Last night was historic in many ways. Many of those ways have been duly noted in papers and blogs around the nation today.
But last night was historic in one intensely personal way too. It marked the first, and only, time in my entire life that my favorite candidate for President actually came away with his/her party’s nomination.
I’ve been a political junkie for years. Never before, in all my years, have I backed the right horse right from the starting gate.
Back in 2005, Dennise and I got something perhaps a lot of other folks didn’t get: an early, albeit brief, glimpse at the phenomenon that was to become Barack Obama.
I write this blog today not to endorse a candidate, since neither Dennise nor I ever would ever do that. But I’d like to tell you about that brief meeting, why I believe Obama won the nomination, and why –discounting the genuine novelty of actually being *right* for once– I am not surprised he is the Democratic nominee.
We met Obama at a rally here in Dallas in the Fall of 2005. It had been almost a year since the election of 2004, when Dennise and several other Democrats broke through to win what many saw as improbable victories in Dallas County.
The rally was intended to be a “kick off” for the 2006 campaign, then about a year away. Three sitting US Senators –Harry Reid, Joe Biden, and Barack Obama– came to Dallas for an outdoor rally at Lee Park.
Dennise got invited to the “pre-event reception” in the building there at Lee Park (I can’t remember the building’s name), and I was lucky enough to tag along as a spouse.
When we arrived, two things struck us immediately:
1) Although it was a year away from any election, there were about 3,000 people in the crowd that day. It stunned us that so many would come out for an off-year rally. And we thought then that it probably boded well for Democrats in Dallas County (it did).
2) We were stunned by the rows and rows of potential Democratic candidates lined up at tables to collect the obligatory signatures necessary to get on the ballot. When Dennise had run in 2004, running as a Democrat was a lonely business. Six brave souls ran for judge. One for sheriff. Stunningly (to many) four of them won.
As we saw all those potential candidates out for the rally that day, it was clear that the 2004 wins had motivated others to give it a shot in 2006. That “shot” ended up being heard ’round Dallas County; as a year later, almost all the folks we met that day were swept into office.
After soaking-in our amazement at these two developments, we made our way into the reception. And it’s there we briefly met Barack Obama for the first time, and each separately came to the conclusion that he was a special human being.
To get the feel for what I mean, let me describe how the three Senators entered the room.
Harry Reid arrived first. Many people shook his hand. Many people took pictures. As we did here:
The reaction was polite and decorous, as you might imagine it would be for the Majority Leader of the US Senate. Harry Reid is nothing to sneeze at, to be sure.
Next came Joe Biden. The room got a little more crowded for Biden, ever the affable extrovert, who was shaking hands and working the room vigorously. (But, sadly, just far enough across the room that we didn’t get a pic…)
Finally, after some minutes, it was announced that Obama was about to arrive.
Suddenly, dozens of people who had been in the main room of that building crammed their way into the much smaller entry foyer. Elected officials. Party activists. People who you would not expect to get “giddy” over the arrival of anyone.
We followed them. It was electric. You would have thought they were awaiting the arrival of Bono.
Obama came into the room, and in the ensuing few minutes, we were able to get this pic of Dennise and Obama:
As Obama moved through the Foyer, I was stunned at how many of Dallas’ Democratic powerbrokers had all but abandoned two sitting US Senators –Biden and Reid– to come and greet this relative newcomer.
For brief moment, in the midst of the pushing and jostling, I found myself standing next to former Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk.
We were both just looking across the room at the scene. Semi-jokingly, I said to him, “Man, that guy’s a rock star, isn’t he?”
To which Ron Kirk –no slouch in the charisma gene– replied:
“Oh…you have no idea…He’s the best I’ve ever seen.”
I thought at the time about what an endorsement that was. I watched as political insiders who don’t normally go giddy for anyone, pushed and shoved to get a chance to meet Obama.
Obama went on to give a great speech that day. He was already well known for his speech at the Democratic Convention the year before, in which he said this:
“Yet even as we speak, there are those who are preparing to divide us, the spin masters and negative ad peddlers who embrace the politics of anything goes. Well, I say to them tonight, there’s not a liberal America and a conservative America — there’s the United States of America. There’s not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America; there’s the United States of America. The pundits like to slice-and-dice our country into Red States and Blue States; Red States for Republicans, Blue States for Democrats. But I’ve got news for them, too. 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. We are one people, all of us pledging allegiance to the stars and stripes, all of us defending the United States of America.”
There is something about that way of thinking, that belief that we can acknowledge our differences and still work through them together with respect, that is resonating quite deeply with the American public today.
As Dennise and Obama chatted briefly, as a bystander told Obama how Dennise had been elected, and how great that moment had been. Obama said something like, “Well, thanks for keeping things going here in Texas.”
Almost an hour and half later, he bumped into Dennise again, and said, “Hi Judge.”
Now, that doesn’t mean a whole lot. But we were both impressed that he’d remembered who she was, in the midst of that big crowd, an hour and a half later.
So, while it wasn’t really until 2007 that most Americans paid any attnetion to Obama, the Fall of 2005 was the moment Dennise and I first got a glimpse of the charisma and excitement that would become a movement.
And we each thought to ourselves: If this guy runs for President, he’s going to do much better than anyone imagines.
He has. And none of it has been surprising to us.
Obama is a saavy politician. I know folks are wondering what Bill and Hillary Clinton really think of him. And I’m not sure we’ll ever really know. But I can say that I noticed a very telling little moment at the end of the third night of the convention.
It was when Obama took the stage to thank all those who’d already spoken and to invite the crowd to the next night at Mile High Stadium.
Notice what happens in this video right after the 1:45 mark. Obama has just acknowledged President Clinton’s great speech.
Then, during the applause, you can almost see it dawning on Clinton just how saavy this guy is. And you can actually see him mouth the words, “This was smart.”
The consummate politician acknowledging one who is perhaps just as masterful.
Obama’s background is as a community organizer. That’s what he’s done, professionally. He knows how to assemble teams to get things done. He knows how to motivate. He knows how to inspire. That’s what he’s done in this campaign.
Obama did one other very astute thing these past few years. He traveled around the country, including Dallas County, to learn how local Democrats had won in new and unexpected places. Now, frankly, he may not have really cared…I have no idea. But I know he showed up, he asked, and he listened. He didn’t just fly in, raise money, and then leave again.
That kind of attention at the local level is what has caused this huge organization to seemingly appear out of nowhere. Obama had been working to create friendships and trusts long before he announced his run for the presidency.
This is the “Fifty State Strategy?” It’s another part of his success…to leave no part of the country uncovered and unaccounted for.
I hear people express concern —perhaps even fear– over the size of Obama’s rallies….as if there is hero worship underway…as if it’s something like “The Borg.” (Thank you, thank you. Star Trek references are hard to work in…)
But I think folks who fear fail to realize is that Obama gets that NONE of this is about him. He, more than anyone, seems to realize that he’s tapped in to a pre-existing desire for change and a new direction. As he said last night:
“This election has never been about me. It’s about you.”
I personally believe he gets that. And that this is why he’s attracting the crowds that he does.
Time and time again during this campaign, I’ve been surprised to hear the surprise of others at Obama’s success. But if you’d read his books, if you’d paid attention to his public appearances, if you’d been aware of his background, you probably weren’t surprised at all.
And given the truly epic and historic nature of 75,000-plus people at Mile High Stadium last night, and millions more watching on television, I trust nothing he accomplishes from here on out will surprise anyone.
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