Starting next week, I will be in Pennsylvania talking to undecided voters and getting out the vote. Just to be clear, this means doing all the things I’m not good at and scares the shit out of me. But I’ll try to do my best, and to make a difference. Never more than today, I feel the absolute urgency to succeed.
Last weekend, I went to a two-day training for “Deputy field organizers” (this is what I will be doing in the next month). Of all the things I watched and read about this campaign, a video they showed us during the training stuck with me the most. And what I mean is, I can’t stop thinking about it.
The video was shot at Obama’s campaign headquarter in Chicago the day Barack Obama learned he would be the democratic presidential candidate. Senator Obama wanted to thank his volunteers and talk about the work ahead of them.
You would expect him to be super-excited and cheering, but he wasn’t. He looked tired, with dark circles under his eyes and very serious. He thanked his people for their amazing hard work and for “lifting him,” in all his limitations and imperfections, to the place where he now stood.
But he also pointed out that the hard fight had just started. “If we had lost the primaries,” he said, “it would have been OK.” Another democratic candidate would have taken over and continued to support the values they all so much cared about. “But we won, and now there is no going back. Now, we cannot afford to lose.”
For most of the video, Barack is seen from the back, as we were standing behind him. We could still see a slice of his smile, so endearing and yet somewhat sad. A smile that has seen too much avoidable suffering, in a country that has the potential of being the best place on Earth.
I found Obama’s display of vulnerability much more motivating that all the celebratory DNC extravaganza. Barack Obama’s sense of responsibility for the people who are the easy victims of History’s mistakes ad bad decisions and his insistence that the only guarantee of a fair government is not a perfect leader, but popular participation in the democratic process is what draws me towards him so powerfully. Much more strongly that any single stance he took, his value system and his vision for America makes me feel so passionately about him.
During the first McCain-Obama debate I looked at Senator Obama as he was listening to his opponent and taking notes. He had the same smile, his head lowered and slightly tilted. Obama was thinking of what to say and how to say it; he needed to be careful to strike the right balance of strength and respect.
It’s a tight tight balance, slim razor’s blade between being perceived as forceful, knowledgeable, and assertive and being perceived as arrogant and disrespectful. His victory or defeat depends on his tightrope walker’s ability to strike just the right chord. Because he is a black man with a scary name and, despite his charm, he has no margin for error.
Barack Obama is too smart not to have full awareness of how close he is to winning and how close to losing. He has the burden to do exactly the right thing not only for his own sake, but for the impact that this election will have on millions of people. And he has to do it while the entire world is watching, in a country that has not been very tolerant of dreamers. Now, that’s terrifying.
This morning I stumbled on this quote from Theodore Roosevelt, that seems the right way to end this reflection on greatness and imperfection.
It’s not the critic who counts, not the man who points out how the strong man stumbled, or when the doer of deeds could have done better.
The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena; whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs and comes short again and again; who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions and spends himself in a worth cause; who at the best, knows in the end the triumph of high achievement; and who at the worst if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory or defeat.