What I Can Tell You About Barack Obama
To promote Senator Obama during primary season, I wrote a letter to the editor of Nashville’s Tennessean. I then sent versions of the letter to other communities I’ve lived in. The letter was printed in Louisville, Kentucky’s Courier-Journal; Salem, Oregon’s Statesman Journal; and Honolulu, Hawaii’s Star-Bulletin.
For my closing argument, I present a slightly revised version:
In the 1975-76 high school year, four African American young men attended Punahou Academy in Honolulu, Hawaii. Though we each had our own personal circles of friends, three of us-- Rik Smith, a junior; “Barry” Barack Obama, a freshman; and I, a senior, had a standing date roughly once a week to talk. We discussed the social climate on our cosmopolitan campus (whether any of the non-black girls would date us black guys). We talked about sports and religion (I was a Christian, Rik and Barry were agnostics). We talked about our classes and the charges that a black person with a book was “acting white.” We talked about the social issues of the day and about whether we would see a black U.S. President in our lifetime. We discussed our vocational choices. I was going to be a lawyer (I’m not one). 14-yr old Barry wanted to be a basketball player. He even jokingly wrote in my yearbook that when I’m a bigshot lawyer and he’s a basketball star I could negotiate his NBA contracts.
We held these discussions sometime before the adolescent angst that Obama records in his memoir, Dreams from My Father. I went off to college the next year so I never heard the agony and never knew the regrettable choices he reveals in that text, but I believe him. The seeds of the agony were in our conversations. The forces of puberty and the depth of Barack’s mind surely drove the issues deeper.
But neither am I surprised by Barack’s subsequent ability to rise above the agony and poor choices. It is no surprise that he graduated form an Ivy League university, that he went on to devote his life to service, that at Harvard Law School he was the popular president of the contentious Harvard Law Review, and that he moved on to teach Constitutional law and to serve in elective office for these 12 years.
Three issues surprise me. First, when I read the memoir that my brother Keith and I discovered in a remainder bin of a Boulder, Colorado, bookstore in the late 90’s, I was most pleased by Barack’s transformation from an agnostic to a Christian. Despite my surprise, his account of coming to faith rings true to his thoughtful, fair-minded nature and his ability to continually grow.
Second, I, like most of the country, was taken aback by the soaring rhetoric first displayed nationally at the 2004 Democratic Convention. For me the voice sounded very familiar, but the announcement in the Democratic keynote speech that “there is not a liberal America and a conservative America; there’s the United States of America!” showed incredible courage and audacity.
Those words surprised me, but they shouldn’t have. Barry, Rik and I had in common a lifetime of learning to navigate different worlds. In our culturally rich state at a particularly cosmopolitan school and from each of our uniquely multicultural backgrounds, we were used to bridging communities. We still do so in our own lives today. And Barack continues to expand upon those views in his Presidential campaign.
So thirdly I have been unpleasantly surprised by the suggestion that because Barack Obama gives a good speech, he is somehow shallow—as if the gifts of speaking and leading are mutually exclusive. I know that this is not the case. And anyone who wants to know can know the same. His record and his policies have been readily available from his website and from his campaign headquarters. His Blueprint for Change is comprehensive, well thought out, and available for perusal and discussion.
Finally though, what impresses me most about Barack Obama is not simply that he has the stuff to back up his hope and inspiration. His approach to the presidency is one of deep thoughtfulness. He exhibits quick judgment when absolutely necessary, and when issues require deeper thought, he consults the best minds, reflects prayerfully, and then finds the way to solve problems.
I recognize the training from our high school days. Punahou is an incredible school that taught us to think, to pursue excellence in all areas, and to serve our communities and the world. Barack Obama’s Illinois state record, his US senate record and this 21-month campaign reflect this same thoughtfulness, excellence and service.
America could do much worse for President of the United States. They couldn’t do much better.