On a quiet evening in Oak Park, Illinois in 1996, when Barack Obama was purportedly cavorting with terrorists like William Ayers to get his nefarious Illinois congressional campaign off the ground, I, too, went to a house party for Barack hosted by crazy, hopeful Americans looking for a better civic agenda. Or radical outliers strategizing about 9/11, depending upon your sources.
I was an unlikely invitee, having spent the 1980s pursuing my God-given right to work for an extremely conservative publisher, raise two boys, buy lots of Calphalon cookware, volunteer for the Junior League and wear fur. I firmly believed (and still do) in working hard and getting to keep most of the spoils. (Message to the media: It's not the candidate's fault who gets invited to a house party.)
I liked Susan, the client/colleague who invited me --a graduate of Harvard's Kennedy School of public policy who had left "community activism" for the not-so-easy path of influencing capable, well-educated people to leave their go-go business position to staff the nation's leading foundations and not-for-profits. I was in the midst of my own political conversion. A cradle Republican, I had some questions: If raising two boys on a good family income with an attentive father was such hard work, how did less-well-off couples and singles manage? How could I support traditional Republican opposition to gay rights after working alongside a supremely gifted, good gay man? And if Republicans don't do wars and deficits well, what is their platform, anyway? So when Susan called, I went.
When I got there, Susan was facing a typical hostesses' problem: not enough people had showed up. Unlike the hundreds of thousands who show up for Barack's message of hope and change today, on that evening there were maybe a dozen of us in Susan's modest (but beautiful) carriage house. Among the sparse guests were a Chicago journalist and his daughter, Maggie, a scholarship-educated Ivy League grad who was passionately focused on the struggles of Chicago's working poor.
I listened to Maggie and Barack engage on urban and civic issues in much the same way I remember listening to my engineer father connect with his fellows over the particulars of something complex, abstract, and not-so-interesting-to-me. I hovered nearby to listen but not interrupt; small talk would not cut it here. These were two serious experts examining challenging but engaging problems. Listening, I realized that -- despite my newly awakened liberal leanings -- I was still bush league when it came to understanding the social order beyond the realm of the lucky, the conventionally hardworking, and the culturally sanctioned.
As I listened, it was apparent that Barack-- while interested in the undeniable strengths of American-style capitalism -- felt that there was enough "play" in the American system to include the working poor in our nation's bounty. His approach was not "socialist" but entrepreneurial and uplifting. He clearly believed that America's working poor are an untapped resource, and that a small investment in their economic lives would yield tremendous benefits for the entire commonweal.
Almost a decade later, my strongest impressions are of an impressive, smart, handsome man who seemed completely unworried by the small turnout, and who was fully engaged with a bright young woman who aspired to follow in his footsteps as a community organizer.
This guy was the real deal. He reminded me of my parents' many kind and generous friends and contacts who had offered me mentorship over the years, solely because they loved what they did with a passion, and wanted to pass the flame to a new generation. Like Maggie, Barack Obama had an elite education that could have led directly to wealth and comfortable ease. Instead, he chose a grassroots path, powered by ideas, a consideration for others less fortunate, and the possibility of real, inclusive change in our society. And when he recognized a kindred spirit in Maggie, he ignored the sparse turnout (and its implications for his ultimately doomed Congressional bid) and took a few minutes to offer respect and encouragement to a thoughtful young woman.
Since that evening, I've continued to raise my children in relative privilege. I've survived cancer, thanks to good luck and great health care (and great health insurance). I've watched my beloved father succumb to a disease that pitched him back upon the dreaded social safety net that was our salvation. I have presided over the demise of my father's beloved company, that employed dozens of people for nearly 30 years. I have worked hard at a museum I love. And I have observed eight absolutely appalling years of American leadership which have brought war, torture, diminished civil rights, economic demise, widespread abandonment of consideration for the less fortunate, and increasing devaluation of learning and intellect.
A dozen years after I first met Barack Obama, I hope I have done some good things, for my family, my country, and my world. I know that I am not a world-changer -- except, perhaps, with my upcoming vote. I desperately want a leader who is better than I am.
A community organizer in the White House? We could do worse.
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