Barack Obama: 'He's been sent by God'
OPINION – Even by the feverish standards of US politics, the messianic fervour of Obama's campaign is disquieting, writes Mick Brown from Colorado.
A couple of hours before Barack Obama was due to speak in the heart of the "historic quarter" of the town of Pueblo, Colorado, on Saturday, in the unseasonable warmth and sunshine, I took a walk down Main Street. Secret Service agents in dark suits and sinister sunglasses, heads cocked to the electronic babble from their plastic earpieces, were sweeping the press and VIP area, holding back the crowd of television crews and reporters behind yellow tape. Looking across to where a stage had been set up at an intersection, adjacent to an antiques store and an attorney’s office, one could see the heavily armed special troopers on the roofs of the neighbouring buildings, scanning the surrounding vista through high-powered binoculars.
There were three more days to go before election day, and, here, in a key electoral battleground, the wind of rising fervour – and the formidable grassroots campaign machine – that had carried Obama to the doorstep of the White House, had brought thousands of people on to the streets of downtown Pueblo, brandishing posters, clad in Obama caps and T-shirts and festooned with badges. Anticipation and excitement thrummed in the air. (A testament to the efficiency of Obama’s organisation: that morning I had received an email inviting me to contribute to his campaign and enter a draw to join him in Chicago on election night, signed, with a degree of easy familiarity that I had no idea we shared, "Barack”.)
At the end of the street, on the side of the handsome Mission-style Union Depot building, hung a huge portrait of Obama, seemingly gazing over the town to the blue haze of the Rocky Mountains far beyond, emblazoned with a single word – Hope. Even by the habitually feverish standards of American politics, there is something extraordinary and, to British sensibilities, a little unsettling about the messianic fervour that has carried Barack Obama to the brink of the presidency.
On the pavement a group of young people – college students, they said, first-time voters, the kind of people that Obama has targeted – were gathering, armed with flyers to hand to the crowd. What, I wondered, did they see in Barack Obama? "He’s passionate. Inspiring. Liberating," one girl said, then paused. "I would take a bullet for him.”
And what if Obama were not elected?
”I’d leave the country," another girl said. "We’re in a world of s–––," a boy beside her added. "Actually, if Obama gets in, we’ll still be in a world of s–––, but at least there’ll be a chance of getting out of it."
I pushed my way towards the stage. Music had started, pumping up the adrenaline in the crowd – Ain’t No Stopping Us Now, Hold On, I’m Comin’ and Obama’s anthem, Signed, Sealed, Delivered.
Nothing can match an American political rally in its razzmatazz, unabashed patriotism, fulsome displays of faith. And now the time was nigh. A woman mounted the stage to lead the congregation in prayers, beseeching God to "continue to guard this man who has been a paragon of hope", and to watch over "our troops, our police, our firefighters and hard-working Americans”. A veteran, bedecked in medals, recited the pledge of allegiance. A pretty girl sang the Star-Spangled Banner. A shiver of excitement coursed through the crowd. He had arrived. His wife Michelle came first. We were about to meet the man, she said, who had unified a party and unified a nation, "and done it with grace, poise, honour, dignity and respect – the next President of the United States, my husband Barack Obama”.
The chant came up from the crowd, rising to a crescendo. ”O-ba-ma, O-ba-ma, O-ba-ma."
He came on to the stage as if he was walking into his own birthday party, a dapper figure, who had shucked off his suit jacket and turned up the sleeves of his shirt. He paused a moment, grinned, then gazed up towards the cloudless sky.
”I like this weather," he said.
To fully understand how remarkable Barack Obama’s journey to the White House has been, one need only visit the small town of El Dorado, 30 miles from the city of Wichita in Kansas. Obama’s maternal grandfather, Stanley Dunham, grew up here, and his grandmother Madelyn was born in nearby Augusta. They lived in El Dorado until 1955, when Obama’s mother Ann was 13, after which the family moved first to Texas, then to Seattle, followed by Hawaii. It was here, in a Russian language class at the University of Hawaii, that Ann met a Kenyan exchange student named Barack Hussein Obama. She married him in 1961, already expecting her first and only son.
