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This Election Year

John Moe

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President elect Barack Obama
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To have closely followed the 2008 campaign that culminated in the election of Barack Obama is to have read a million articles. But now that it's the weekend, let's look at the proceedings from a bird's eye view: How did we get here and what does it mean? To help answer those very daunting questions, host John Moe is joined by author David Rakoff. Moe and Rakoff were a book fair two years ago when they first encountered Barack Obama in somewhat surreal surroundings. We also check in with Claire Petersky, a former college classmate of Obama's who went on to be one of his first campaigners in the presidential race.

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Barack Obama was elected president on Tuesday.

Like you, I followed this election closely. It was compelling. There were strong characters, like Sarah Palin and Reverend Wright and Joe the Plumber and Obama and McCain. There was conflict and high stakes drama. I obsessed over every detail.

I'm still trying to make sense of it. In our nation, with a tradition of presidents named William and George and John, we just elected a Barack. Whose last name is one letter away from Osama. And whose middle name is Hussein. And who, yeah, is black.

Obama's also the kind of person who gets elected president. Editor of the Harvard Law Review. Constitutional law professor. Freshman senator but still: senator.

It's telling that Obama is the author of a book, "Dreams of My Father," about his quest for his own identity. No one with an identity like his has ever been president.

Claire Petersky of Bellevue, Wash. learned Obama's identity earlier than most of us. In California in 1979.

"I was at Occidental College and he was, too. We were both political science majors, both freshmen. And he was in my American Political Ideas and Institutions class," she recalls.

I can imagine her sitting in a discussion group with an 18-year-old version of the guy who just got elected president - maybe in different clothes, but with the same focus and speaking style. How different was he?

"I was personally a little bit intimidated by him because he said he went to a prep school in Hawaii," Petersky says. "I didn't come from as lofty beginnings. He looked a little preppy, but he was kind of laid-back and Hawaiian. He got along with everybody, unlike a lot of the other black students who only hung with other black students. He seemed to be comfortable with everybody on campus."

I ask Petersky if she remembers what kind of things Obama would talk about.

"You know, a lot of poli-sci students are interested in politics and especially changing the world when you're young and idealistic," she says. "He was one of those people too, who was very concerned about the issues, but he didn't just stop there. In 'Dreams of My Father,' I thought he was very harsh on himself, saying he didn't think he took things out into the world enough. Because I thought he was very active in politics - he was active in anti-Apartheid work at Occidental. I thought he did a lot."

Did she remember thinking, this guy could be elected president some day?

"No. I remember thinking he was a bright, affable guy. But I didn't think he would be president someday."

Obama transferred out of Occidental. Claire didn't give him another thought. Until 2004 when Senate candidate Obama spoke in support of John Kerry.

"I was actually shocked when I saw the Democratic National Convention, and I listened to that fabulous speech," Petersky says. "And it somehow hit me right in the middle: 'Oh my God, that's Barry!'"

Right. Whatever happened to Barry Obama?

"Well, I just found out," Petersky says.

I found out a while ago, too. I had heard of Obama, saw that '04 speech. I thought, "Interesting guy, good speaker. OK."

Then I went to Austin, Texas in October of 2006. I had been on a book tour and it included a stop at the Texas Book Festival where I was to appear in a panel discussion alongside David Rakoff, who you hear on our show all the time. David and I were to speak in the capitol building, in the Texas state senate chambers. And as our audience assembled, it consisted of a few people there to see me and David, and then a bunch of disappointed looking people in back with folded arms who had tried unsuccessfully to get into the jam-packed event being held in the Texas state house chamber. That's where author Barack Obama was giving his talk.

You know how on game shows the winner gets a new speedboat and the loser gets a case of Turtle Wax? David and I were Turtle Wax. And this was a big event, with lots of authors you've heard of. We were all Turtle Wax.

"Don't you remember the charisma about him? We didn't see the guy in the building, and the charisma was just leaking down the halls like gas," Rakoff recalls.

We were put out in a tent signing books, and Obama was speaking inside the building

Rakoff goes on: "Then do you remember what happened? We were inside this tent - and it was very hot, though the tent had netting on the sides to let the air through - and then on the grounds outside, Obama walked by. People stopped on hillocks and walkways and spontaneously applauded as he went by."

I remembered it as a kind of a roar, a guttural moan of recognition.

"It was like a magnet going over iron filings," Rakoff says. "The fact that I saw him through cheesecloth emphasized the 'it-never-happened' feeling of that day. It was a gauzy memory."

Up until Election Day, Barack Obama was an abstraction. He was someone who could fix the economy or someone who could turn it socialist - hope or threat.

