Thursday, July 29, 2004While the rest of the country is discovering the Barack Obama phenomenon following his stirring speech at the Democratic National Convention Tuesday evening, as an Illinois resident, I'm happy to say "I knew he was going places" for some time. I'd first seen Obama's name about two years ago in a local Chicago African-American community free weekly called N'DIGO, in small, modestly-placed campaign ads and in an interview article. Later, I'd heard him on the air, in a Chicago Public Radio interview. I was intrigued when I discovered he was a senior lecturer in Law here at the University of Chicago.
Earlier last year, in Rogers Park, we had signed a streetcorner petition to get Obama's name placed on the U.S. Senate ballot. Now, it's close to Decision Time 2004, and the whole country can see that this 42-year old "skinny kid with the funny name" from Illinois running for U.S. Senate has the presence, eloquence and passion - and a uniquely Everyman background - to position him to be a major bridge-building political player in days to come. True, the analysts were hyperbolic in their post-speech praise, and phrases like "Tiger Woods" and "future President" emerged from their lips. Perhaps it's too soon to make such glowing predictions, but these days, good feelings about a politician are rare indeed.
If you missed his Tuesday keynote address, you can read the full text of Obama's speech here on the New York Times online edition [registration required]. I taped Tuesday night's coverage of the DNC on WTTW-11...I had a feeling his talk would be a keeper. While his slated role was to stump for John Kerry, Obama gave the National audiences more: a striking sample of a rising star on the scene. Here's a couple of sections from his talk that particularly moved me:
Tonight is a particular honor for me because ? let's face it ? my presence on this stage is pretty unlikely. My father was a foreign student, born and raised in a small village in Kenya. He grew up herding goats, went to school in a tin-roof shack. His father ? my grandfather ? was a cook, a domestic servant to the British.It's not just his choice of words: it's the sense of conviction and personal experience you can feel behind them that gave his words such an impact Tuesday night. This was one of the best political speeches I'd heard in years.
But my grandfather had larger dreams for his son. Through hard work and perseverance my father got a scholarship to study in a magical place, America, that shone as a beacon of freedom and opportunity to so many who had come before.
While studying here, my father met my mother. She was born in a town on the other side of the world, in Kansas. Her father worked on oil rigs and farms through most of the Depression. The day after Pearl Harbor my grandfather signed up for duty; joined Patton's army, marched across Europe. Back home, my grandmother raised their baby and went to work on a bomber assembly line. After the war, they studied on the G.I. Bill, bought a house through F.H.A., and later moved west all the way to Hawaii in search of opportunity.
And they, too, had big dreams for their daughter. A common dream, born of two continents.
My parents shared not only an improbable love, they shared an abiding faith in the possibilities of this nation. They would give me an African name, Barack, or "blessed," believing that in a tolerant America your name is no barrier to success. They imagined me going to the best schools in the land, even though they weren't rich, because in a generous America you don't have to be rich to achieve your potential.
They are both passed away now. And yet, I know that, on this night, they look down on me with great pride.
I stand here today, grateful for the diversity of my heritage, aware that my parents' dreams live on in my two precious daughters. I stand here knowing that my story is part of the larger American story, that I owe a debt to all of those who came before me, and that, in no other country on earth, is my story even possible.
Tonight, we gather to affirm the greatness of our nation ? not because of the height of our skyscrapers, or the power of our military, or the size of our economy. Our pride is based on a very simple premise, summed up in a declaration made over two hundred years ago: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal. That they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights. That among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."
For alongside our famous individualism, there?s another ingredient in the American saga. A belief that we?re all connected as one people.
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?s a senior citizen somewhere who can?t pay for their prescription drugs, and has 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. In the end, that?s what this election is about. Do we participate in a politics of cynicism or do we participate in a politics of hope?
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Unlike the array of mostly faceless candidates we've seen in recent years from both sides of the fence, Obama comes across a uniquely recognizable personality - like a young J.F.K. from humble, multicultural roots. Perhaps, he, like few candidates before, truly represents a contemporary cross-section of the American experience; and the way he brings a welcome fresh sense of hope and inclusiveness to the political scene, after four too many years of fear, division, and "bunker mentality," is in itself something to be thankful for.