How Obama captured our hearts

Sat, Nov 8, 2008, 00:00

The election of Barack Obama has healed something that has its roots in the worst moments of US history, and bears the hallmarks of a country living up to its own ideals, writes Colm Tóibín

IN THE WEEKS before the US election many people who went out to canvass for Barack Obama began to fear the worst. The campaign was superbly organised, but they were coming across areas of prejudice and misinformation that were proving difficult to argue against. Each house that had been canvassed earlier in the campaign was put on a score sheet, with a scale of one to five. One meant a definite McCain vote, five a definite vote for Obama. In the final weeks, only households scoring two, three or four were visited. The problems and difficulties that each household had were noted down.

Underlying everything was a fear that there was one issue that could not be easily mentioned on the doorsteps, the so-called Bradley effect. It was coined after the African-American candidate Tom Bradley who, it was suggested, lost the 1982 race for governor of California despite being ahead in the polls in the run-up to election day. Canvassers still feared that people who supported Obama's policies and his party simply would not vote on the day for a black man, no matter what they said.

In rural Pennsylvania last Saturday, when friends of mine canvassing for Obama went in search of the remote house of a swaying voter, they asked two young men for directions. As they were pulling up the window, preparing to drive away, one of the young men suddenly blurted out: "We can't vote for the nigger."

The internet also seemed to be working both against and for the Obama canvassers in the final stretch. It was easy in the last days of the campaign to spread misinformation about Obama's policies; his attitudes to abortion, for example, or gun control. For many people, blog sites and YouTube clips have the authority of cold print. The Obama campaign had learned a great deal from John Kerry's failure in 2004 to combat the allegations that he had not been a brave soldier. This time it fought against rumours and false allegations with speed, skill and fervour, but rumours were still being spread.

On Monday night, the eve of the election, CNN continued to run advertisements for the candidates. Obama's was stylish, slow and pointed. It used Paul Simon singing the second verse of his melancholy and beautiful American Tune:

"And I don't know a soul who's not been


I don't have a friend who feels at ease

I don't know a dream that's not been


or driven to its knees

but it's all right, it's all right

for we lived so well so long

Still, when I think of the road we're

travelling on

I wonder what's gone wrong

I can't help it, I wonder what's gone wrong."

The ad showed clips of businesses closing, homes being put up for sale, and then it displayed, without any comment, a picture of George W Bush and John McCain standing together as friends. It was easy to see what it was trying to achieve - the suggestion that McCain was bound up with eight years of failure.

McCain's ad, on the other hand, seemed badly edited and almost pointless. It returned to the question of Obama's relationship with the Rev Jeremiah Wright and included some of Wright's uglier statements about the US. This was odd, since Obama, in an eloquent and passionate speech last March on race and religion in the US, had succeeded, it seemed, in putting this matter to rest. With so little time to go before polling, it appeared ill-chosen as a theme with which to damage Obama.

It may even have backfired and helped to remind people that Obama's social policies and his political rhetoric take their bearings from the pulpit, that he is a man for whom religion has been liberating and essential.

God is never far away in the US. The urge for material well-being is bound up in strange ways with the possibility of transcendence. The US, as it strives for perfection, sees itself as specially chosen, views its role in the terms John Winthrop set for it in 1630 before his ship landed in the new world, and which John Kennedy quoted in 1961: "that we shall be as a city upon a hill - the eyes of all people are upon us."

Four years ago, when John Kerry lost to George W Bush, it was clear that the Democrats, in order to retake the White House, could no longer count on doing so in the name of better policies and more rational arguments. These arguments had been made twice - and sometimes made brilliantly - by Al Gore in 2000 and by Kerry himself. They both lost. I remember asking someone in 2004 if there was any senior figure on the Democrat side who had made his way into politics via one of the churches. I was told, sadly, that the only such figures were African-Americans, and despite the fact that Robert Kennedy said in 1968 that 40 years from then "a Negro could be president", it still seemed an impossible idea.

How African-Americans live in the US cannot be merely explained by the sad legacy of history. There is a sense of hard prejudice and neglectful, or indeed deliberate, public policy in the great difference between how whites and African-Americans live. In 1999, for example, the average net worth of households headed by older African-Americans was $13,000 and by similar whites was $181,000. While 11 per cent of white children in the US live in poverty, almost 40 per cent of African-American children do. The chance of going to prison over a lifetime for a white person in the US is 2.5 per cent; for an African-American, it is 16 per cent. More than a quarter of all African-American males are likely to enter prison in their lifetime; the figure for white males is 5.5 per cent. The infant mortality rate for African-American babies is twice that for white babies.

Thus, anyone representing African-American interests has a right to sound angry, as, say, Jesse Jackson often does. Why Barack Obama does not sound angry, and why he manages to lead the African-American community as much by example as by making angry demands, was explained by the novelist James Baldwin in a number of personal essays about race written in the 1960s. Baldwin had gone to live in France, and had spent time there with some of the best-known African writers. He learned that he was not like them because he was an American.

"For what, at bottom, distinguished the Americans from the Negroes who surrounded us, men from Nigeria, Senegal, Barbados, Martinique," Baldwin wrote, "was the banal and quite overwhelming fact that we had been born in a society, which, in a way quite inconceivable for Africans, and no longer real for Europeans, was open, and in a sense which has nothing to do with justice or injustice, was free. It was a society, in short, in which nothing was fixed . . . I found myself alchemised into an American the minute I touched French soil."

