The Phenomenon

Barack Obama
Barack Obama; drawing by David Levine

The word “phenomenon”—from the Greek word phainesthai, “to appear,” and related to another Greek word that is the root of the English word “fantasy”—possesses a unique potency in our culture. While scientists may use it to mean anything observable, it is popularly applied to rock stars, movie stars, top athletes, and the like. Even today, in our hype-drenched society, it is not used promiscuously. It is reserved for that special minority of people who seem to have singular talent and potential; for those with the ability, that is, to fulfill our collective fantasies.

Politics, the domain of middling time-servers and the more talented few who spend years or even decades working their way methodically up the ladder, doesn’t see many phenomenons. But it certainly encountered one in late July 2004, when Barack Obama—still, then, a state senator from Illinois—gave the keynote address at the Democratic National Convention in Boston. The convention delegates and convention-goers and the television audience (smaller than usual—the networks decided not to broadcast live convention coverage the night of Obama’s speech, so he was watched only by the cable audience1 ) saw, in his delivery, a confident and eloquent and handsome young man, then just a week shy of his forty-third birthday. And they heard something most unusual, particularly during a bitter presidential election year—a plea to rise above the red–blue divide that was rooted in fundamental civic principles not often invoked these days by politicians of either party:

…Alongside our famous individualism, there’s another ingredient in the American saga, a belief that we are all connected as one people…. It is that fundamental belief—I am my brother’s keeper, I am my sister’s keeper—that makes this country work. It’s what allows us to pursue our individual dreams, yet still come together as a single American family: “E pluribus unum”; out of many, one…. There’s not a liberal America and a conservative America; there’s the United States of America. There’s not a black America and a white America and a Latino America and an Asian America; there’s the United States of America. The pundits like to slice our country into red states and blue states…. 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.

Immediately, Obama was hailed as a possible savior, and the speech as possibly the greatest convention speech by a relatively unknown politician since Hubert Humphrey’s rousing plea for civil rights at the 1948 Democratic convention. A candidate for the United States Senate at the time, Obama had the good fortune to be running against Alan Keyes, a hard-right, crackpot conservative from Maryland—also black, which is the main reason the Illinois Republican Party…

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