Crucial Minutia
it's the little things...
Daniel May
He’s the DJ I’m the Ranter: Breakfast with Barack
1 Comment | posted March 28th, 2007 at 05:23 pm by Daniel May

The Russell Office Building’s Room 325 is where Anita Hill testified, where hearings into the sinking of the titanic were held, and where John F. Kennedy announced his campaign for presidency. The room looks the part: along the back wall hang red curtains that bend between white pillars, a backdrop so theatrical it makes the room look like a set dressed for a filming of the hearings on the sinking of the titanic more than the actual room where they happened. The pillars are way too big for the space, and the ceiling is easily as tall as the room is wide. Room 325 is, above all, stately.

Room 325 is also where the Senators from Illinois host their “constituent coffee” every Thursday at 8:30am. On a bitingly cold morning February morning, the room was less crowded than I expected. The face of one of the senators, after all, had greeted my walk through Union Station, gently smiling out from the covers of a dozen books stacked in a display in the B. Dalton window. It was cold, and it was early, but it was also Barack Obama. He was set to announce his presidency for candidate the following Saturday, and I was nervous, running in the cold at 8:25, that I wouldn’t get in to the thing. Instead, of the maybe 150 seats, 60 or 65 were taken. Most of the donuts and coffee, on a table to the side, went uneaten.

Obama was late, so Senator Durbin opened. I’ve always admired Dick Durbin. Self-effacing and thoughtful, he’s able to strike a balanced tone between reasonable and indignant. Running the introductions he was, well, senatorial. Comfortable and welcoming, he seemed to know everybody in the room

There wasn’t any gasp when Senator Obama strode in, walking quickly up the aisle. The only give-away that this was a man who had in two years become one of the most recognized people in America was the camera and lighting rig from 60 minutes that preceded his entry, bathing his face in a white glow. He took the podium to go over the senate’s business for the week. “Well, the truth is,” he said in his clipped tone, “What’s going on in the senate right now is: not much.” He then gamely described the death of the Democrats non-binding resolution opposing Bush’s escalation. Obama told it as a case of The White House blocking a conversation that could not be stopped, that would not be stopped, despite the administration’s attempts to stifle debate.

A quick word on this: The Republicans had done what Republicans do so well. The proposal whose hearing they demanded in exchange for permitting the non-binding resolution to reach the floor would have guaranteed full funding for the war. It was a catch-22 – democrats vote for the full funding, and they get attacked for not having the courage of their convictions, and if they vote against it they get attacked for not supporting our troops. There was no way that Obama, Clinton, and anyone else who wasn’t Robert Byrd would have voted against it. So they didn’t take the deal. It was a classic legislative banana peel, whose sole purpose was forcing the democrats to cast a vote that would be used – no matter which way the vote is cast – in a negative ad (Clinton did a good job of explaining how the white house has perfected this tactic in the legendary Fox News interview).

There wasn’t anything untrue about Obama’s description of the week’s developments (although you could make a case that the Democrats, with their non-binding resolution, were playing the banana tossing game as well) but I couldn’t help feeling that, well, this was Barack Obama. This was the man who had cut his teeth organizing in the housing projects of South Chicago, who an ACORN organizer in a 1995 Chicago Weekly described as “one of us,” whose first book kept me up all night and helped me make sense of the lonely and powerful organizing I was doing in Los Angeles at the time, who had described his move toward religion as a “choice, not an epiphany,” (I mean, what American Politician talks like that?) This was the man who had led me, despite years of cursing the realities of campaign politics to the awkward experience of waiting in a senate office for two hours, resume in hand, hoping to catch a senior staff I could pass my credentials along to. I wanted, despite the obvious perfunctory nature of a constituent coffee, something besides the standard Democratic interpretation of the week’s goings on. What I wanted was to hear what Barack Obama thought about the week’s goings on. Instead, in a very thoughtful and reasoned manner, Obama said pretty much exactly what you would expect any Senator to say.

