It was a Tuesday night, July 27th 2004. I was sitting alone working on the computer, in the living room of my house in Champaign, Illinois. There was a dude named Barack Obama running for senator that year, and even though pretty much nobody had ever heard of him (myself included) he was going to give the keynote that night at the Democratic National Convention in Boston. I had the TV on in the background, so I could hear this speech and see the guy I was probably going to be voting for to become the junior senator from Illinois when I filled out my punch-card ballot that fall.
The speech started out well articulated, but slow and not very notable in my opinion. At somewhere between 10 and 11 minutes into the speech however, that changed. As his voice rang out from the television, and a remarkable cadence arose, I turned around in my chair, gripped by the oratory. Here’s the meat of the speech:
If there is a child on the south side of Chicago who can’t read, that matters to me, even if it’s not my child. If there is a senior citizen somewhere who can’t pay for their prescription drugs, and having to choose between medicine and the rent, that makes my life poorer, even if it’s not my grandparent. If there’s an Arab American family being rounded up without benefit of an attorney or due process, that threatens my civil liberties.
It is that fundamental belief — It is that fundamental belief: I am my brother’s keeper. I am my sister’s keeper that makes this country work. It’s what allows us to pursue our individual dreams and yet still come together as one American family. E pluribus unum: “Out of many, one.”
Now even as we speak, there are those who are preparing to divide us — the spin masters, the negative ad peddlers who embrace the politics of “anything goes.” Well, I say to them tonight, there is not a liberal America and a conservative America — there is the United States of America. There is not a Black America and a White America and Latino America and Asian America — there’s the United States of America.
The pundits, the pundits like to slice-and-dice our country into Red States and Blue States; Red States for Republicans, Blue States for Democrats. But I’ve got news for them, too. We worship an “awesome God” in the Blue States, and we don’t like federal agents poking around in our libraries in the Red States. We coach Little League in the Blue States and yes, we’ve got some gay friends in the Red States. There are patriots who opposed the war in Iraq and there are patriots who supported the war in Iraq. We are one people, all of us pledging allegiance to the stars and stripes, all of us defending the United States of America.
Go on, watch the whole thing. I find it interesting to look back on this speech from four years ago, and find the themes of his campaign just barely taking shape in it. By the end of the speech, I was wondering to myself if I had ever heard a politician in recent times with the ability to inspire like that, and I was convinced, like many others, that this guy was something special.
See, in my opinion, the job of President isn’t nearly so much about making policies, drafting laws and toeing party lines, as it is about the intangible things like being a leader, inspiring us, bringing us together, and empowering and comforting the nation as necessary — especially in today’s global climate. This is something that our current president failed at miserably in the days after September 11th 2001. It would have been the perfect opportunity to unify the nation, soothe some raw nerves, and cement his status as a charismatic leader. Instead, he gave a series of disappointing speeches — culminating in the decent, but disappointing speech to congress on 9/20 introducing the term “war on terrah”, saying “either you’re with us or you’re against us,” and promising that “we will prevail.” While I’d definitely say that it’s the best speech he’s ever given, that’s not saying much. It’s interesting to compare and contrast the effects of someone with real charisma and speaking techniques to someone who can’t pronounce “terror” properly, has a halting speaking style with no flow, and who is giving a speech that he definitely didn’t write a large portion of for himself…
I am excited and proud that next Tuesday, I’ll be walking down the street to my local polling place, and casting my ballot to elect Obama as the first African American president.
45 years ago, Martin Luther King said: “”I have a dream that one day, this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.’ ” Maybe, just maybe, we’re a little closer to that day.