Four hours. Four hours left.
It was about four hours from the time the polls closed on November 4, 2008 that he claimed his prize. About ten o’clock, Chicago time. And that was pretty special – my mom is from Chicago, and even though I’ve not spent a lot of time there, the Second City feels like home to me. I’m not a Chicagoan, but a child of that big, broad-shouldered city just the same.
Hollywood is hype, New York is talk , Chicago is work. – Michael Douglas
May I back up for a moment?
Many people point to many moments when they knew. This guy is special. Some people point to a book that made them dare to dream again. Folks who know him best may name a smaller event, a community gathering in Chicago, or a talk with him at Harvard or Columbia. There was a speech once in Boston that they called electrifying, a speech he wrote himself, and defended from the editors who wanted someone else to use his words.
For me, it happened in Denver. August 28, 2008. The day after my thirty-second birthday.
I’d seen, and would eventually write about seeing this man for the first time. He was telling this incredible story of a man who found himself in the most real of ways. A child of a Middle American mother and a central African father, born in Hawaii and raised in Kansas, who became – what else? – a proud south-side Chicagoan. Because Chicago is work.
But this isn’t a love letter to Chicago, by me or by him. This is about a man, more of a man than anyone who ever questioned his fortitude.
This thing was so big they had to move it to a football stadium. We wanted to see him, to celebrate him. To hear him speak of hope and change and to continue proving that words mean something and actions mean more, that it’s easy to say you’re a man of moral conviction and high character, to speak of integrity and honor, but it takes effort to walk that walk. It’s easy for a man to exude the appearance that he honors his wife and loves his children, but this man made us want to watch him live that life.
After all this time, a decent, respectable man, a President of whom we could be proud. A dashing, debonair man with a gorgeous, educated, adoring wife who absolutely radiates class and style through her beaming smile – this wasn’t just a morality tale, but a love story as well. And two smart, smiling, adored daughters we’d get to know soon, who mostly just wanted a puppy.
This beautiful black family that politicians spend so much time trying to convince us is a thing of the past, if it ever was. Liberals, black politicians and white saviors who want us to believe that the black community is desperate for our help, can’t survive without us. Conservatives who believe that black families are fatherless, jobless drains on society, dependent on foodstamps and welfare to substitute for dreams and ambitions. Sometimes I think part of the fury toward this man is that he made all their stereotypes a lie. Not every black family is like them, but every black family wants to be self-sufficient, educated, beautiful, talented, with the opportunity to pursue their dreams and ambitions. Just like every white family. And there they were, this beautiful black family, living proof that America at her best works for everybody.
For some, that’s hard to swallow. They’re not supposed to be like us. They’re damn sure not supposed to be President. Somebody should do something about this.
And that was the thought that made my heart stop, on the day after my thirty-second birthday.
I watched on my television as this tall, thin, handsome man strode onto a stage in front of maybe eighty thousand people, his head held high, shoulders back, eyes clear. He looked like a President. And my eyes were scanning the crowd. It occurred to me that we were all holding our breath, and I became aware that my wife was sitting next to me, on the edge of her seat, holding her breath as well. It was then that I made the connection.
My God, the courage of this man.
To walk onto that stage in front of an entire stadium, full to overflowing of screaming people. Enough noise to conceal a gunshot. Enough people that they couldn’t have all been screened. Completely uncovered, unvested, in a nation that is still very much the home of John Wilkes Booth, and Lee Harvey Oswald, of James Earl Ray and Sirhan Sirhan. A nation that cheers Second Amendment solutions and has become very skilled at hiding our true intentions. Yet the look on his face was one of complete confidence, the look of a man who knows that the mark he’s made will live on, entirely independent of how the story ends.
I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land! And so I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man! Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!
As I reflect on that moment that I first witnessed the tremendous courage of this man, I can only begin to understand the courage that led to that moment. A child always out of place, in school in Indonesia and as a young mixed-race child in Kansas in a time when his very being wasn’t so acceptable. He struggled with his identity, as indicated by the very way he presented his name. Barry Soetoro could not grow into Barack Obama until Barry could embrace the part of himself that made him Barack – a fact that the ‘not black enough’ crowd doesn’t seem to understand. To borrow his own phrase, the audacity of a weed-smoking, basketball-playing kid from South Chicago to hope that a Harvard education would be within his reach, and to dream of being a man who could inspire all people to be the best version of himself. To run for office that first time, then again, then take the stage before the world – to seize the moment, time and again, and elevate every platform upon which he spoke.
It all adds up to courage.
He knew his Presidency would be the way it turned out. We were surprised by the hate and the fear, the opposition in Congress and the awful stench of racism visited not just upon him, but upon his beautiful wife and children as well. But he wasn’t. He knew. The lower his opponents sank, the higher his class and grace would rise. When they attacked him for no better reason than being black, and when they attacked him for being not black enough. They attacked his policies, they attacked his ideas, they questioned his honesty and his backbone, his very spirituality and his patriotism. And he not only knew it was coming, he never doubted it would come.
He stared into a personal Hell that would have broken a lesser man. And they tried to break him too. But there was one more doubt that he never had. This man’s convictions were built on a foundation of stone – he never doubted that if we bought into decency and hope and the idea that if America decided to be the best version of herself, there would be nothing we can’t accomplish. And so they could wear him down, but they could not break him.
I relate to that. I still do. If you’ll indulge a bit of my personal story.. when my wife and I first married, we had nothing, really. No savings, poor jobs, a tiny apartment and a tiny car to share, really nothing but dreams. And there were times when things weren’t adding up, times when one or both of us were just plain terrified. And on those nights when things were worst, we would lie in bed, arms around each other and repeat what became our mantra: there’s nothing we can’t handle together. Sometimes until we fell asleep. Sixteen years later it’s still true. There’s nothing we can’t handle together.
There’s nothing we can’t handle together. All this time I’ve felt like Barack Obama was saying that to all of us. So there are a few things I want to say to Barack Obama.
On behalf of a grateful nation:
Thank you for your courage.
Thank you for your courage to love and honor and respect your wife in front of the world.
Thank you for the courage it takes to be a great father.
Thank you for the courage to face your opposition with grace.
Thank you for standing strong on your beliefs and fighting for a better America.
Thank you for my family’s health insurance. Cancer runs in my wife’s family, and her preventative scope costs me nothing out of pocket because of you.
Thank you for bringing my friends home from Iraq and Afghanistan. Semper Fortis, Non Sibi Sed Patriae.
Thank you for believing in our Navy Seals on a make-or-break night in the Situation Room.
Thank you for never complaining when you had to code-swap – that locker-room video never fails to make me smile.
Thank you for standing up for the right of every American to love and marry who they choose.
Thank you for making sure my gay friends in the military don’t have to hide anymore, and making a way for my trans friends to serve a country of which they could be a little prouder.
Thank you for believing that our nation is only as strong as our commitment to our principles – no torture, not now or ever.
Thank you for staring down your own Congress and Iran at the same time. Turns out you were the only one who was right.
Thank you for caring about our planet more than the profits of already-wealthy polluters.
Thank you for fighting for better education for all of us, not profitable education for some of us.
Thank you for the courage to be a man – not just a President – we could be proud of.
Thank you, President Obama, for being the best version of us.