The most remarkable thing about Barack Obama's remarkable campaign was his personal consistency.
In his victory speech last night before 100,000 cheering fans in Chicago's Grant Park, he was the same composed, confident, understated, serious Barack Obama who came out of political nowhere to win the Iowa caucuses. That personal composure, a kind of inner grace, is his hallmark.
At a moment of exaltation, when he could have been forgiven for a letting it rip, he held himself in check. Even as the applause rolled over him, he stood there, alone, collected, secure.
"I hear you, I hear your voices," he said to those who had supported John McCain. Indeed, it is his ability to listen, almost more than his eloquence as a speaker, that distinguishes Barack Obama.
From the beginning of this endless campaign, he sensed clearly that the American people were repelled by the fractious, bitter tone of political discourse. They were tired of the character assassination and negative attacks that characterize campaigning today, and more than anyone else, Obama understood that.
In the face of every provocation from Hillary and Bill Clinton and later, John McCain and, especially, Sarah Palin, he kept his cool. Even after the Republican convention, when his campaign seemed stalled in place and his closest supporters were urging him to lash out, to fight back, to show some emotion, Barack Obama continued on the same, steady, civil course.
He seems to have an almost perfect ear for the American political pulse, a kind of political GPS that tells him where people are and where they want to go.
Nothing seemed to get to him, not the nonsense about his supposed friendship with the now-famous "washed-up terrorist," William Ayers, not the racist ravings of the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, not the Republican ads labeling him a Socialist and Marxist. Obama answered or explained each, but in his own, measured, quietly-confident way. Somehow, he sensed that that would be enough to blunt the attacks, and that to go further, to lash out, would be too much.
This serene, unflappable manner served him well in the debates: not just the 19 with his fellow Democrats during the primary season, but more importantly, the three against John McCain. The 47-year-old Obama looked presidential, while the older, more experienced McCain came across as angry and erratic. People who were uncertain about Obama up to that point decided, yes, they could see him in the Oval Office after all.
It will be fascinating to see how the Presidency changes him. It ages everyone. And the challenges facing him are extraordinary. But that internal compass that guided Barack Obama through the campaign is likely to serve him well.
Terence Smith is a journalist and former media correspondent for The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer. His website is terencefsmith.com
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