When Barack Obama visited El Dorado for the first time this January, to speak in a high school gymnasium, he made reference to the town as "part of the story I’ve lived”, and his family’s story as "one that spans miles and generations; races and realities”, and the need for America to rediscover some of El Dorado’s "small-town virtues”. In his autobiography Dreams From My Father, published in 1995, he wrote more expansively of Kansas as "a place where decency and endurance and the pioneer spirit were joined at the hip with conformity and suspicion and the potential for unblinking cruelty”.
Ann Dunham’s first marriage ended after two years, and she married an Indonesian, Lolo Soetoro, and moved with him and her son to Jakarta, where Barack was educated first in a Roman Catholic and then a public school until the age of 11, when his mother, wishing her son to receive an American education, sent him back to Hawaii to live with her parents.
In 1972, when Obama, one of only two black pupils in his class, was in his second year at the Punahou School in Honolulu, another school, West High, in Wichita, Kansas – just 30 miles from where his family roots lay – exploded into racial violence over the issue of school busing. "Wichita then was very racially segregated," Robert Beattie, an attorney and author who was then a student at West High, told me. When rioting broke out in the school, Beattie was stabbed in the back after wading in to rescue a woman being attacked by four black men.
A few days later, Beattie remembers, there was a classroom meeting where a black student asked a white woman teacher whether she would ever marry a black man.
"The woman immediately answered: ‘No.’
"When asked ‘Why?’ she said, ‘Because of the children.’ And she didn’t need to say any more, because everybody in that class understood exactly what she meant. In 1972, in this part of the country, children of white women and black men lived very hard lives because they were not accepted by most people in either community.
"It’s amazing to me that having had that experience 36 years ago, I’m voting for the child of a white woman from Kansas and a black man for president of the United States," Beattie said.
In recent years Kansas, the prairie state and the geographical heart of America, has become a bellwether for the rise of evangelical conservatism and the "culture wars" – over abortion, gay marriage, prayer in schools, the "religious Right" versus the "secular Left" – which have polarised American politics and society in bitter quarrels and recrimination for the past 20 years. In 1991 Wichita was the scene of civil disturbances when 30,000 anti-abortion protesters descended on the town in a protest staged by a militant religious group, Operation Rescue. And the state has been the site of battles over the teaching of evolution in schools.
Kansas has not voted for a Democratic presidential candidate since Lyndon Johnson in 1964. In the 2004 election George Bush beat John Kerry with a whopping 62 per cent to 36.6 per cent. And nobody – least of all himself – is expecting Obama to take Kansas.
In El Dorado, on the unkempt lawn in front of the modest two-bedroom wooden house on West Olive Street where Stanley Dunham grew up, the current owner had planted a sign supporting the Republicans.
Down the road, the Democratic Party had set up its headquarters in a building that had once been a garage and most recently a thrift store, gone out of business. "Take whatever you want," said Glen Hobson, an elderly, weather-beaten man in blue jeans and a workshirt who had spent a lifetime working in the oilfields around town, gesturing towards the rails of second-hand clothes and bric-a-brac. They had got the premises rent-free, he said. Little of the $641 million that was said to be fuelling the Obama campaign had trickled down here. But among this small, and hitherto beleaguered, political minority there was a palpable sense that their time had come. Obama had galvanised people, Hobson said. "I’ve been in politics for 50 years and I’ve never seen anything close to the enthusiasm that he’s generated; and it’s strictly for the man himself.
"When he came to El Dorado it was snowing a blizzard and there was a line stretching for two or three blocks of people waiting to see him. Then we had a caucus out here and we had 700 people show up. Four years ago, we had 50 people turn up all day long. He just creates that kind of enthusiasm. He gives people hope, which is something people haven’t had in a while."
As we talked, volunteers drifted into the office, pulling up chairs until there were 20 of us sitting in a circle. A church secretary explained that she had been a registered Republican voter all her life, but had decided to vote for Obama, disillusioned by the way social issues had come to dominate the Republican agenda. "Abortion, gay marriage, I don’t see they have anything to do with politics" – and the way, she said, the rifts in America had widened under George Bush.
From the very beginning, Obama has striven to craft a narrative of unity rather than division, of all Americans finding common ground in the nation’s problems and common cause in solving them, carefully tailoring his own story as an exotic metaphor for the American myth of hope and opportunity, and of the ascent from the most humble origins to the highest office in the land; the son of a black man and a white woman, who has "relatives who look like Bernie Mac, and relatives who look like Margaret Thatcher"; who has gone to "some of the best schools in America and lived in one of the world’s poorest nations", married to a black American "who carries within her the blood of slaves and slave owners – an inheritance we pass on to our two precious daughters", with "brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews, uncles and cousins of every race and every hue, scattered across three continents and, for as long as I live, I will never forget that in no other country on earth is my story even possible."
