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Wednesday, March 17, 2004

Let Us Now Praise Famous Men

Last night was strange and beautiful. A man who I've been volunteering for and talking up to everyone I know for an endless stream of days won the Democratic party nomination to become the next delegate from the great state of Illinois to the United States Senate. He did this despite the incredible odds against him, including a multimillionaire who wanted to buy his way into the seat and candidates backed by the legendary Chicago Democratic machine. He beat them all. With passion, idealism and an unwavering loyalty to what he believes in.

Coming from a current events obssessed family, I was pretty politically savvy from a young age. I remember the distaste I felt when I was ten years old, watching George Bush crush Michael Dukakis with words I knew even then to be code for setting people against each other. "Liberal" meant you were unpatriotic and "soft on crime" and an enemy of the decent, God fearing, pants wearing white working class. Four years later, I watched an incredibly smart and charming gentleman named Bill Clinton beat Bush at his own game. But he did so by compromising so much of what liberalism was supposed to be about that one couldn't happen to wonder if it was worth the victory, a quandry that plagues his successors today. Not many people buy into the old Frank Capra idealism about good government anymore, but I'm one of them. I'm one of them because of Barack Obama.

I've never been directly involved in politics before, but six years ago, when a particularly annoying conservative Republican named Peter Fitzgerald (also a freewheeling millionaire) became an Illinois senator, I wanted to have something to do with taking him down. As is so often the case, the instinct was about beating the other guy, not to actually work *for* somebody. Among the Democrats, I could have worked for, my dad suggested a guy named Obama. Like many, I was instantly skeptical that someone with such a politically poisonous last name could get large numbers of Americans to vote for him, but I checked him out anyway, on the Web and such, and I really liked what I saw. Still, it was only an intellectual affinity. I decided to march in a parade supporting his candidacy on Memorial Day 2003. I remember somewhat awkwardly standing around, being told to pass out buttons to passersby and enjoying the campaign's free pizza. I was already fairly excited about him and the other volunteers seemed really cool, but I still wasn't sure if I belonged there. Then I saw the man in the flesh and I know this will sound corny but I instantly felt his spirit. We all did. His charisma is a tangible thing. As he walked up the slope of the downtown Chicago street with his famous smile, he quickly appraised us and said "Look at this *crew*!" There were probably only about twenty of us but this early in the campaign that was pretty impressive.

I knew right away that Barack had the makings of a truly great politician. Not statesman, not leader, but great politician. He had the charm and charisma of a Ronald Reagan or Bill Clinton. That ability to be warm, and funny and make total strangers like me, feel like his best friends. But he had more than that. Because he *was* a great statesman and leader, all that style was just the outward manifestation of his substance. Yeah, he was sharp and smooth, but it only belied his genuine wisdom and compassion. That annoying guy I mentioned, Fitzgerald, dropped out of the race, opting out of a second term, but that hardly mattered, I had somebody I wanted to fight *for*. To follow to the ends of the earth.

I'm usually as cynical and detached as the rest of you, believe me.

I got to hear Barack speak many times, and his standard stump speech articulates in perfect, soaring words what American liberalism is at its best. Not "big government" or anything goes decadence, but a belief that all humanity is connected, that every person is worth exactly what everyone else is worth. I hear him say it again last night, this time in his victory speech:

(Paraphrasing badly)

"If there's a child on the South Side of Chicago who can't read, that makes my life a little poorer, even if it's not my child. If there's a senior citizen in Alton, Illinois who can't get quality prescription drugs, that makes my life poorer even if it's not my grandparent. And if an immigrant is being denied his rights and being round up by John Ashcroft, that matters to me too."

And I realized for the first time last night, as many times as I've heard Barack say those words, I've heard them before too...

"While there is a lower class, I am in it, while there is a criminal element I am of it, while there is a soul in prison, I am not free."

-Eugene Debs

"Whenever there's a cop beating up a guy, I'll be there, whenever there's a fight so hungry people can eat, I'll be there..."

-John Steinbeck

"Whenever you have fed and clothed and brought comfort to my brothers, you have done so for me."

-Jesus of Nazareth

Barack Obama is a great man, but he's just the latest link in a long chain that stretches back to the first moment when human beings were able to look outside themselves and see their brethren in the same light as themselves, to see their suffering as their own, and shortly after this follows the noblest of our instincts: the determination to do something about it.

Because the last couple of plays I've done have basically been my life, I was never able to do nearly as much for the campaign as I initially wanted to. I helped out at the headquarters, made some phone calls, knocked on some doors. Every time I did I wished I could do more. The race was looking really close, it was definitely an uphill battle. As recently as a month ago, the polls had him tied or behind his two biggest rivals, who had lots more money and connections than he did. And with the pessimism ingrained in any liberal Democrat, I wasn't sure if we were going to pull it out. Eventually Barack started to rebound in the polls, as soon as he managed to get on TV. According to one poll he had an impressive lead at 33%, but I was still cautious. At a rally, one of his allies warned us that it would be an incredibly close race and we had to redouble our efforts, because the election would come down to five thousand votes. As I got up early yesterday morning to pass flyers out near a polling place, I had a tense, grim feeling, trying to prepare myself for anything to go wrong, for the crushing disappointment I know I would feel if it did. The weather was cold. People in this stupid country don't vote when the weather is cold. Then the night came.

Fifty four percent. Hundreds of thousands of votes.

At the victory party I made sure to say hello to a handful of people I had gotten to know slightly from other campaign events and adventures. People who had done far more than me. A guy named Jeff had helped run our efforts in Chicago's 47th Ward, considered a stronghold of Barack's closest rival had tears of well earned pride in his eyes as he told me that we had won there by a margin of twenty points. I saw a young woman named Rebekah there, who had become a major coordinator for the campaign, but seeing her reminded me of how she was one of the handful of people with me at that Memorial Day parade, almost a year ago. There were ten or twenty of us then. I looked around me at the massive reception room. Thousands.

Democracy lives in the United States of America. And don't let anybody, from any side of the political spectrum tell you differently. Wherever you are in this country, no matter how bad things look, there's some kind of movement to make things better. And if there isn't you can start one.

On the other hand, remember those noble, beautiful human instincts I mentioned a minute ago? They exist side by side with the worst. Humanity is capable of terrible evil, we all know that. From the banality of everyday corruption to the horrors of war and tyranny and worse. It's been that way from the beginning and I don't think it's gonna change anytime soon. But that's all the more reason to keep fighting, and we will.

Yes we will.

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