Editor's note: This is the fourth and final installment in a series about Washington's role in choosing the next president.
I spotted Tony Sueiro taping a homemade Obama sign to the door as I walked into Calvary Lutheran on Feb. 9. He's the high school student I interviewed for my last installment on the caucuses. He was excited but serious, and later I would see him pitching in to run errands for caucus volunteers and otherwise making himself useful. There was a line out the door, but I made it inside and upstairs to the chapel, which was already filled with people. I had to wait in another line to cast my vote.
Seated in a pew, I took notes, and unable to turn my inner journalist off, began interviewing. Kathleen Galloway slid into the pew next to me and said, "All the produce guys at Ballard Market wanted me to vote for them. They couldn't get off work." She was there to vote for Sen. Barack Obama, as was her husband, Mark Davison. Galloway fit the profile of many of the women I've met in Ballard: Initially a Clinton supporter, she changed her mind a few weeks ago. She said she switched after a long conversation on the phone with a friend; they both concluded that Sen. Hillary Clinton may be more vindictive than viable as a candidate. They worried that too many people personally dislike her, enough to throw independent votes to a Republican rival.
Judy Read, sitting in front of us, had a similar story, becoming an enthusiastic Obama supporter only after initially being drawn to Clinton. "I feel like this is history," she said, expressing disbelief and pleasure that she was presented with a choice between two attractive and seemingly unlikely candidates, a woman and an African American. Read's daughter, Charlotte, had skipped school — with her mother's permission — to attend Obama's rally at KeyArena on Friday. Had she expressed an interest in politics before this? No, said her mother. Obama was the catalyst.
The mood in the church was decidedly different than the mood I encountered at Team Ballard's grassroots organizing events for Obama. Whereas that had been a small group of defiantly hopeful converts, the church was filled to capacity with not just people but optimism, pride, civic zeal. I wouldn't call it a party — everyone was too serious for that — but this was the most impassioned, hopeful group of citizens I've ever seen.
Converations overheard: "I feel like we're in a good place now as a country, finally." "I'm used to feeling like I don't really like any of the candidates; I'm not used to feeling like I'm torn between them." "This is the one place people are asked to declare their politics publicly. We should have more of that." "I've heard really compelling arguments for both candidates. It's hard to decide."
Galloway asked me if I had voted and about my preference. Besides having felt tempted to pitch in to help the organizers at the Team Ballard kickoff meeting, I'd chosen to recede into the background, covering the story of their efforts as an imbedded reporter. I'd chosen the Obama supporters because that was where the best story was. More than anything happening in the Republican camp or even in Clinton's campaign, Obama's candidacy struck me as history in the making — he was a surprising, compelling candidate, and I wanted to know if his movement was authentic. I wanted to test whether or not he is the real deal.
Like Galloway, I'd initially felt torn between the top two runners. I've been waiting all my life to see a woman in the White House. I remember thinking, when Hillary Clinton won the Senate race in New York, She's headed for the presidency. Cynically, I thought she stood a better chance of getting there than any other woman, by virtue of having lived on Pennsylvania Avenue as First Lady. I was willing to take whatever I could get. To borrow a line from the rock group They Might Be Giants, when it comes to politics, I learned as a youth that if it wasn't for disappointments, I wouldn't have any appointments. I didn't love her, but I'd vote for her.
Then Clinton voted in favor of the Iraq invasion. Unlike too many of my countrymen, who I suppose were inclined to give the Bush administration the benefit of the doubt, I was vehemently opposed to invasion. A teacher at the time, I wrote to my family and friends, saying, "If the U.S. government turned in its war argument to me as a term paper, I would have to demand a revision, and at the very least, a works cited page." I felt betrayed by our Congress and Senate. Out of fear of reprisal, our leaders were failing to provide the needed checks and balances on a vengeful, opportunistic executive branch. I was dismayed by Clinton's conformism, in particular. What we needed at that time were more leaders willing to raise a rational objection, leaders who would call for diplomacy and question the Bush administration's dubious actions.
It would have taken courage to vote against the Iraq War. It would have taken someone who valued principles over the potential electoral backlash. It would have taken someone willing to throw in with the likes of Dennis Kucinich, risking forever the brand of the conscientious objector at a time when some pointed fingers, calling such people traitors.
