Jewish World Review August 3, 2004 /16 Menachem-Av 5764
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Obama's drama and our dreams: Getting back on track as the United States
BOSTON A superstar is born. It is difficult for many of us to contain our enthusiasm for Barack Obama, yet we must try. We owe that to him. We should not reward his blockbuster performance last week at the Democratic National Convention by loading his shoulders with the fate of the nation.
Not yet, anyway. That can wait, perhaps until, say, his 2012 presidential campaign?
For now, Illinois' self-described "skinny guy from the South Side of Chicago with the funny name" offers an inspiring glimpse of what America's next generation of black leadership could look like a leadership that is not for blacks only.
After a tidal wave of advance publicity, many wondered whether Obama, the 42-year-old Illinois state senator running for the U.S. Senate, could meet the challenge of delivering the convention's keynote speech. No problem. He knocked that ball out of the park. Journalists rushed to their thesauruses to find enough superlatives to describe him and Obama skyrocketed to historic figure, the quintessential crossover candidate, a Colin Powell for the party of the Revs. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton.
Obama is not a conservative, yet conservatives would be hard-pressed to find much in his speech with which to disagree. Well-crafted, it rose above the usual political pep talk to echo the all-American voice of liberal patron saint Martin Luther King Jr.
Shortly before his 1968 assassination, King preached, "Let us be dissatisfied until there is no black power, until there is no white power, but there is only G-d's power and human power."
Obama brought Democrats to their feet with, "Yet even as we speak, there are those who are preparing to divide us, the spin masters and negative ad peddlers who embrace the politics of anything goes. Well, I say to them tonight, there's not a liberal America and a conservative America; there's the United States of America. There's not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America; there's the United States of America.
"The pundits like to slice and dice our country into red states and blue states; red states for Republicans, blue states for Democrats. But I've got news for them too. We worship an awesome God in the blue states and we don't like federal agents poking around our libraries in the red states. We coach Little League in the blue states and, yes, we've got some gay friends in the red states. There are patriots who opposed the war in Iraq and patriots who supported it. We are one people, all of us pledging allegiance to the Stars and Stripes, all of us defending the United States of America."
Obama's forceful baritone delivery adds a special resonance to those come-together sentiments because his life is an epic narrative of the American Dream on the brink of a new multiracial and multicultural century.
His white mother was from Kansas and his father was a goatherd from Kenya who came to Hawaii on scholarship and later graduated from Harvard. Their son, born in Hawaii, and raised partly in Indonesia, became the first black president of Harvard Law Review and teaches law at University of Chicago. "It's a typical biography for an Illinois politician," he joked on NBC's "Meet the Press."
Twenty years after The Wall Street Journal tagged Chicago as "Beirut on the Lake" for its racially divisive politics, Obama's huge victory over a seven-person field in this year's Democratic primary for U.S. Senate shows a progress for which all Illinois residents should feel proud. It also has sparked a national excitement about Obama among Americans of all races who want their chance to feel similarly proud.
But with the wise counsel of his savvy attorney-wife Michelle, Obama seems to be keeping a cool head about everyone else's high expectations. He is as intrigued as I am, he once told me, that Americans always seem to be searching for the next black leader, but he's not going to start measuring curtains in the White House when he has not even been elected to the Senate yet.
In his broad outreach, he is trying mightily to fairly represent all constituencies, but with a special sensitivity about issues of great concern to black folks. He has voted for racial-profiling bans, funding for child health care and earned income tax credits. "I try to remind people," he said after his speech, "that I live in the African-American community but I am not limited by it."
Nor should the rest of us impose racial limits on him. That's not always easy. It's hard to suppress the hope that Obama offers that the American Dream can work for all of America's dreamers.
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