The morning proceeded along in similar fashion. Obama took questions on Immigration (“I thought we had a good bill last term, and I’m hoping it will get another hearing”), health care (“The states are leading the way, and we need to follow”) and economics (“We need to enlarge the pie, but then we need to be sure it gets sliced in a fair manner”). His answers were suitable but, surprisingly, forgettable. Maybe I’m being unfair – this was a weekly ritual I only knew existed from a passing line in a New Yorker article. But, then again, this was a guy who was announcing for president in 5 days . While my expectations were perhaps unfair they were not unfounded.

While waiting outside his office at 7:30am I overheard a conversation between a new staffer and the cameraman for 60 minutes. It lasted about 45 seconds, and the cameraman managed to say of Obama both: “He’s just so charismatic” as well as “And so articulate.” Within five minutes of hearing the man it was clear just how absurd these descriptors actually are. If there is any doubt that “articulate,” when used to describe an American politician, is shorthand for black, a few minutes around Obama settles it. He is articulate – like a senator, a group that tends not to include the mealy mouthed. But Obama, while exceedingly clear in his language, is not a particularly gifted orator. As far as charisma, Obama has presence, but his presence is one of gravitas and depth – he strikes you as one of those people who know themselves thoroughly, who would not be fazed by a sudden explosion in the back of the room. Unflappable. That is a kind of charisma, but it’s not one that draws you in. It’s one that calls forth respect, but not awe. As the morning wore on, I realized that those adjectives obscure the man’s talents. “Charismatic” can be a euphemism for superficial and “articulate” shorthand for slick.

What Obama is, and what makes him so incredibly compelling, is thoughtful. He has got to be the most reflective dude who has ever run for president. He talks openly about ambition, drug use, and internal conflict. Hannah Arendt writes that the mark of genius is that what the genius finds beautiful all people find beautiful. And the man is, in this sense, bona fide. He articulates a vision of the country that we want to behold. We see our own anxieties and hopes – our desire to be a nation where race can be significant but not all encompassing, where values can guide rather than limit relationships, where great success does not come with compromise but with honesty. But this is an incredible weight to bear – the hopes of a people, not just of a party.

But does thoughtful, well, play? This gets at the difficult thing of running for president, even if you are, as some have described Obama, the “smartest guy in the world.” And that is the problem of: saying what’s on your mind. Every new thought becomes un-new in a campaign. Every insight becomes a sound bite. Reflective becomes “articulate,” interesting becomes “charismatic.” What draws people to Obama is that he manages to sound like he’s not running for president (last week, after all, he said “this feels like you’re waiting to hear, ‘your voted off the island’ or ‘you’re going to Hollywood!’”), but how do you keep that up when you are indeed running for president? How many times can you say “there is not a black America and a white America there is only the United States of America” before it is cliché? 10? 20? 75? Can you, well, perform reflective? And if you can’t, where does that leave a candidate like Obama?

Obama is a very rare politician – one who can talk about how insane our politics is while excelling in it. Paul Wellstone was the last person I saw do this, and I have been waiting for it since his passing. I suppose it’s why I will support him rather than Edwards, whose policy proposals are close to my heart. I want somebody who will point out how far our politics is from what it can be, how sickening it is to debate a flag burning amendment every four years, how silly it is that even a non-binding resolution can’t make it to the floor of the senate. But can Obama point us towards what our politics can be while immersed in the worst of it?

This entry was posted on Wednesday, March 28th, 2007 at 5:23 pm and is filed under General. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

There is currently one response

  1. Joie Jager-Hyman

    As a progressive voter, I feel many of the same things when it comes to Obama. Never before has a candidate had such an appealing and fresh persona. He almost seems too perfect for politics. It makes you wonder why he decided to immerse himself in them. One can’t help but wonder if or when the rug will be pulled out from under those of us who hope for change. Here’s to hoping though!

    March 28th, 2007 | 6:24 pm

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