Barack Obama had that courage. In 2002, he said of the Iraq War:What I am opposed to is the cynical attempt by Richard Perle and Paul Wolfowitz and other arm-chair, weekend warriors in this administration to shove their own ideological agendas down our throats, irrespective of the costs in lives lost and in hardships borne.
Several times throughout the speech, Obama repeated, "I donÃ'êt oppose all wars." He qualified his stance against the Iraq invasion as one done in full knowledge of Saddam Hussein's despotism: "I suffer no illusions about Saddam Hussein. He is a brutal man. A ruthless man. A man who butchers his own people to secure his own power." He went so far as to say, "The world, and the Iraqi people, would be better off without him."
The media often quote from this speech, but reporters usually choose this line: "I'm opposed to dumb wars." Taken out of context, the line makes Obama sound green, and it fails to convey the rhetorical power of his speech. Taken as a whole, his speech says exactly what I wished Clinton and her ilk had had the righteousness to say at the time.
Admittedly, Obama was a member of the Illinois state Senate then, where the stakes were lower, but looked at another way, the stakes were higher for him than they were for Clinton. She had the benefit of her enormous popularity and the legacy of being married to every Democrat's favorite president. Obama was a rookie senator, the newcomer with the "funny," Muslim-sounding name. He had everything to risk by opposing the war.
Some have said that Obama is too diplomatic, that his ability to see all sides of an issue makes him milquetoast as a leader. On the contrary, his opposition to the war shows that he knows when to take sides if need be, and which side to take.
All of this informed my decision to vote for Obama on Saturday. But it's not what I told Galloway when she asked me my preference at the caucus. Instead, I found myself speaking passionately in his favor on the basis of something I read in his book, Dreams from My Father. Most readers seem captivated by his childhood or his trip to his father's homeland in Kenya, which comprises a great chunk — maybe too much — of the book.
However, the best indicator of who this man might be as president comes in the sections dealing with his community organizing work in Chicago. Anyone who's ever done this work will tell you it's difficult, the victories few and usually small. Efforts too often break down due to petty factionalism. Obama is able to transcend these challenges for two reasons. First, he gets that being an organizer means identifying, developing, and supporting leaders in the community, not taking center stage yourself. Second, he demonstrates finesse beyond his age at that time to bring opposing people to the table, drawing on the strengths of even the most flawed members of a community for the good of all.
Any Democrat still on the fence between Obama and Clinton should read chapters eight through 14 of Dreams. It's the story of his work with the residents of Altgeld Gardens public housing project. The "Gardens," as they are euphemistically called, are located on the banks of a polluted Calumet River, across the street from a sewage treatment plant and across the expressway from the largest landfill in the Midwest. He doesn't mince words about what this means: "A dump — and a place to house poor blacks." He helps them get proper maintenance, fight for asbestos removal. But not without some setbacks, frustrations. What impressed me most is his ability to work effectively with one Rafiq al-Shabazz, a Nation of Islam leader whose single-minded pursuit of black nationalism makes one of Obama's crew write him off, saying, "Once a thug, always a thug."
Obama exhibits an admirable ability to work effectively with this loose canon: "Over time I arrived at a grudging admiration for his tenacity and bravado, and, within his own terms, a certain sincerity." Obama puts forth the most reasoned reflection on black nationalism I've read since Malcolm X's last speeches, recognizing how it could "thrive as an emotion and flounder as a program." When it comes time to open a branch of the Chicago Mayor's Office of Employment and Training in the neighborhood, it's al-Shabazz who provides the storefront to house it.
It occurs to me now that Obama represents long-term hope instead of what characterized the 2004 election: short-term thinking borne of fear and anxiety. Obama's candidacy has already brought a rebirth of civic life to the U.S., and his presidency promises to do much more. I returned to Calvary Lutheran on Saturday to take a few pictures and see if the final counts were in from other precincts. The volunteers were cleaning up, and a little girl had been the joyful recipient of the balloons identifying each precinct by color code. When I taught, I often worried about the youth in my classes, who had lived nearly half their lives with their country at war. What a mess of a country we're giving them.
I most certainly voted for Obama for my own personal reasons, but, taking the little balloon girl's picture, I thought, this day is for you. For your future.