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The Tentacle


July 30, 2004

Barack Obama Lit A Fire

Tony Soltero

We live in a culture of hype. Our mass media is constantly pumping up the latest sports car, the latest fad diet, the latest special movie effects, and the latest childbirth techniques as if they would forever establish a new standard in their categories, leaving the competition behind, and affecting that ever-popular Paradigm Shift for the next thousand years.

The political world is no exception. Just about every six months or so we hear about this new young hotshot who's going to be the next Roosevelt, or the next Churchill, or the man who will deliver world peace and find the cure for the West Nile virus while dropping a Ferrari into the garage of every American.

Most of us are aware that hype is just that -- inflated salesmanship -- and we temper our expectations accordingly. We have to, unless we're prepared to allow our lives to be a perpetual letdown.

It was in that spirit that I awaited Barack Obama's keynote address at the Democratic National Convention on Tuesday. I'd heard a little about him -- he was the promising young African-American state legislator from Illinois who was running for his state's U.S. Senate seat. I'd heard from all corners that this man was the real deal, the Next Big Thing, that he'd captured remarkable broad-based support across the state, cutting across racial, geographical, and partisan lines.

Mr. Obama's Republican Senate-race opponent, Jack Ryan, imploded in a sex scandal after spending $30 million on his campaign -- and LOSING ground in the polls. The GOP flailed around trying to recruit a replacement, dipping as it often does into its stable of B-list celebrities with the political experience of a tree frog. They tried to tap former Chicago Bears coach Mike Ditka. That didn't make it past the discussion stage. They suggested erstwhile rock star Ted Nugent, even though he didn't live in the state. That one flamed out, too.

As of today, the situation remains unresolved. Nobody wants to face Barack Obama.

So, in other words, there's been plenty of hype surrounding him. In light of this, my skeptic-o-meter was properly calibrated as Mr. Obama strolled to the podium at the convention.

Fifteen minutes later, the reading on the skeptic-o-meter had dropped to zero. The sheer electricity of Barack Obama's speech had shorted it out.

This was, ladies and gentlemen, one of the great national-stage debuts in American political history.

In his keynote address, Mr. Obama described his background as the son of a goat-herding Kenyan immigrant and a humble Kansas lady. He proceeded to effusively praise America for the opportunities it offered his family, for its historical respect of constitutional law and liberties, and for its diversity, which he personally encapsulates so well.

Most revealingly, he preached a philosophy of inclusiveness and unity, reaching out to independents and conservatives as well as his liberal base. "There are those who are preparing to divide us, the spin meisters and negative add peddlers....I say to them tonight, there's not a liberal America and a conservative America -- there's the United States of America." He assailed those would "sacrifice our basic liberties or use faith as a wedge to divide us".

Dismissing the news media's facile color-coding of the states that make up our nation, he remarked, "We worship an awesome God in the blue states, and we don't like federal agents poking around our libraries in the red states. We coach Little League in the blue states and have gay friends in the red states....We are one people."

He delivered these words, and many others along the same lines, in a brilliantly conversational, evenhanded style that had the Boston audience roaring at the end. For a 43-year-old self-described "skinny kid with a funny name," he gave every indication that he's not just ready for a mere Senate seat -- he's destined for even higher ground.

He skillfully deconstructed common right-wing straw men, emphasizing that liberals have never expected government to solve all of the nation's problems; they simply believe it has a role to play in setting national priorities and direction. He brought attention to the Bush administration's shabby treatment and under-funding of veterans and returning Iraq soldiers, and reiterated that a Democratic White House would never "fudge the numbers or shade the truth" to put our troops in harm's way.

The ubiquitous right-wing TV pundits, poised to gang-tackle every Democrat at the convention as each speech wrapped up, simply sat stunned in the wake of Mr. Obama's address. One of them lamely tried to co-opt him as a "conservative" -- which I guess is true, if one believes that attention to education, health care, equality of opportunity, honesty and accountability in government, balanced budgets, and protection of our civil liberties are "conservative" values. But there's no problem if they want to reclaim these values for their side -- it would certainly help in the process of taking the GOP back from the neo-con ideologues who have led it disastrously astray, and the nation along with it.

Mr. Obama heartily capped his thunderous speech with a powerful endorsement of Sen. John Kerry for President. But the audience could be excused if it might have felt that the speaker was an even better choice. Maybe so -- let's just hope that his idealism and enthusiasm do not get damaged by the grinds and compromises inherent in being a U. S. Senator.

It is a rare occasion indeed to witness the coming-out party of a national leader. But Tuesday's speech was exactly that. He was THE item of conversation the next day, having upstaged many of his better-known party colleagues. If you haven't seen the address, get a videotape -- whatever your party affiliation.



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