On Tuesday the idea of Obama was replaced by President-elect Obama. America said, "Okay. Go. Do what you promised." Boyd Reed was an Obama supporter and volunteer. This week he stood in the voting booth and thought about that reality:

"I have a confession to make.

I did not vote for Barack Obama today.

I've openly supported Obama since March. But I didn't vote for him today.

I wanted to vote for Ronald Woods. He was my algebra teacher at Clark Junior High in East St. Louis, IL. He died 15 years ago when his truck skidded head-first into a utility pole. He spent many a day teaching us many things besides the Pythagorean Theorem. He taught us about Medgar Evers, Ralph Abernathy, John Lewis and many other civil rights figures who get lost in the shadow cast by Martin Luther King, Jr.

But I didn't vote for Mr. Woods.

I wanted to vote for Willie Mae Cross. She owned and operated Crossroads Preparatory Academy for almost 30 years, educating and empowering thousands of kids before her death in 2003. I was her first student. She gave me my first job, teaching chess and math concepts to kids in grades K-4 in her summer program. She was always there for advice, cheer and consolation. Ms. Cross, in her own way, taught me more about walking in faith than anyone else I ever knew.

But I didn't vote for Ms. Cross.

I wanted to vote for Arthur Mells Jackson, Sr. and Jr. Jackson Senior was a Latin professor. He has a gifted school named for him in my hometown. Jackson Junior was the pre-eminent physician in my hometown for over 30 years. He has a heliport named for him at a hospital in my hometown. They were my great-grandfather and great-uncle, respectively.

But I didn't vote for Prof. Jackson or Dr. Jackson.

I wanted to vote for A.B. Palmer. She was a leading civil rights figure in Shreveport, Louisiana, where my mother grew up and where I still have dozens of family members. She was a strong-willed woman who earned the grudging respect of the town's leaders because she never, ever backed down from anyone and always gave better than she got. She lived to the ripe old age of 99, and has a community center named for her in Shreveport.

But I didn't vote for Mrs. Palmer.

I wanted to vote for these people, who did not live to see a day where a black man would appear on their ballots on a crisp November morning.

In the end, though, I realized that I could not vote for them any more than I could vote for Obama himself.

So who did I vote for?

No one.

I didn't vote. Not for President, anyway.

Oh, I went to the voting booth. I signed, was given my stub, and was walked over to a voting machine. I cast votes for statewide races and a state referendum on water and sewer improvements.

I stood there, and I thought about all of these people, who influenced my life so greatly. But I didn't vote for who would be the 44th President of the United States.

When my ballot was complete, except for the top line, I finally decided who I was going to vote for - and then decided to let him vote for me. I reached down, picked him up, and told him to find Obama's name on the screen and touch it.

And so it came to pass that Alexander Reed, age 5, read the voting screen, found the right candidate, touched his name, and actually cast a vote for Barack Obama and Joe Biden.

Oh, the vote will be recorded as mine. But I didn't cast it.

Then again, the person who actually pressed the Obama box and the red "vote" button was the person I was really voting for all along.

It made the months of donating, phonebanking, canvassing, door hanger distributing, sign posting, blogging, arguing and persuading so much sweeter.

So no, I didn't vote for Barack Obama. I voted for a boy who now has every reason to believe he, too, can grow up to be anything he wants - even President."

Boyd Reed is a software tester in Turtle Creek, Pennsylvania, and his essay first appeared on www.talkingpointsmemo.com.

Think about what we saw after Obama won Tuesday night. People dancing in the street, weeping, hugging each other. Have you ever seen that as a result of a presidential election?

But it makes perfect sense. Here was a guy talking about how America is going to get better in a calm and reasonable way. Given our two wars and our economy, there was no way he was going to lose this election.

Candidates who are more positive about what's ahead win. Look at J.F.K., Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton. And now Obama.

Here's something Barack Obama said Tuesday night. "To all those who have wondered if America's beacon still burns as bright: Tonight, we proved once more that the true strength of our nation comes not from the might of our arms or the scale of our wealth, but from the enduring power of our ideals: democracy, liberty, opportunity and unyielding hope."

Hope he's right.

  • Music Bridge:
    Untitled Bright Format V2
    Artist: Kiln
    CD: Ampday (Thalassa)

Comments

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  • By David Phipps

    From Renton, WA, 11/09/2008

    When I listened to Mr Reed's experience in the voting booth on my local NPR radio station, I got shivers down my spine and the hair on my arms stood up. I was moved emotionally. I sat in my car before going into the store Saturday morning and........just sat there. I couldn't move. Then when I got home I spent over two hours searching the internet for a transcript of his essay.( I am not very computer savvy, the average person probably could find it in 5 mins!) I needed to be able to read it over and over. It will inspire me and I hope others to keep the promise we collectively made to our nation and our future by voting for Barack Obama.

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