In the fall of 2003 Vernon Jordan asked me to stop by a fundraiser at his house in Washington for a friend of his who was seeking the Democratic nomination for the United States senate in Illinois. Vernon said, "Please come by, we need people. You don't have to give any money."
When I arrived only a few people were there and I found myself in a ten minute conversation with a young State Senator from Illinois. I was writing a play about Thurgood Marshall and he seemed a good subject for conversation with a man who excelled at the Harvard Law School and taught constitutional law at the University of Chicago. I went home that night and told my wife that I had met an exceptional man. It had something to do with the way he listened, the look in his eyes, the easy smile. He was there to meet people and raise money, but nothing would distract him from whomever he was talking to at a particular moment. Vernon Jordan is nobody's fool -- I left a check for Obama for Senate, as did his other guests.
Since that day in 2003 I have found the qualities that attracted me to Barack Obama magnified. He was, of course, inspiring at the Democratic Convention in Boston. On November 21, 2005, the day that would have been Robert Kennedy's eightieth birthday, he was the speaker at the RFK Human Rights Awards. The ceremony was held in the U.S. Senate Caucus Room, the setting where both John Kennedy and Robert Kennedy announced their candidacies for president. There was a quality in Barack Obama that day, as he spoke about human rights, that evoked the unfulfilled legacy of Robert Kennedy. He inspired a belief that this country's problems could be addressed. A glance at his biography made me realize that in 2008 this youthful looking senator would be three years older than John and Robert were when they ran for president. I wrote him the next day urging him to run in 2008, and I watched him contemplate that possibility during 2006.
He was relaxed and centered as he evaluated his prospects; he sought the advice of people he respected; he assessed the obstacles and the work that would have to be accomplished; and he made his decision. Then he put together a staff and a campaign team, and began to enlist followers, much like the community organizer he once was in Chicago. The new kid on the block raised more money than the incumbent Clinton organization that was able to call on political resources developed over a decade.
At the outset, he described a strategy that has not been altered. He told his supporters that the plan was to make a showing in Iowa and then people around the country would begin to hear his message and move in his direction. I saw him last fall when he remained thirty points behind in the national polls and the press was nearly unanimous in saying that the "rock star," as they had dubbed him, was a flash in the pan. Some of his supporters were discouraged and the pundits were insisting that he must attack Senator Clinton directly. He spoke to his supporters who met in Des Moines on the Columbus Day weekend. He told us that he was confident that he was going to win the nomination and the presidency. He was compelling, self assured and believable. He promised that he would be "making distinctions" between himself and Senator Clinton, but that to attack her personally would undercut the underlying theme of his campaign which was to put the politics of polarization and division behind us.
His supporters were reassured that night. Barack went on to win Iowa and the American public began to take notice.
Over the past four years, I have observed in him a consistency that earns confidence. He is thoughtful, courteous and humorous, yet he leaves no doubt that, while being a good listener, he will shape his own thinking and fight for what he believes in. He makes me believe that we can be the country we want to be, that we can solve the intractable problems that have divided us, that we can enlist the youth of America to help build our future, that we can be respected again in the eyes of the world -- and, yes, that we can have a president who will call us to the high ground, and ask us to ask ourselves, once again, not what our country can do for us but what we can do for our country.