So, too, on a trip back from Kenya, Barack Obama reported in The Audacity of Hope that his wife said to him, "I had never realised just how American I was" until she travelled in Africa. It was a lesson Obama himself also took home; it is apparent in his memoir Dreams From My Father, where he displayed how much he learned about himself as an American in Indonesia and in Kenya, making him a singularly well-travelled American politician.

OBAMA CAME TO realise that he shared the US, that his problems were US problems before they were simply the problems of one race. Through the church he learned a moral seriousness, a way of heightening the tone of the debate, and he mixed this with what he learned at Harvard Law School, which was rational argument, factual statement, a commitment to presenting a point of view with calmness.

Out of his ambiguities he made himself. He was both transcendental and deeply rational; he came from a marginalised and damaged community and he was also a patriotic American; he loved his white grandparents, his white mother. He has a brilliant, strategic mind, an ability to organise, to work with the right people, and these skills come coupled with a dreamy and inspiring idealism that placed him somehow above politics as well as quintessentially political.

In spring of this year, I taught a class of bright undergraduates in Stanford University in California. They loved literature and music. Because of their backgrounds, generally upper middle class, it was possible that they could live their lives in America without bothering too much about the public realm. They would never be drafted, or made fight in a war, for example, and they would be unlikely to suffer unemployment or need free medical care or social insurance. Yet each one of them, as the debates for the primaries raged, became fired with enthusiasm for Barack Obama. Something about the earnestness and the idealism in his message, something in his high-toned hope changed these students and made them fiercely political, hopeful and patriotic.

Not far away is East Palo Alto, which has been bypassed by the prosperity in Silicon Valley. East Palo Alto remains depressed and run-down. The only change in recent years has been the decline of the African-American population and the rise of the Hispanic population.

It was presumed in spring of this year that, while Barack Obama could inspire rich college kids and the entire African-American population and white liberals, he would never win the trust of the Hispanic community.

It was presumed that, if he defeated Hillary Clinton, he would never be able to gain the support of large numbers of women. And it was also suggested that he could not win the Jewish vote because of lingering worries about his background and lack of experience in foreign policy and his liberalism. In all the discussions about what might happen, it was presumed that the US was made up of a set of identities whose interests would never merge, that the only politics if you were an African-American politician (or if you were gay or Hispanic) were identity politics. You could lead only your own tribe. It was presumed by many that Barack had gone very far by extending his tribe to include the students and the liberals, but that he could go no further.

Between then and the election what Barack Obama did in America was miraculous. It can be partly explained by his ability to inspire one group without alienating another. It can be partly explained by the fact that he watched the language he used and took care over the causes he supported and the policies he outlined and the promises he made. It can be partly explained by the fact that he seemed calm, even-tempered and immensely intelligent. And by the fact that he peppered his idealism, his high-mindedness, with a sense of the practical.

It can be partly explained by the fact that there was something oddly tough and utterly stable about his personality. And, as the economy worsened and a sense of crisis developed in the US, by the fact that his aura of toughness and stability became as important as his personal warmth, or the audacity of his hope.

But his success can maybe also be explained by the idea that the US, without anybody noticing too much, has grown out of old racism and old prejudice, that it has changed fundamentally since the 1960s, even though it often seemed, under the Republicans, to be reverting to some former self. It is possible that the US Obama was speaking to has become the real US, and it is more open, more tolerant, less divided and sectarian than it often gave itself credit for. It is also frightened by failed foreign policies, by the spectre of unemployment and economic depression.

THE CHALLENGE OBAMA faces is that he has raised hopes high in an economic downturn, that sometimes his message over the past two years seemed in itself to be enough, and the challenge now is to transfer the message into an era of peace, prosperity and increased equality in the US.

What worked in his message has, to a large extent, been lost on the Republicans, who ran this campaign as though the only part of the country worth reaching was rural, small-town and white. Despite the fact that John McCain had fought bravely (more bravely than Obama) for the rights of the 14 million people who live and work illegally in the US, despite the fact that he is a man of intelligence, openness and considerable wit and humanity, he seemed during this campaign to be living in a world not only before the internet but before the women's movement and the civil-rights movement, before the calming of the US.

In New York on Wednesday morning at 9.30am you could not get a New York Times anywhere. At the kiosks, the vendors, mainly African-Americans, were in high good humour, laughing at the good of it all. All over the city, people had got up early to take a piece of history home.

In a country that has a reputation for not being much interested in the past, the history of slavery, the history of the Civil War and the history of the Great Depression entered the debate with an urgency as fierce as the urgency of now. Last Tuesday, something that has its roots in the worst moments of US history was healed and came home pure.

The next day I went to a shop normally frequented by students to do some photocopying. In the middle of us all there was a large, old African-American man fumbling with the machinery. It took me a while to realise what he was doing. He was having the front pages of the newspapers from the previous day blown up large and then he was waiting to have each one laminated. All of us watched him with joy and pride, a feeling that this was an image of the US that could be shown all over the world, that the country could once more be "as a city upon a hill", that some fundamental burden had been lifted, some ghost exorcised. Despite the problems that persist, it seems clear that something fundamental has changed. It has been a wonderful week.