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Saturday, November 10, 2012  

Love, Charity, Duty and Patriotism
Suburban Diarist

For the purposes of this post, there are two things you should know:

1) As a third grader, I portrayed Michael Dukakis in my class's mock presidential debate.

2) In my parents' home hangs a photo of my grandfather shaking hands with Hubert Humphrey, at some forgotten Jefferson-Jackson Day dinner or other, signed by the late Vice President.

I grew up in the world of politics. I don't remember my first door-to-door canvass, which took place when I was three. I've known a lot of politicians, including members of my family, and the truth is that I admire and appreciate them. They get a bad rap. They are more public-spirited than people tend to assume. Smarter, too (with plenty of exceptions, of course). I grew up with a visceral love of politics, win or lose, Republican or Democrat.

When I moved from Madison to Chicago, Barack Obama was running against Bobby Rush for a seat in the U.S. House. I remember being intrigued by this guy--it is the curious tic of a certain kind of person that an unusual name creates sympathy--but he got crushed in the primary only weeks after I arrived. When he resurfaced as a U.S. Senate candidate in 2003, I was paying closer attention. In the unlikely event that you're interested, here's my first post about the man. I saw him in person twice before that primary, once, as mentioned, in a little church on Foster Avenue, and again at DePaul's downtown campus. I was struck by his insight and his philosophical command. He was, as it turned out, lucky in his primary opponents, but I remember even now that he was very reluctant to outright bash George W. Bush, politic as it would have been for him to do so in a 2004 Democratic primary.

When he won that primary, overwhelmingly as it happened, I was there. I had been out that whole day handing out palm cards and inspecting the precinct (the alderman was supporting another candidate). The local machine guy was incredulous; I was there without owing anybody anything? I had actual opinions on the race? I certainly had ambitions--Attorney General Obama, Chief Justice Obama--but it wasn't until primary night itself that I had an inkling of what we were in for. After watching notable pol after notable pol cross the stage, the future president made a grand entrance from a side door on the floor, through an insanely fired-up crowd. If that moment is archived on Youtube somewhere, it will show me, on the edge of the redirected spotlight, cheering madly with the rest. "John Kerry should get this guy to give the convention keynote speech" I told my friend. I was not, apparently, the only one who thought so.

A whole generation of politically-active Chicagoans can now look back, with considerable awe, at how far this man has gone in such a short time. A friend and I ran into him at Rajun Cajun in 2005 ("Hey, Senator!" "Hey guys." Clinton would have come over and asked our names, I admit), and I'm trying to remember what that sort of casual interaction felt like when he was merely a promising freshman senator and not a re-elected president. The same friend reported to me the appearance, in 2006, of bumper stickers saying "He's ready, why wait? Obama '08." We felt very proprietary and protective of Obama back then, we Hyde Parkers, we Chicago independents. I was afraid of him being pushed too far, too soon, disappointed by his accommodations with the Daley machine, full of suspense for what I assumed a long career would hold.

There was a lot, in retrospect, that we didn't know about him in those days. He was supported by the people who are called "independents" in Chicago politics, but it turned out that the term doesn't mean much any more (I found his endorsement of Daley in 2007 disappointing but inevitable; his endorsement of Dorothy Tillman that same year was crushing). There was a sense, among the DailyKos crowd and in other quarters, that Obama would be something of a progressive firebrand--something he conspicuously failed to be. There were people who wanted him to light up local politics and people who wanted him to light up the U.S. Senate, and it turns out that all of us were thinking much too small.

And so it happened that we took up our minor roles in telling America about Barack Obama again in 2007 and 2008. Milling around the Hyatt (the same one) on Super Tuesday after a long day of phone-banking I got interviewed by a reporter from Portugal. I always wondered if I spent a moment representing young, engaged America to the Portugese radio-listening public. That night's speech was one of his best, but it came at a hard time; the big primary states were not going well and the delegate-rich caucuses hadn't come in yet. I left the hotel that night thinking that he was one more contest away from losing the nomination; not until I got home and heard the late results did I see that he had, in fact, put himself in position to win the whole thing.

I mention all of this relative proximity to the man to point out that he has always been misunderstood, not least by his admirers. The wild-eyed radical of the Fox News imaginary is a laughable cartoon compared to a man who obviously owes a much greater debt to the rueful liberalism of Abraham Lincoln or the irony of T.S. Eliot than to, I don't know, Paolo Friere or Rigoberta Menchu. The candidate of blind optimism actually tempers his most stirring statements with an implied "or maybe not." That night in February, 2008 he talked about community organizing and the conviction that "we are the ones we've been waiting for." The point being, as I see now, not just that we have power and democratic accountability, but that no one is going to come to our rescue. The people who inscribed a peace sign into his 2008 logo didn't get him. The pundits who claimed he was a lightweight who was never really tested or vetted obviously didn't get him. The people who said that his listless October 3 debate performance bespoke a boredom with the presidency and a desire to move on to other things (every four years, as someone who imagines him or herself to be clever, seems to have noted) didn't get him. He's eluded us, quite brilliantly at times, and as he stands successfully re-elected he will continue to do so, in a way that I don't think any president in my lifetime has eluded his contemporaries.

It's been a long four years (and almost six since the beginning of the 2008 campaign). My politics are not quite what they were, and neither are the country's. There were good reasons to vote for his opponent, without any doubt. In a different mood I could praise or blame the president's record for this or that achievement or failing; there have been quora of both. But what I've been thinking about since watching that video on the morning of election day is the fact that I've never before watched a politician up close going from the state senate to the presidency, and I may never do so again. That's what's so curious about the emotional dimensions of electoral politics. It's not hard for me to understand, now, why people become bonded with great intensity to politicians who, when they reach the national stage, strike the rest of us as rather indifferent in eloquence or charisma--why we become invested in inflating their gifts and minimizing their flaws.

And there are some gifts that, come what may, will never need to be inflated. I was at Grant Park in 2008 but at home in the suburbs in 2012. I watched the president's speech from McCormick Place, and I was struck by his phrase "The freedom which so many Americans have fought for and died for come with responsibilities as well as rights. And among those are love and charity and duty and patriotism." It was an echo of his convention speech:

We, the people — (cheers) — recognize that we have responsibilities as well as rights; that our destinies are bound together; that a freedom which asks only, what's in it for me, a freedom without a commitment to others, a freedom without love or charity or duty or patriotism, is unworthy of our founding ideals, and those who died in their defense.

This is theological language. It is, I am certain, his own wording. No speechwriter worth his or her salt would ever use the word "charity." It's an old word for an old virtue that has been abused and bedraggled in every possible way. It goes back to those 2004 speeches when he would insist, "I am my brother's keeper; I am my sister's keeper." It made me think, after all this, of that curiously restrained senate campaign and the circumspect way in which Obama discussed a president who was shockingly unpopular among Democrats. Long views are as overrated in politics as they are in everything else, but I can't help but wonder about that fact. The point about charity is that it is something we all must depend on, one way or another, at some point in our lives, even if it is just in the interpretation of our intentions. Winners and losers, in politics and in life, need to be kept by their fellow citizens. 

The interminable campaign has come to an end. In a way that still confuses me, I'll miss it forever. 

posted by Benjamin Dueholm | 3:56 AM

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