Again and again in his speeches he has used the same rhetorical flourishes. "There’s not a liberal America and a conservative America… a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America; there’s the United States of America." The men and women "who serve in our battlefields" may be Democrats and Republicans and independents, "but they have fought together, and bled together, and some died together under the same proud flag. They have not served a red America or a blue America; they have served the United States of America".
(It was perhaps ironic that the more inexorable Obama’s progress towards the presidency has become, and the more fevered his rhetoric about an inclusive America has grown, so has his capacity to arouse some deeper, atavistic fear in the American psyche of "other", seeing him branded by far-Right bloggers and websites as a communist, "an Arab", an "Islamic" Manchurian candidate. A poll conducted by the Pew Research Centre, a non-partisan research body, in September suggested that 13 per cent of Americans believe Obama is a Muslim.)
Race, inevitably, has been a critical factor in this. There is the theory that he has flourished not in spite of being black but because of it; that many whites see in him confirmation that the most vivid ideals of American opportunity and equality are more than theoretical.
Obama has presented a very different picture of the black politician in America compared to a Jesse Jackson or an Al Sharpton, dispensing with the rhetoric of grievance, victimhood and inequality in favour of conciliation and common purpose, applying lessons that he apparently learnt as a teenager.
In his autobiography, Obama describes an argument with his mother when she feared he was drifting into bad company. "I had given her a reassuring smile and patted her hand and told her not to worry. It was usually an effective tactic, another of those tricks I had learnt. People were satisfied so long as you were courteous and smiled and made no sudden moves. They were more than satisfied, they were relieved – such a pleasant surprise to find a well-mannered young black man who didn’t seem angry all the time." It was a demeanour that in the time when he was fighting his way up in the bare-fisted world of Chicago politics would lead to accusations that he was "not black enough" to appeal to African-American voters.
But throughout his campaign there has coursed the unspoken suggestion that he might still be too black to appeal to white ones.
Obama was obliged to grab the awkward thorn of race in March, when film appeared on YouTube of the firebrand Chicago pastor, the Reverend Jeremiah Wright – whose church Obama had attended for some 20 years, and who had officiated at the wedding of Obama and Michelle – fulminating "God damn America" and the "USKKK".
In a landmark speech that acknowledged white fears as much as black resentments, Obama spoke of "the complexities of race in this country that we’ve never really worked through – a part of our union that we have yet to perfect". The fact that so many had been surprised to hear the anger in Wright’s sermons, he went on, "simply reminds us of the old truism that the most segregated hour in American life occurs on Sunday morning". But the "profound mistake" that Wright had made, Obama said, was not to speak about racism in America. "It’s that he spoke as if our society was static; as if no progress has been made; as if this country – a country that has made it possible for one of his own members to run for the highest office in the land and build a coalition of white and black; Latino and Asian, rich and poor, young and old – is still irrevocably bound to a tragic past. But what we know – what we have seen – is that America can change. That is the true genius of this nation."
When I mentioned to the group in El Dorado that this speech, and Obama’s eloquence, his impassioned, preacher-like cadences and his ability to conjure a visionary picture of equality and unity, put me in mind of Martin Luther King, a black woman cut me short. "Right! And that’s the real fear right there, because look what they did to Martin Luther King. There is a deep vein of poison in this country, and until we expose that wound and let it drain and heal we’re not going to get anywhere."
There were murmurs of worried assent; that there were people in America who would never tolerate a black man as president, and do everything in their power to prevent it. There had been incidents in El Dorado, one man said, where Obama signs had been torn and defaced. "I think that’s young people hearing that message at home. But for the majority this isn’t a black or white thing. Obama is a very special man. He’s transcended that. I think he’s the only chance this country has of bringing us all back together."
And, all agreed, of restoring what they keenly felt to be America’s diminished standing in the world. One woman said she could remember the hysteria in El Dorado the day after American troops went into Iraq, people driving their pick-up trucks up and down the main street, honking horns and waving American flags. "And I remember thinking then, we’re going into these people’s country and I don’t think they’re going to come out happy."
