In March of '07, I listened to Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton speak in Selma, Alabama (here and here).
Those were still early days in the interminable American political process, a time when the knives were hardly sharp as they are now, as the real business -- getting votes -- gets under way.
But even then, Obama struck me as a strong, serious candidate. This is the line I used at the time: At first blush -- and that's all this was, I would certainly not base a decision to vote on this one speech -- at first blush, this is an impressive candidate for President of the US.
Ten months later, Obama has won the Iowa caucus, and on TV yesterday he appeared with the three other Democratic candidates -- Clinton, Richardson and Edwards -- in a sometimes testy debate. This, as the candidates head into the New Hampshire primary. (Please don't ask about caucus vs primary: I have only the vaguest idea and it hardly seems to matter anyway: Obama won Iowa, that's all). Through the debate, Obama seemed uninterested in flinging barbs at the others, genuinely interested in recognizing their contributions and worth, while also acknowledging differences. Sometimes what seemed shades to me, but acknowledging them anyway.
I think it is this quality that has struck a chord in so many. In a time when every politician -- and not just in the USA -- seems only to want to throw mud at opponents, here's a man who seems genuinely to want to steer clear of that. In a time when there are so many divides, and vile rhetoric flung across those divides, here's a man who seems genuinely to want to heal. Not just to make political capital, but because he seems genuinely to believe that this is what he must do.
No doubt it's still early days in the Presidential selection process, and there's still a lot to learn about this man. Even so, he is already drawing support for his message.
"This was the moment," he said after the Iowa victory, "when we finally beat back the politics of fear, and doubt, and cynicism; the politics where we tear each other down instead of lifting this country up. This was the moment."
It's that kind of message I heard ten months ago in Selma, and it's the message Obama is taking to the other states in this union. It's a message that has even cynical political commentators wonderstruck. David Brooks writes that the Iowa victory is "one of those times when a movement that seemed ethereal and idealistic became a reality and took on political substance"; Obama, he thinks, is "more preoccupied with changing thinking than changing legislation." Bob Herbert writes that Obama "appeal[s] openly and consistently to the best, rather than the worst, in us."
And as always, that makes me think about my own country, and the myriad divisions we have. Most times I can't for the life of me see how we'll bridge them, and especially so when I consider the abuse and vicious rhetoric on every side. (I've flung my share). How do you reconcile people who've called each other "credulous cretin", or "terrorist-lover", or "fascist thug"? How do you reconcile people who bring out the worst in each other?
Where is our leader who will appeal "openly and consistently to the best in us"?