Talking with Obama

I actually think the American people are ready for a call to action. The biggest problem we have now is getting people to change. The question is, at what point are we willing to get together and realize that doing many of these things are hard, that it's going to require sacrifice, that those of us who have been lucky in life are going to have to pay a bit more? That's where leadership comes in.

That's where getting people interested and excited in our politics and to believe that we can do big things is relevant, and that's what I think I can provide.

—Barack Obama, Feb. 24, 2008

On Sunday, I was able to sit down for almost an hour with Barack Obama, the man who may, by this time next week, have won the race for the Democratic presidential nomination.

That he has come so far is the most amazing thing I have seen in politics in my lifetime. Think of it! This is a black guy (as we define race in this country) who lived for a while in Indonesia. This is a guy whose father lies buried in his native Africa.

This is a freshman senator who nobody outside Illinois had ever heard of four years ago. Today, he is winning presidential primary after primary, drawing huge turnouts and running up unheard-of vote totals in state after state.

Hardened cynics are hanging on his speeches. Millions are sending him small contributions. Grace Lee Boggs, who has been casting a mostly cynical eye toward all politicians since the 1930s, says she "can't get enough of Obama's calling upon Americans of all ages, all walks of life ... to stop thinking like victims and start believing that we have the power within ourselves to create the world anew."

The polls say he can defeat his GOP opponent, the aged John McCain. A black guy. Named Barack Hussein Obama. Leading the race for president of the United States.

Hard as it may be to believe, this is all really happening.

But who is he, really? And is he really anything different?

Frankly, I was prepared to be disappointed. America has been swooning over Obama for the last two months. The last time I saw people gaga over a candidate was in Michigan, six years ago.

That was when Jennifer Granholm was running for governor. I was all excited till I went out to breakfast with her — and found, to my dismay, almost nothing of substance.

Would Obama be the same way?

Anybody who has covered politics has had the experience of meeting politicians that seemed impressive — and finding the whole to be considerably less than some of the parts.

So, I went to meet Obama, who sat down with the editorial board of the Toledo Blade newspaper, where I serve as the ombudsman. Obama came here to openly court the paper's endorsement; the Blade is immensely influential in Northwest Ohio, and Ohio has become almost as important in the nomination struggle this year as it was in the general election last time.

Next Tuesday Ohio and Texas will hold critically important primaries. If Obama wins either one, he will be the nominee. Even Bill Clinton admitted that last week.

Polls show him still behind in Ohio, but closing fast. The Teamsters (!) have now endorsed him.

The New York Times had a story Sunday saying that after winning 11 states in a row, Obama was getting cocky. I didn't see that; I thought he had an air of quietly assured self-confidence.

When the meeting was over, someone called and asked me what I thought. I was mildly surprised by my answer:

Yes, I said simply. Yes, he just might be all that.

In person, Barack Obama is even more charismatic than on TV. He is tall, lithe, coordinated. He is thoughtful and funny at the same time. His enormous appeal seems to be built on a combination of intellectual and social intelligence. One of the people present was, I knew, a Hillary Clinton supporter. Obama clearly sensed that, bore in, tried to win her over.

I asked him a question about the nation's decaying infrastructure; would he, if necessary, support something like a new WPA, the federal program that put the unemployed to work during the Depression? Obama responded with a sophisticated plan for a program that would assist states and communities to do just that, by using a pool of matching fund money.

His program made sense, but what impressed me more was that he had clearly studied the issue, assimilated the knowledge, and was able to call it forth without seeming like a policy wonk.

Bottom line, what he seemed to be saying was that he thought he could bring about change — because he thinks we are ready to bring about change, after the years of the lies and filth and greed of the Bush administration. Would he ask us to sacrifice?

Yes, he would. We're going to pay more for energy, for gasoline and electricity, and that's probably not all. He wants to give students a $4,000 tuition credit — and would require them to do a fair amount of national or community service.

He intends to do a lot of things, but adds, "My first job is to build a working majority. And despite having an unabashedly progressive agenda, I've been able to attract independent and even some Republican votes, in a way that I'm afraid Hillary Clinton can't." He never said a negative word about his opponent, except that she is "too polarizing a figure" to bridge the great divide in our nation today.

He clearly thinks he can. "I think that's because people never get a sense that I am demonizing the other side, and I am able to listen ... so I think at a certain point this stops being a contest of paper résumés, and people start saying, the proof of the pudding is in who is actually showing the judgment and capacity to lead."

He smiled. "And when it comes to me — they think maybe the guy knows what he is doing."

This week's Kwame Moment In History: Today we set the Wayback Machine to August 1939, just before World War II broke out. A young Detroit woman named, not Strawberry, but Janet McDonald, is found dead, an apparent suicide.

She leaves a note saying she was the girlfriend of a corrupt police lieutenant who was a bagman for racketeers. Detroit's mayor, a pompous, oily character named Richard W. Reading, promises an investigation, but runs a cover-up. A one-man grand jury is appointed.

In the end, Mayor RR (not to be confused with KK) loses his bid for re-election and is indicted, along with the police chief, sheriff and more public officials than a numbers runner could count.

Three years later, Reading, his son, his chief of staff, the sheriff, the police chief and a passel of cops were all convicted. "This is the greatest injustice since the crucifixion of Jesus Christ!" the ex-mayor howled when they dragged him to the slammer.

I thought I'd add that, in case Kwame's speechwriters are lacking material. That's it for today, kids. And, as always, any resemblance to any public officials still living or having perjured themselves, wasted millions of city money or fighting a last desperate attempt to keep the evidence hidden, is strictly deliberate.

Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]
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