004 general election, Obama successfully formed one of the leanest, meanest political organizations in a generation. He branded himself as change, and as a man who has two of his bumper stickers on the back of my Hyundai, I recognize how powerful his branding can be.
Again, I say, I vote for the man. I trust and admire Obama. He has shown grace under fire and shown himself to be a formidable politician who can successfully fuse idealism with pragmatism. In 2000, I wanted Sen. John McCain to win the Republican primary because I liked him and admired him and might have even voted for him for president because I respected him so much. But the John McCain in the race today – the erratic, bitter, sneering man who failed in his first act of leadership by picking someone who profoundly unqualified for the vice-presidency and beyond – is nowhere near the caliber of man I admired in 2000. And the tragic thing is, I think he knows that now.
My complaints of the last eight years are many and not unique. I do not think President Bush has been a successful leader. Under his watch, we cut taxes and increased spending, then cut them again and increased spending more. We have become more polarized than ever, due in no small part by divisive and discriminatory culture war campaigns. While I respect Chief Justice Roberts, I do not respect Justice Alito and the other low-simmering ideologues who found their ways onto lower courts. An American city drowned. We squandered an environment of togetherness after our nation was attacked. Our civil liberties have been violated. We have tortured other human beings and still haven't caught Osama bin Laden. The house bubble has burst. Science has taken a backseat to religion. Our blind commitment to oil has left us without a sound energy policy rooted in renewable and alternative fuels at a time when we need it the most. We went off to war under false pretenses, and our president's inability to see an issue in a multi-dimensional way has led to a delusional style of leadership I can't stomach to see repeated.
Obama has rekindled hope for me. He has brought me out of the cynicism I shrouded myself in during the last few years. I hope he has done the same for you, if you're like me. It's important to vote, but I don't believe in just saying that you should vote and it doesn't matter for whom. That sentiment is incorrect. I think it does matter – it matters more than words can describe.
His critics have dismissed him as a man who can give a "good speech," but those words can be more important than the amorphous media can sometimes recognize. Ten months ago today Obama won the Iowa caucus. Almost nine months ago, my wife and I saw him in Columbia, S.C., before that state's primary. Seeing him that time was an experience much different than passing him on the sidewalk in Boston. At his campaign event, I was moved and touched by being in the presence of a leader. And when I early-voted for him Saturday, I did it not only for myself and my wife, but more importantly for my future children and the little boy I met outside that Columbia rally who told those around him that he was going to grow up to be "the second black president."
I think about that kid a lot, and I think about the speech Obama gave after he lost the New Hampshire primary. It was a setback, but a gigantic step forward, and it gave Obama the opportunity to say the most inspiring words he's said all campaign:
We have been told we cannot do this by a chorus of cynics who will only grow louder and more dissonant in the weeks to come. We've been asked to pause for a reality check. We've been warned against offering the people of this nation false hope. But in the unlikely story that is America, there has never been anything false about hope.