I tagged along to the Democratic National Convention in Denver with my wife, Ayelet Waldman, one of five pledged Obama delegates elected from the 9th Congressional District of California. Like every political convention, I suppose, this one was quite a show: a spectacle. But it was more than that, and less: in the end it turned out to be only exactly what was needed. Yes, there were singing acts and short subjects, satellite trucks and talking heads, a menu of celebrities. At times the convention played like an opera, loosely based on Shakespeare; a rock concert; a rhetorical full-program magic show; a sporting event. But I can’t pretend to be cool toward the hoopla—it was high-quality hoopla—or even necessarily clear-eyed. Like a lot of other people, I have been trying to help get Barack Obama elected president of the United States of America for a long time, since shortly before he officially announced his candidacy (a time when, if I stated my belief that Obama could win the Democratic nomination, I was frequently, I don’t mind reminding some of you people now, patronized and patted on the head). I can’t claim to be fair, or balanced. But I will try.
Like so many others, I first took note of Obama at the 2004 DNC, when he delivered what still ranks, for me, as among his top five speeches ever, the one where he said:
And I stand here today, grateful for the diversity of my heritage, aware that my parents’ dreams live on in my two precious daughters. I stand here knowing that my story is part of the larger American story, that I owe a debt to all of those who came before me, and that, in no other country on earth, is my story even possible.
I was pleased when Obama subsequently won his Senate seat, but after that victory I did not closely follow his actions or statements until late in 2006, when I read in the pages of this publication a review by Michael Tomasky of The Audacity of Hope.1 Tomasky quoted at length from a passage in which Obama described his emotions on being sworn in as a United States senator, the complicated strands of reverence and ruefulness inspired by his first taking up the business of that house, with its history of grandeur and shame, a history perfectly embodied by his august colleague, the former Klansman Robert Byrd.
When I got hold of the book—its title derived from a sermon by a little-known Chicago preacher with the prophetical name of Jeremiah Wright—I found that it gave voice to a feeling about America and its history (and by implication its future) that I had always struggled myself to put into words. It was a history, Obama seemed to argue, that was best understood and best loved when viewed, like Senator Byrd, through a kind of moral stereoscope. One could embrace the grandeur without diminishing the consciousness of shame. One…
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