I heard Barack Obama speak at the annual book festival at the Capitol on Saturday. Attendance in the House Chamber was limited to people who had blue or red wrist bands, for seating on the floor or in the gallery, respectively. TEXAS MONTHLY had six of the coveted blue strips. Every seat was taken, and many hopefuls were turned away, having come unaware that admission was controlled. Obama appeared during an earlier awards ceremony–no sense in playing coy here, not when a plug is called for; the festival’s “Bookend Award” went to TEXAS MONTHLY’s founder and publisher, Michael Levy, and the magazine’s three editors in the past 33 years, William Broyles, Gregory Curtis, and Evan Smith. Obama stood in the doorway that leads to the back hallway and the speaker’s reception area, surrounded by a large entourage. As the ceremony wound down, female shrieks emanated from the gallery–just a few at first, and then more. This was the politician as rock star.
Obama was here ostensibly to talk about his book, but he was also coming off a week in which he had acknowledged he was considering running for president in 2008. Following Evan Smith’s introduction, he took the podium. Now shrieks rained down from upstairs.
“People have asked me,” he began, “Where did I get the title of my book, The Audacity of Hope? I pilfered it from my pastor. It was the title of a sermon. He said that it was easier to take refuge in cynicism over poverty, war, and violence. To believe that you can alter the tragic course of history is naive. What is truly audacious is to be hopeful. To believe that the world as you find it is not the world as it has to be. [The sermon] reconciled for me that to be hopeful is not to be blind to the problems of the world.”
As he spoke, I “heard” that heavy silence that descends upon the chamber in rare moments of oratory or outrage, when one’s every sense is attuned to the spoken word. There is scarecly breath or movement. Obama stood erect, in total control of his body. Only his hands and arms moved, and then only in concert, obedient to his will. His hands, at first folded at his waist, fingers enlaced, broke apart, rose upward, came together, and descended again, in perfect concert. He never wavered or shifted position. He wore a navy jacket over a white dress shirt, open at the collar, and the jacket seemed to flow with his arms as they moved.
“This country has been built on the audacity of hope,” he continued. ‘Thirteen ragtag colonists, immigrants from every shore. Our founding documents were deeply flawed, stained with slavery, but at every stage of our history, what IS, doesn’t define us. But today, we’ve replaced hope with sound bits. So much of politics in Washington is the political equivalent of the World Wrestling Federation–shouting and throwing chairs.”
(I am quoting from my notes of the speech, not from a text, so if you find the rhetoric wanting, blame me, not Obama.)
“In my travels, I’ve discovered our country is not as divided as our politics suggest. The American people are in a very serious mood, a very somber mood, paying attention in a way they haven’t. They are asking how we can spend more on health care than any civilized nation, yet have more uninsured people and insurance premiums that rise every year. Why don’t we have a system that emphasizes prevention Why in high-tech America is health care the only industry where you have to fill out forms in triplicate? Why is our school system still designed for an agricultural era? We know there are things that work, like early childhood education. Why are these Republican or Democratic issues? Why not both? Look at our energy policy? Why should we send 800 million dollars a day to some of the most hostile nations on earth?”
From time to time, shrieks would break out, almost unrelated to the words Obama was speaking at the time. This was not due to applause lines. I don’t recall a single time that the crowd interrupted him with applause. Obama does not try to emulate Martin Luther King. He does not exhort, at least not deliberately. He does not rally. He does challenge, but ever so gently. He is cool, not hot, and surprisingly but effectively low key. Rather, the shrieks occurred because the audience’s infatuation could no longer be restrained. Once vented, it would build up again until released.
He likened our present situation to John F. Kennedy saying, We’re going to the moon. “No one knew how to get there, the scientists just looked at each other, but nine years later we’re looking at Neil Armstrong take those steps.” (His timing is off–it was seven years from Kennedy’s speech at Rice Stadium to the moon landing–but the point is valid.)
He allowed himself a single political potshot: “At our coure, the American people are a decent people–well, there’s Rush Limbaugh” and then returned to the book. “It is not a campaign manifesto,” he said, “but a way to get this process started. How do I hang on to that kernel of truth, the best of me, and not succumb to institutional pressures?” Then he told a long, rambling anecdote about visiting Cairo, Illinois, a town that is very Southern in character, on a campaign swing while he was running for senator. I couldn’t tell you what the point of it was, only that it didn’t seem to work. Happily, he had left time for a couple of questions, and his appearance ended on a high note with a question from a ten year old boy in the gallery. The acoustics in the chamber are not the best, and I couldn’t tell you exactly what the question was, but it must have been something like, What advice would you give someone like me? And here was Obama’s answer: “I can think of one, two, three things. Learning is active, not passive. You have to be willing to work for knowledge. Learn empathy. Be able to stand in somebody else’s shoes. If you see someone who is asking for something to eat, think what it would be like to be hungry. And dream big dreams.”
I don’t know what went wrong with the Cairo anecdote. It was too long and the point was too obscure. That aside, his speech was perfect–not overtly political, but uplifting in a reassuring way. He has the magic, the way Henry Cisneros once had it. A force to be reckoned with.