Election '08: A Man, Not A Movement

By now you've seen Obama's speech and heard it sliced and diced ad nauseum. Or, maybe not. The news cycle seems to have shrunk from an already truncated 24-hours to about twelve as the morning talk shows focus on McCain's bizarre choice of Sarah Palin for running mate. Good judgment, John. It does raise an interesting question, though -- how the hell is Joe Biden supposed to fight such a lesser foe without looking like a bully?

Anyway, back to Obama's big night. I was privileged to be there. And I don't say privileged because I drank the cool aid of the cult of Obama. I say privileged because it was a truly significant moment and one I almost lost perspective on as the week wore on and all the chatter and over-analysis and phony instigation and extreme point missing (how do some of these people stay working) by the pundits combined with the political gamesmanship between the parties and within the Dems themselves threatened to smash the big picture into a million little pieces.

So, by the end of the week, exhausted from running through the streets for days and being fried in the high altitude, and done in by the ability of all of us to sometimes -- to paraphrase Obama -- make big things small, I was ready to raise the white flag. Not to mention I hate big crowds and football stadiums (especially if football is being played) and giant rock-show spectacles.

And much has has been made of the supposed rock-star trapping of the setting at outdoor Invesco Stadium and the supposed revivalist fervor/meets rock star aesthetic of Obama's campaign (I don't think Shepard Fairey's Maoist Obama iconography is helping) and I admit I almost fell for the cynical trap. Movements unsettle me. I'm not a joiner. Naked displays of hope and faith repel me. I'm a bleeding heart in a cynic's shell.

But all that went away when Obama took the stage before those 80,000 hopeful folks and I was immediately glad to be there. Sure, the crowd went crazy, and I had that sinking feeling I was going be put through an hour-long love in. But Obama himself was having none of it. After accepting a thunderous greeting, he immediately set about making it all right to be there.

He made it all right because beyond the politics and presentation of his speech, which he mastered deftly despite the huge scale to which they'd been raised, and beyond the symbolism of the moment, which was as historically momentous as can be, the thing Obama did best was bring it all back down to a human level. No one was overcome with the spirit. No one started speaking in tongues. Nobody rushed the stage to touch the messiah. Bill may "love it" and can even whip up a little hysteria, but Obama wasn't having it. As he said in so many words last night, shit's too serious for that nonsense.

Despite how huge the setting and how fevered the pitch, the first thing Obama did right last night was not walk on water. He didn't even try. Instead, he showed himself to be like you and me, a man. Just a man. A solid, smart, charismatic, compassionate man from modest origins who -- like I and I'd imagine you, too -- has had enough of this crap.

Neither godhead or even a figurehead, Obama was more like a guy you'd value as a friend or a colleague or teammate, who might inspire you to do better on all counts. Not to mention in a week that seemed to grow evermore infantile in its analytical babble and hype as it wore on, he also showed himself on that stage to be one of the few adults around. Worthy of trust. Even hope. And certainly leadership.

As far as the history of the moment, what's truly amazing about it (and boy did Chris Matthews miss this in his post-speech interview) and what makes it even more historic, is that the fact that Obama is African American seems beside the point. I mean it's fantastic and wonderful and overdue and everything else, but yet that's not the change that this election is about. It's weirdly becoming a footnote, a glorious one, but a footnote nonetheless. There are way bigger fish to fry -- and I suppose that in itself is a strange barometer of some kind of progress -- and the guy to fry them just happens to be black (And, really, really white, too. Did you see those shots of his maternal family? Yikes.)

Obama's great gift, and it may be the one that brings this thing home for him, is that while everything around him gets bigger and bigger, he stays himself.


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