Barack Obama: A New Hope

The extraordinary magic of the presidential candidate

Barack Obama on the campaign trail in 2008 Credit: John Moore/Getty Images

The tides of history are rising higher and faster these days. Read them right and ride them, or be crushed.

And then along comes Barack Obama, with the kinds of gifts that appear in politics but once every few generations. There is a sense of dignity, even majesty, about him, and underneath that ease lies a resolute discipline.

It's not just that he is eloquent — with that ability to speak both to you and to speak for you — it's that he has a quality of thinking and intellectual and emotional honesty that is extraordinary.

I first learned of Barack Obama from a man who was at the highest level of George W. Bush's political organization through two presidential campaigns. He described the first-term senator from Illinois as "a walk­ing hope machine" and told me that he would not work for any Republi­can candidate in 2008 if Obama was nominated. He challenged me to read Obama's autobiography, Dreams From My Father.

The book was a revelation. Here was a man whose honesty about him­self and understanding of the human condition are both deep and com­passionate. Born to a white mother and an African father, he was raised in multiracial Hawaii and for sev­eral years in Indonesia. He drifted through some druggy teenage years — no apologies! — before emerging as a star at Harvard Law School. He chose to work as a community organizer in the projects of Chicago rather than join the wealthy insider world of corporate law. And as a young adult, he searched, in the distant villages of Kenya, for the father and family he never knew.

As I read all this, so elegantly writ­ten, my mind kept rolling over: Might it be possible? Is there some fate by which we could have this man as presi­dent of the United States?

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THROUGHOUT THE PRIMARIES, AND during a visit he paid to our offices, we have come to know Barack Obama, his toughness and his grace. He would not be intimidated, and he declined to back down, when Senator Clinton called him "frankly, naive" for his willing­ness to meet leaders of hostile nations. When one of her top campaign officials tried to smear him for his earlier drug use, he did not equivocate or backtrack. On the matter of experience and capa­bility, he has run an impressive, nearly flawless campaign — one that whupped America's most hard-boiled political infighters. Indeed, Obama was far more prepared to run a presidential campaign — from Day One — than Sena­tor Clinton. And at no point did he go negative with personal attacks or char­acter assassination; as much as they might have been justified, they didn't even seem tempting to him.

Obama has emerged by displaying precisely the kind of character and judgment we need in a president: re­nouncing the politics of fear, speaking frankly on the most pressing issues facing the country and sticking to his principles. He recognizes that running for president is an opportunity to in­spire an entire nation.

All this was made clearer by the contrast with Hillary Clinton, a capable and personable senator who has run the kind of campaign that reminds us of what makes us so discouraged about our politics. Her campaign certainly proved her experience didn't count for much: She was a bad manager and a bad strategist who naturally and easily engaged in the politics of distraction, trivialization and personal attack. She never convinced us that her vote for the war in Iraq was anything other than a strategic political calculation that placed her presidential ambitions above the horrifying consequences of a war. Her calibrated course corrections over the past three years were painful. Like John Kerry —— who also voted for the war while planning a presidential run —— it helped cost her that goal.

Although Obama declined to attack her personally for her vote for the war in Iraq, he did call it, devastatingly enough, a clear demonstration of her so-called experience and "judgment." He has also spoken forcefully about the need to break the grip of lobbyists —— at a time when Clinton is the larg­est recipient of drug-company dona- tions of anyone in Congress. Clinton could not address this issue at all, and neither will John McCain, who is equally a player in Washington's lob­byist culture.

Obama also denounced the Repub­lican campaign of fear. Early in the campaign, John Edwards took the lead, calling the War on Terror a campaign slogan, not a policy. Obama rejected the subtle imagery of false patriotism by not wearing a flag pin in his lapel, and he dismissed the broader notion that the Democratic Party had to find a way to buy into this entire load of fear-mongering War on Terror bullshit — to out-Republican the Republicans — and thus become, in his description of Hill­ary Clinton's macho posturing on foreign policy, little more than "Bush-Cheney lite."

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THE SIMILARITIES BETWEEN JOHN Kennedy and Barack Obama come to mind easily: the youth, the magnetism, the natural grace, the eloquence, the wit, the intelligence, the hope of anew generation.

But it might be more to the point to view Obama as Lincolnesque in his own origins, his sobriety and what his­tory now demands.

We have a deeply divided nation, driven apart by economic policies that have deliberately created the largest income disparities in our history, with stunning tax breaks for the wealthiest and subsidies for giant industries. The income of the average citizen is stag-nant, and his quality of life continues to slowly erode from inflation.

We are embittered and hobbled by the unnecessary and failed war in Iraq. We have been worn down by long years of fear- and hate-filled political strategies, assaults on constitutional freedoms, and levels of greed and cyni­cism, that — —once seen for what they are —— no people of moral values or ethics can tolerate.

A new president must heal these divides, must at long last face the hy­pocrisy and inequity of unprecedented government handouts to oil giants, hedge-fund barons, agriculture com­bines and drug companies. At the same time, the new president must transform our lethal energy economy — replacing oil and coal and the ethanol fraud with green alternatives and strict rain-forest preservation and tough international standards — before the planet becomes inhospitable for most human life. Al­though Obama has been slow to address global warming, I feel confident that his intelligence and morality will lead him clearly on this issue.

We need to recover the spiritual and moral direction that should describe our country and ourselves. We see this in Obama, and we see the promise he represents to bring factions together, to achieve again the unity that drives great change and faces difficult, and in­convenient, truths and peril.

We need to send a message to our­selves and to the world that we truly do stand for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. And in electing an Afri­can-American, we also profoundly re­nounce an ugliness and violence in our national character that have been fur­ther stoked by our president in these last eight years.

Like Abraham Lincoln, Barack Obama challenges America to rise up, to do what so many of us long to do: to summon "the better angels of our nature."