Thursday, August 28, 2008

Barack Obama is Ready to Lead America

It's 1:17 a.m., and I'm just back from the Pepsi Center, where Barack Obama was nominated to be president, and Joe Biden, vice president. I'm tired, in one way, but in another, more awake then I've felt in a long time.

Today, there was something in the air downtown. An excitement that started building early in the day. You could sense it. It was as if the history of the moment -- the formal nomination of the first black man for president of the United States -- was, at last, eclipsing the cynicism.

Outside the convention center, for several blocks, vendors were doing a brisk trade in Obama merchandise, surrounded by masses of delegates and tourists and gawkers. They sold Obama playing cards with Bush and McCain as the jokers. "Yes We Can" umbrellas. T-shirts with images of Obama's face and slogan after slogan: "Run DNC," "McCan't 2008," "Barack The Vote." Someone shook a tambourine. Someone else sold flashing novelties, beads, hats, and flags. Dozens of folks wore stickers that read: "Make Out Not War."

There was a police presence, leading into the arena, like nothing I've ever seen. Columns of black-clad officers, guns ready, visors raised, standing in the streets, and on black SWAT trucks, ready, word had it, to block thousands of protestors from disturbing the proceedings. Weaving between them, rushing the arena, I felt my heart beat kick up a notch.

I arrived just as Melissa Etheridge was singing her God Bless America medley, which included verses from The Times They are a Changing, Give Peace a Chance, and Born in the USA. Rep. Patrick Murphy, an Iraq war vet, declared: "It is time for Barack Obama," then left the stage to the chorus of "Eye of the Tiger," Rocky Balboa's old anthem.

You just had this sense -- a sense that the Democrats were going to bring it; a sense that all the naysayers were about to be proven wrong. On Monday, we were criticized for not going after McCain hard enough, for "wasting" the day. On Tuesday, when we picked apart McCain -- did not the governor of Montana seem to love every minute he spent chewing out McCain for his nonexistent energy policy? -- we were criticized because Hillary did not exactly say that Obama was "ready" to lead. And today, all the newspaper reports assured us, Clinton was coming into the whole affair angry that he had been asked to speak about foreign affairs. Come to think of it, we were told, he was still furious at Obama, at how he was treated during the campaign. Watch out, we were assured -- because a jilted, angry Clinton will never stay on message.

I don't know. Maybe we didn't believe the hype. Maybe we knew Clinton well enough, after all those years fighting for us -- and fighting against the right-wing that claims superiority in this country -- to know that he would not let Obama down; that he would not let us down. Maybe that's why, when he finally took the stage, we cheered him as if we would never get another chance to cheer him or anyone else, ever again. Maybe we wanted to thank him -- 20,000 of us, on this, Barack Obama's night. To let him know that we don't always buy what we are force-fed on TV. "Stop it," he said -- trying his best to quiet us. "Stop." Be we wouldn't. Every single person stood. Everyone of us waved an American flag. "Settle down," he said, "we gotta get this game started." But we wouldn't. I don't know how long it went on. It felt like a few minutes, the affection the pouring down from the highest bleachers even as it rose from the floor, rolling like thunder. We were telling him something he already knew -- that our country has been hijacked, and that he could help us get it back.

And help, he did. "Last night, Hillary told us in no uncertain terms that she is going to do everything she can to elect Barack Obama," he said. "That makes two of us. Actually -- that makes 18 million of us."

What? Where was the ambiguity? The thinly-veiled disdain?

"Everything I have done as president ... has convinced me that Barack Obama is the man for this job."

"A long, hard primary tested and strengthened him. And in his first presidential decision" -- selecting Joe Biden as VP -- "he hit it out of the park ... Barack Obama is ready to lead America."

"Most important of all," he said, "Barack Obama knows America can not be strong abroad unless we are strong at home ... People around the world have always been more impressed by the power of our example than by the example of our power."

More wild cheers, and the spontaneous refrain: Yes we can ... Yes we can ... Yes we can.

"Yes you can," Clinton said. "But first you have to elect him."

"The Republicans said I was too young and too inexperienced to be commander-in-chief," he said. "Sound familar?"

And then he finished, and U2's "Beatiful Day" struck up, and the camera flashed to Hillary and Chelsea, standing, cheering with the rest of us.

It's truly been amazing, being here for all of this. And blogging about it each day afterwards has helped me come to terms with what it all means. Yesterday morning, I wrote about how our best politicians teach us to be brave. As Bill Clinton showed tonight, they teach us something else, too -- something that has to do with the incredible power of burying the hatchet. Of forgiveness, and moving on. We think of our politicians as selfish and egocentric and cynical. Hypocrites, who would do anything for power. But think about the example they set for us when they put personal animosity and rancor aside, and publicly embrace those who have hurt them and cost them the most. Even when it runs against their own interests.

It's healing and unifying and cathartic. Everything they promised us it wouldn't be.

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