I huddled closer to the journalist on my right, both of us finally looking up from our Blackberries to take in the extraordinariness of the moment. He wasn’t anyone I knew, but then this was a night built on the intimacy of strangers, all connected by a strange, electrifying energy. There were dozens of us, all crammed together on a tiny wooden riser that was beginning to heave under the weight of our excitement. Right below us, hundreds of thousands of people were yelping with joyous disbelief, as an unassuming man held the tiny hand of his little daughter and walked out into the world’s embrace. Oprah was leaning on the shoulder of a man she didn’t know either and openly weeping as Barack Obama made his acceptance speech. And I have to confess to more than a tear or two of my own.
The morning after the twin towers fell in September 2001, Le Monde had carried a front page editorial called, ‘We are all American,’ to capture the collective sense of tragedy that united the world. Well, on November 5, 2008, on an unusually warm night for Chicago, we were all American again. This time our dots were connected by the power of change and the possibility of hope. The real story of Obama’s presidency was the fact that so many people still believed in a better future and in their own ability to forge it. This is what made Chicago’s catharsis that night compelling enough to move anyone to tears.
Obama’s speech, at first, may have seemed smaller than the moment; even somewhat anti-climactic. He held a quiet, understated tone in glaring contrast to the hysteria whipped up around him. But it was the same restraint that has defined his campaign and on a night
like this made him seem naturally presidential.
And yet, this is a man who has broken every rule of politics as we know it. He has defied the conventional wisdom of the political game. That may be why — outsourcing issues and manufactured controversies on Kashmir notwithstanding — we Indians are riveted by him. He is wholesome yet audacious and thus both believable and inspiring. A young Black man who saw the White House for the first time in 1984 is today President in a country that, as the Los Angeles Times describes it, “was founded by slave owners and seared by civil war”. How can a story like that not have universal resonance?
But Obama’s appeal goes well beyond the racial barriers he has broken through. In fact, there are two things that separate him from the pack and make him different from any politician we have known anywhere. He has ended the politics of pity and victimhood and he isn’t scared to show vulnerability.
An African-American President in a country that barely has any people of colour in the House or the Senate may have been what marked this election as historic. But what makes the story truly remarkable is the fact that Obama was able to take his campaign well beyond race. Other than an exceptionally complex and blunt speech in March this year, race was never a big part of the campaign. Though his book talks about how “to think clearly about race requires us to see the world on a split screen — the America we want while looking squarely at America as it is”, Obama also rubbishes hardliners in his own community who refuse to recognise how much has changed and for the better. His definitive address on racial issues acknowledged the legitimacy of White anger and was indulgent of the understandable extremism of some in his own community, while simultaneously distancing himself from it. Confronted with the inflammatory hate rhetoric of his old pastor, Obama said, “He’s like an old Uncle I don’t always agree with,” telling his supporters that we all had someone like that in our families. And it’s true; we do. It’s just that we have never heard a politician mirror our own lives and yet seem better than us.
America will debate for years whether Obama is “Black enough” or whether he dressed up colour in a sanitised rhetoric. But either way, he has ended the ghettoised separation of the Black people and changed their self-image from victim to victor. In the opening chapter of his book, he rejects a politics that is “based solely on racial identity, gender identity, sexual orientation, or victimhood generally”. It is this, I suspect, that has catapulted him to universal stardom.
And yet he warns you that he won’t be perfect. This, after all, is a President who once did drugs. The point isn’t so much about the morality of smoking pot. It’s more the contrast with an erstwhile President that makes Obama’s candour so compelling.
After Bill Clinton’s laboured lies and “I didn't inhale” obfuscations, Obama’s upfront admission made him seem all grown up. “I think that, at this stage, my life is an open book, literally and figuratively,” he said. “Voters can make a judgement as to whether dumb things that I did when I was a teenager are relevant to the work that I’ve done since that time.” And yes, “I did inhale,” he said, “That was the point.”
It seems almost unbelievable that a politician running for office can concede to that and still be embraced in an overwhelming affirmation of belief.
The thing about Obama is that he makes you believe in that old cliché: be true to yourself. In a cynical, crumbling world, that alone is a miracle. That’s why Oprah cried. And so did the rest of us who were lucky enough to watch a night that will change America and the world.
Barkha Dutt is Group Editor,English News, NDTV