Obama Politics

“Fired Up. Ready to Go.”

Holy Cross Basement Rally

[digg-reddit-me]At my college towards the end of my senior year, someone began passing anonymous threatening and demeaning messages to a gay student who was a friend of mine. The messages read, “All fags will go to hell,” and “Fuck you fag,” etcetera. What was truly incredible was the person targeted by these messages. This student was one of the kindest people I have ever met. He volunteered in the community and on campus; he was generous; when I worked with him in the dining hall, he was always one of the hardest workers, even when he was running a shift; he is truly one of the most extraordinary people I have ever met. This made the attacks on him–some of which seemed to directly threaten his physical safety–all the more difficult to understand.

Responding to these harassing and threatening comments became a priority of the student leadership, of which I was a part. And I helped plan the events–a rally, buttons–with the innocuous and trademarked phrase: “Where is the Love?”; a petition in the campus newspaper. The rally was supposed to be held outdoors, but it was drizzling that day and there were concerns about the equipment, so it was moved to the basement of the campus. We had wanted a location that students would be walking by rather than one that they would need to find, and one of the dining halls was at the other side of the basement.

What I remember most though is one of the speeches given by a student who lived across the hall from my earlier in my college days and was also a friend. Everyone else had made their comments–well-meaning and well-put. But this student–Alex Cunningham–walked up, kind of slouched, wearing tattered jeans. He curled into himself, clutching the microphone, as if summoning something. And then suddenly, he started speaking loudly, in a totally different manner than any of the other students. He gave instructions, telling everyone that he was going to say a phrase and the crowd would repeat it back. And he started his chant.

It was both mesmerizing and powerful. A moment that I have felt the power of ever since.

Rally @ Washington Square Park

Last night, I went to see Barack Obama at Washington Square Park. I got there early and had to wait almost an hour and a half to get in. The crowd has been estimated between 20,00Rally @ Washington Square Park0 and 24,000–probably the largest campaign event of the year. The crowd was younger, but it was also diverse–with a number of the elderly, a few middle aged people, and lots of college and post-grad folk. Ethnically, it was as diverse as the subway.

I couldn’t see the stage from where I was–partially because I was short. I was actually pretty close to it. This was basically my view. However, some people were holding up cameras to record Obama on stage, and I could see him in the cameras.

The Speech

From what I could tell, this was Obama’s stump speech with a few add-ons. News reports indicated that he was tougher on his Democratic opponents, saying for example that he was the only one willing to speak tough truths and citing examples.

It was an effective speech–it dealt with the issue of experience masterfully, and on reflection, his comments on experience are even more compelling. His litany of things to change was good, and his tone was right. He explained that many people were there because they were fed up with President Bush. But that they also needed to be for something–and that something should not be just a more competent person to manage things as they are. What was needed was change–to change the system, to change the game, to create a new politics. A politics in which leaders were honest about challenges; in which real progress was possible; in which entrenched interests were not the biggest players.

It was a good speech and an effective speech, and it was delivered with a self-conscious charm that was very appealing. He ended it with a story about how one woman’s voice changed him. It was the best moment in his speech. He led the crowd in the chant “Fired up, ready to go.”

But something was missing.

A Television Show

Martin Sheen as President Bartlett in Aaron Sorkin’s West Wing is one of the great television characters. His President Bartlett is the kind of president only seen on TV.

At the beginning of the third season of the show, there is a series of flashbacks to when then Governor Bartlett was first running for president. He is shown answering questions at a political dinner. One of the characters–Josh, a Washington insider currently working for the Democratic party’s presidential front-runner played by Bradley Whitford–has been forced to attend the event by an old friend of his father’s. Barely paying attention, he grumbles about being there. Then the moment of truth comes: a farmer asks the candidate Bartlett why he supported a particular tax hike that hurt him. Bartlett answers, “Yea, I screwed all of you on that one. That one hurt a lot of my constituents. But I’d do it again and here’s why…”

For Josh, a hardened political infighter, this is one of those “A-ha!” moments and he knows he has found his candidate. He can see through the dismal setting and uninspiring performance to the President that Bartlett could be. Jeb Bartlett however is not ready. It is not that he needs more experience or that he needs seasoning or any such thing. What he is missing is something that everyone around him can sense–his audiences, his aides, himself. Perhaps it is a certain resolve to take on the responsibility; perhaps it is a sense of certainty that he will be able to perform the job. What is missing is both obvious and amorphous.

This is what I felt about Barack Obama’s speech. He is missing just this thing. He is not yet ready. But come January, I believe and hope he will be. If he is ready by then–if he is able to step into himself and be the leader he is able to project–we will have a great president.

Otherwise, we will have to make do. And America will be the poorer for it.

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