We're exactly where I predicted. That's not because I'm so smart, but because Barack is such a transcendent American figure.
On Saturday, my wife and I spent some time at a fund-raising event in midtown with the first clean black guy ever to run for president. He is most definitely Hillary's worst nightmare, and the twenty points that separate them in the polls are inconsequential at this early stage. Much can still go wrong, but I believe more can go right.
You don't need me to tell you that Senator Obama is a compelling political figure. He is a rock star. But his rock star status is completely at odds with the quiet depth and thoughtfulness that he emanates. When asked a question, he would actually reflect for a moment and answer it directly and frontally, rather than shift into campaign response mode and morph the question into a platform for a parade of platitudes. He was multiple-level refreshing.
What we've re-learned in the last six years -- in the most brutally direct way possible - is the importance of intellectual curiosity, the ability to synthesize, and a high level of bubble immunity in a president. I believe that Obama is in full and dramatic possession of these attributes. And while there are those who maintain that he isn't experienced enough, I would argue that these qualities will not grow deeper after another four years in the Senate. Listening to Obama, I was reminded of the comment that Oliver Wendell Holmes made after meeting Franklin Roosevelt; he said that FDR had a first class temperament and second-class intellect. Obama has both.
This is the first time in fifty odd years that there hasn't been a sitting president of vice-present running for office. The wide-open nature of this race gives it an anything-can-happen quality, a spirit of shared possibility and invention that is creating a genuine national movement on behalf of Obama's candidacy.
One of the subjects Obama talked about was about his vision of a transformative change in the American political landscape. Normally, that would make my skin crawl. But when he talked about this, about moving beyond what has become a resistant structure of calcified grudges and frozen positions, he didn't sound like a politician or business guru spouting New Age claptrap. When he said that one of the statistics that gives him the most gratification is that he has a 55% approval rating among Evangelicals in Illinois, you begin to believe that transformation isn't an abused term but a real possibility.
Despite the comparisons, though, Obama didn't sound like Bobby Kennedy, who had been breathing presidential air his entire life, and who, in the 1968 campaign, would often frame the issues on both a visceral and a metaphysical level. He didn't have Kennedy's coiled, keyed-up, on-the-emotional-edge intensity that frightened as many people as it attracted.
Obama is a decent, brilliant guy who through a series of political accidents now has a clear path to the presidency ahead of him, and is thinking profoundly about what this moment can mean. His meteoric rise makes him, indisputably, a creation of the media. He knows this. But as mediagenic as he is, you never feel that he is cheap enough to cultivate the camera's love of him. He is aware that history is close to being made, but rightly, he doesn't challenge us to step forward and make history with him. Modest, that's a good old Victorian word that came to mind on Saturday.
We are a culture that's shown its willingness to vote for American Idol contestants, to throw videos up on YouTube, to contribute its photos to Flickr, to blog incessantly. This is a kinetic emotional energy waiting to attach itself to a presidential candidate, and as much as the experts are projecting a powerful grass-roots explosion for Obama, I believe that there isn't anyone who won't be absolutely blown away by the tectonic nature of the response.
I am writing this post on a flight from New York to Dallas, and it turns out that my colleague who is sitting next to me went to high school in Hawaii with Obama, knew him very well, and has stayed in touch over the years. He was the only black guy in the school, she reminisced, and he walked around with his Afro and his philosophy books and everyone loved him. "He is so good," she said to me. "What you think he is, is what he is. I'm just worried about what this campaign will do to him."
And that's the question. The hope is that he will do more to the campaign, than the campaign will do to him. We'll see if that's too audacious.