It's so easy for the simple passage of time to rob us of what's most remarkable in our lives. All the power of these stunning American moments -- the Obama family walking out onstage in Grant Park on Election Night to greet a joyous, tearful crowd; the clear, sober miracle of Inauguration Day -- is destined to fade with time, with history, with the piling up of days and news cycles and the staccato rhythm of politics. It already is, right? But here's the thing: I don't wanna let it go just yet. I want to really appreciate what we've done as a people, what we're living through and contributing to.
To that end, I offer up a completely arbitrary and idiosyncratic personal list of people I've been walking around thinking about these past weeks -- people I really wish had lived to see Barack Obama elected and sworn in. There's dozens of others, of course, but I keep coming back to this Top-Fivesome. (I would encourage readers to weigh in with lists of their own in the comments field below, and feel free to use multiple comments to do so!)
Number 5: MURRAY KEMPTON
Murray Kempton was a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist and newspaperman who wrote for the Baltimore Sun, the (liberal) New York Post of the 1960s, The New York Review of Books, and Newsday -- one of the real lions of 20th-century journalism. He also happened to be my godfather.
When I was a child in the 1960s and 70s, my parents and the Kemptons were best friends, vacationing together, having cocktails and dinners, and turning every visit to each other's book-crammed New York City apartments into a roundtable on politics, history and culture -- heady stuff for a kid. Though he had dallied with the Communist Party USA in the 1930s like many of his peers, Murray Kempton had emerged with a code all his own, transcending liberalism or conservatism. Above all, Kempton believed in decency and clarity -- perhaps the two commodities in which Barack Obama is the richest politician on earth. "He is fresh, and everyone else is tired," Murray wrote of New York Mayor John V. Lindsay during his first term -- a sentence that echoed in my head during inauguration week watching Obama deftly sweep out the ill winds of the past eight years. Murray pined for "civility" in politics, and saw it in both the ultra-New deal, post-Camelot liberal Lindsay and his political antipode Bob Dole (whom Murray and Alexander Cockburn famously supported against the uncivil Bill Clinton in 1996). Murray was also one of the real race liberals of his generation, seeing in Jim Crow the greatest American tragedy of all. He interviewed civil rights leaders and everyday blacks during the years of struggle and told their stories poignantly. Wherever you've gone, Murray Kempton, have we got a President for you.
Number 4: JOE STRUMMER
Two things Joe Strummer said really resonate for me in the new era of Obama we are embarked upon. Surveying a seemingly broken world, he said simply: "Stuff is worth fixing" -- as we must now say in the wake of plunder. It's a sentiment indicative of his big, messy, generous humanism.
In 1981 the late great frontman for the Clash was a still-young punk pop star coming off a big-selling commercial breakthrough album (London Calling) when he decided the next career move should be to spend his political capital at the record label creating a sprawling three-record set celebrating the victory of the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, urging resistance to the draft everywhere, and pioneering a democratic musical stew that blended hip-hop, punk rock, reggae and dub, and the nascent strains of world beat. Later, he perfected that blend with the Mescaleros after leaving the spotlight far behind. He hung out with and was an evangelist for the music of every manner of human being on the face of the planet. His BBC radio program revealed that, as much as Strummer could yell, sing, talk, argue, and cajole, the thing he probably did best was listen. He listened like a thief to every kind of music on the planet, and to the people behind it. What Joe Strummer longed for more than anything was a truly polyglot, pan-human community of sound and reason. He was the President of Punk Rock with a big Hippie Heart. He would have been drunk on the Obama moment last week, when strangers cried and hugged and huddled optimistically in the cold of this broken world for joy.
Which brings us to the second great thing Joe Strummer said, which has since been scrawled as graffiti all over the world: "The future is unwritten."
Number 3: HARRIET TUBMAN
Has there been a greater act of faith -- not just religious faith, but faith in human history to ultimately bear out the good and gradually grind down the bad -- than the Underground Railroad? Harriet Tubman was born a slave in Maryland. She lived to escape captivity, make it North, work as an abolitionist alongside Frederick Douglass. She then did something that transcends the theoretical and the political, she did what we are called upon to do in dark times: She took matters into her own hands, crossing back over into slave states, ultimately making 13 missions to rescue over 70 slaves. She helped establish the network of hideouts and safe houses used by so many to escape to freedom. And she risked everything again as a spy on the side of the Union during the Civil War. She may be as brave as any human being who ever walked the earth.
There should be a monument to Harriet Tubman right next to the Lincoln Memorial, because without her, and the many unsung violators of the Fugitive Slave Act who helped each other to freedom, nothing may have ever changed. Here's faith: Unrecognized as a citizen, Tubman asserted her citizenship anyway, and in so doing she helped create an America where freed slaves and their children were citizens, and where the story that now gives us President Obama could play out.
Later in life, she was active in the suffragist movement to secure women's right to vote. She also was someone who saw much of her work in visionary terms, having suffered a head injury early in life that caused her to believe that an American judgment was upon us. I wish she could have been sitting in the front row for Obama's inauguration so she could know that her faith in this world was not misplaced.
Number 2: MARK TWAIN
Because every curmudgeon wants to be proven wrong. Every cynic wants to celebrate. Every misanthrope likes to see the occasional exception to the rule that human beings suck. And most of all, because, as the father of American literature, Mark Twain knew a great story. For all these reasons, the man whose masterpiece has been mistakenly bowdlerized by the American speech police would have loved everything about Barack Obama's rise.
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn stands as a kind of blueprint for the discussion of American race relations. It is a story that in some ways resonates with Obama's own life. Huck rejects the status quo awaiting him; he is white, young, against all hypocrites, and looking to find something new and good in America. He joins forces with Jim, an escaped slave on the lam -- older, wiser, but also hopeful of the possibility that he may live free. They set out on an adventure that twists and turns with the river, and they have no way of knowing where the hell it will lead. Their allegiance and mutual interest in the good life down the river is tested again and again. And the firey heat of race and class is the crucible they must pass through. Barack Obama has a bit of both Huck and Jim in him. And guess what: he's the freakin' President! He is the most literary president in my lifetime -- the best writer, and the best character, whose thoroughly, uniquely American narrative he writes as he lives.
Twain's was the jaundiced eye with a tear pooling in it. I'll bet he really would have cried on January 20th -- for joy, for once.
Number 1: MOM AND DAD
I think there's a lot of us who feel this way. For my part, Dad was a blacklisted radio writer and Mom was a devout New Dealer. Both of them were huge supporters of the Civil Rights movement and spent a lot of time tutoring me on the ills of racism. Many of my earliest childhood memories hinge on anti-Vietnam War protests in both New York and DC; being five years old and sitting on the floor in front of the TV for hours with my ashen parents as the coverage of Bobby Kennedy's and Martin Luther King's assassinations unfurled; overhearing my parents have the biggest fight of their lives because my Mom thought Dad threw his vote away in '68 by casting it for Godfrey Cambridge instead of Humphrey; my Dad's stories about renouncing what he considered his family's narrow values when he was just a boy of 12 -- deciding he wasn't a practicing Catholic anymore, getting interested in Jazz and plotting his move to become a writer; the screaming match he had with his father over the 1932 presidential election -- his father the staunch Hoover-supporting Republican, my Dad the upstart young FDR man; and my Mom's stories about the Republican neighbors' kids coming out to taunt her family -- the only Democrats in the neighborhood -- when FDR died. And always, through Nixon and Reagan and war after war, their belief that the U.S. Constitution is sacred.
Man, how they would weep for joy if they only knew....
Go ahead to the comments section below and share your top people you wish could have seen President Obama.