Barack Obama: Great Speech
Up in the worst seats of the Fleet Center at the Democratic convention, I tried to make out the face of Barack Obama as he came onstage. I sat beside two bloggers, who for months had been talking about Obama with the adoration and relief the rest of us associate with falling in love. But even that couldn't prepare us for the hysteria now coursing through the arena in anticipation of a keynote address by an unknown civil rights attorney. It had been a terrible convention so far: soulless, predictable, overproduced, the shrill Pelosis and logey Leibermans making it clear that the democratic party was dead. And then Barack stepped up to the mike: "Let's face it, my presence on this stage is pretty unlikely. My father was a foreign student, born and raised in Kenya. He grew up herding goats."
People had begun pouring into the hall. Delegates were sneaking into our section, stepping on laptops as they went.
I got up, ran down seven flights of stairs to the floor, which was fast becoming a giant scrum. It was packed with camera crews, men in crisp suits, neat hair. There's the chick from Sex and the City, Wolf Blitzer, and Jerry Brown, all of us shoving and being shoved. And everywhere were rows and rows of ridiculous hats, delegates in red, white, and blue all underdressed and overfed their signs waving.
Obama was reaching the meat of the speech now. Early on, he'd come out against the war in Iraq, and now was telling us of soldiers from his neighborhood we'd sent to there to fight. He thumped healthcare one more time, then rolled back into his wheelhouse, civil rights, opened his throat a little, and electrified the hall. "If there's an Arab American family being rounded up...that threatens my civil liberties...I am my brother's keeper; I am my sisters' keeper...E pluribus unum. Out of many, one."
We'd traveled for the spectacle but until now there had been none; people were yelling their heads off, and like a big eyeball staring into daylight, we gazed, the whole world watching us watching him. There was some hope of a payoff, a glimmer of something standing in between the lies and profound depressing truth of a country at a crossroads. We'd held out for this hot, exhausting ritual, and finally, the convention's first organic moment was happening. There was real mayhem here, actual stirring, a gang of 15,000 getting ready for battle. But the speaker, unruffled in the biggest speech of his life, looked past the teleprompter and unified the party.
"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. There are patriots who opposed the war in Iraq and patriots who supported it."
Sure, the place went a little nuts. But it's so emblematic of Barack Obama's year that by the time he delivered the keynote speech, his fate was already sealed as the man who would deliver a miracle. We'd completely lost sight of how easily he might have screwed it up.
"When I left the stage," Obama told me, "I thought, 'That went okay. I didn't embarrass myself.' My wife hugged me. I didn't actually have a real sense of the success of the speech until the next day, when I was walking to the Fleet Center. There were all these cops, who generally don't talk to the crowd, lining the entrance. They were all saying 'Great speech.' And at the metal detectors, the Secret service guys were all saying, 'Great speech.' That when I knew I wasn't just speaking to the converted."
"I tend not to believe the hype, partly because I'm 43 now, and have worked as a civil rights attorney and a state senator, in obscurity, all of my life. I tend to be suspicous of the hype. I don't pretend that I hate it. But I've been around long enough to know that it's fickle. The reason you do this stuff is not to give a fifteen minute speech or to get your face in a magazine—there are less painful and more lucarative ways to be famous. You do this stuff because you care about the epic struggle to make America what it can be. That's the only reason, the only thing that justifies being involved in politics."