This will be my ninth vote in a presidential election: and, yes, it will be the ninth time I’ve voted for a Democrat. I guess you could say I’m in a rut.
But there’s something different this year — something kind of hard to describe.
It isn’t really the level of enthusiasm. I’ve been enthusiastic about presidential elections before: I was fired up for John Kerry in 2004, for example — or at least fired up against George W. Bush. And I was enthusiastic about Al Gore the time before. Like most partisan Democrats, the Great Theft of 2000 fused my attachment to Gore at almost a cellular level, but even before that I had seen great potential in the man.
But again, what’s different this year really isn’t about enthusiasm. It’s about growth.
As I think back to earlier elections, whatever the level of my enthusiasm for our candidate coming out of the Democratic Convention, I can never recall a time when that enthusiasm actually grew during the rest of the campaign. More often, it was chipped away a little. It goes with the territory: politics can be ugly. It’s sort of like Otto von Bismarck’s famous saying about laws and good sausage: it’s better if you don’t see them being made.
Kerry wimping out in the face of the slanderous swift boat attacks.
Bill Clinton rushing back to Arkansas during the campaign to preside over the execution of a mentally damaged prisoner.
Dukakis and his tank ride.
The remarkable thing about Barack Obama is, despite all of the slime that’s been thrown his way, as well as some steps he’s taken I disagree with, my admiration for him has actually grown during the campaign. I think a lot of people’s has. Who’d have thought that possible a year ago? The story going in, you’ll recall, was of Obama the myth — the largely unknown receptacle into which people were pouring their own wishes and desires.
He was all pretty words and fancy speeches, the story went: all sparkle but perhaps no game. THE ONE. The celebrity. The fad.
But it couldn’t last, we were assured by the punditry. As the real Obama became apparent during the campaign — as the varnish was slowly stripped from the pretty exterior and people came to know the real man — his popularity would inevitably falter.
But that didn’t happen, of course. Instead, the more people got to know Barack Obama, the more they seemed to like him. America did strip away the varnish, just like the pundits said we would, but instead of being disappointed, we discovered that the real man underneath was, if anything, more appealing than the persona.
The public image of an elegant and inspirational, but largely unknown, young black orator has been replaced by the comforting voice of the steady captain who we feel almost instinctively has what it takes to bring the ship safely ashore in the storm.
The more you see him, the more he impresses you. Joe Klein’s recent description, in Time Magazine, of Obama’s response during a meeting when General David Petraeus tried to make the case for staying in Iraq, is a good example of why:
Obama had a choice at that moment. He could thank Petraeus for the briefing and promise to take his views “under advisement.” Or he could tell Petraeus what he really thought, a potentially contentious course of action — especially with a general not used to being confronted. Obama chose to speak his mind. “You know, if I were in your shoes, I would be making the exact same argument,” he began. “Your job is to succeed in Iraq on as favorable terms as we can get. But my job as a potential Commander in Chief is to view your counsel and interests through the prism of our overall national security.” Obama talked about the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan, the financial costs of the occupation of Iraq, the stress it was putting on the military.
A “spirited” conversation ensued, one person who was in the room told me. “It wasn’t a perfunctory recitation of talking points. They were arguing their respective positions, in a respectful way.” The other two Senators — Chuck Hagel and Jack Reed — told Petraeus they agreed with Obama. According to both Obama and Petraeus, the meeting — which lasted twice as long as the usual congressional briefing — ended agreeably. Petraeus said he understood that Obama’s perspective was, necessarily, going to be more strategic. Obama said that the timetable obviously would have to be flexible. But the Senator from Illinois had laid down his marker: if elected President, he would be in charge.
Calm, thoughtful and intelligent. Who’d have ever thought we might actually elect someone like that president?
Something big has happened over the last few months. We’ve met the real Barack Obama and he’s blown us away.