"We do these things supposedly in the name of good and the world is sick and tired of it," Randy, a Vietnam veteran, said. "It’s been said before, but the morning after 9/11 the world loved America. Now they hate us."
The very fact of Obama being what he is – the colour of his skin, his upbringing in Hawaii and Indonesia, his African Muslim grandfather, the very things that make many Americans so suspicious of him – this, Randy said, was what made him the best advertisement to the world for America as the land of equality, opportunity and freedom.
Before driving out to El Dorado I had joined members of the Wichita Retired Police Officers Association at one of their regular breakfast get-togethers – a bunch of good old boys who had seen and heard everything twice, and not believed it the first time. When I mentioned Obama’s rhetoric about "not blue states or red states but the United States", one man put his fingers in his mouth in a theatrical gesture of throwing up. The notion of "healing divisions" carried less weight here than the spectre being drip-fed by Fox News and conservative radio pundits of a "socialistic" redistribution of wealth. "There are people in this country whose job is welfare and Obama wants to give them a raise," one man said.
Here, among most of those gathered around the table, the prospect of an Obama presidency evoked – to reverse one of his favourite oratorial tropes – not hope, but fear. "He scares the hell out of me," another man said, "because you just don’t know what he’s going to do. What experience does he have? None."
The economy, foreign policy – just about everything – would go to hell if Obama was elected. At the other end of the table, a man named Charlie laughed. This was Kansas Republicanism, he said, "it’s brain chemistry; they’re just wired that way." Not that you’re cynical or anything, I joked. "Not here." Charlie gave a good-natured laugh. "We just recognise bull—- when we see it."
In El Dorado at the Democratic headquarters, I sensed a fervour more befitting a saviour than a politician. Were they worried, I wondered, that expectations for Obama were too high, and would inevitably result in disappointment? That all of this – the hope, the promises of change – wasn’t simply too good to be true?
"We’re not going to wake up on the day after the election and have Cadillacs in the drive," Randy said. "It took George Bush eight years to mess it up, and it’s going to take time to repair it. There’s the war, the economy, all our problems at home." He paused. "It’ll be better after a couple of days when we get done celebrating."
From the stage in Pueblo, Obama looked down over the crowd stretching as far as the eye could see. He talked of the failed policies of George Bush ("You don’t have to boo – just vote") and how he would fix them. He talked of "the greed and irresponsibility" of Wall Street and how in his world everyone would have a chance to succeed, "from the CEO to the secretary". Nothing, he said, can beat the people when they come together. "Yes, we can," he said, setting up a chant in the crowd. And then, acknowledging that he was in Pueblo, a town where 50 per cent of the population is Hispanic, he said it again in Spanish. John McCain, he said, had tried to make this "a big election about small things". Obama talked about tax breaks, and building roads and bridges, and the need to reject fear and division for unity of purpose. "What the naysayers don’t understand is that this election has never been about me; it’s about you. It’s about you."
Everything he said he had said a thousand times before, but he made it sound as if he was saying it for the first time. He was, in a word, electrifying, and to hear him and see him was to begin to understand how Barack Obama had persuaded so many Americans to trust him – a man who had come from nowhere – with their future.
When he was done he plunged into the crowd, to be swallowed in their embrace. And then he was gone. I wandered back down the emptying streets. On the margins, at a row of stalls, people were hawking the last of their stock of Obama shirts, badges, wrist-watches and posters. "Ten bucks," the man shouted. "You have it framed, it’ll be worth a lot more next week."
Two figures held up signs saying "Abortion kills children", while a black man brandishing an Obama placard marched back and forth in a state of feverish excitement, shouting: "He’s been sent by God. I’m not saying he’s Jesus, but he could fill Moses’ shoes."
A man standing beside me shook his head in disbelief. He had already voted, he said – for John McCain. Did I know, he asked, that Obama had actually been born in Mombasa, Kenya, that actually he was not entitled to be running for president at all? "I’m worried," he said, "that we may be witnessing the greatest fraud perpetrated in American history."
I thought back to the thrift-store in El Dorado, and the group of hopeful Democrats gathered there. It had struck me, I said, in talking with them that this was an election that in some strange way went beyond politics to being a battle for the very heart and soul of America.
"You’re right", Randy, the Vietnam vet, said. "And we’re taking it back." Source: The Telegraph (UK)