Barack Obama is three months older than I am.
When I was 5, my family packed up the car with me and my older brother, and we drove across the country to meet the family. Down into the South to Little Rock, Ark., we drove. During those days, we kept apple juice bottles in the car for "emergencies." Nobody said anything about it, but I have a feeling that the "emergencies" were because of the concern that some gas station owners might not be all that enlightened about the color-blind country we were supposed to be becoming.
My relatives--nearly all of them black professionals at the time, even if "black professional" then meant Pullman car porter or mail carrier--never told me that I'd grow up to be president. But anything else I ever wished to become as a child, they told me I could do it. I was born at the tail end of the baby boom, the youngest child of two youngest children, and the beneficiary of a world of expectations during a time of optimism the United States had rarely seen before.
The anger in my birthplace of Chicago when Martin Luther King Jr. marched there in 1966 for open housing laws never registered in my world. In '67, we left the country as my father began his career as a diplomat in South America, and so the turbulence the country began to experience in the late '60s was foreign to me. I remember an older elementary school student on my school bus trying to explain King's assassination to me--he described it in terms of Jesus dying on the cross. Neither of us was older than 10.
Riots? Never saw any. Watergate? I never heard of it until after President Nixon resigned. I just knew when we came back to the States on summers in between postings that something was causing all the TV stations to broadcast boring hearings of white men in white shirts and thick glasses talking endlessly.
My knowledge of Vietnam came in 1975 after President Ford ordered the evacuation following the fall of Saigon, as we returned to the United States barely a month afterward--in other words, as a child, I missed a lot.
When pundits talk about Barack Obama's "foreign upbringing" and "post-racial" sensibility, I know exactly of what they speak.
I am hoping that this fall's election is a signal that our country is moving into a new era, when, with any luck, we can move past the demons the end of the '60s visited upon us: the strife, assassinations, "Southern Strategies," and foolhardy foreign adventures. Should Obama win the election, I'll be the first to tell you that he is not a panacea, that he cannot right all the country's many problems by simply putting his hand on a Bible and taking an oath. We have made many mistakes to get to this sad place, and it will take many unpopular decisions to get us out of it.
I respect the race that Sen. Hillary Clinton has run these past few months. She has had to battle not only the rampant misogyny of the mainstream media and the unreconstructed hatred of many on the Right (recall the iron my shirts signs on the outskirts of her rallies), but history itself. It may be a while yet before a woman becomes president, but she brought us a long way toward that eventual date.
It also deserves to be said that she is the product of a different time, and that time is the 1990s, when she and her husband were the targets of an unprecedented movement of hatred, driven by money and ideology. They were hounded from before Bill Clinton took office all the way through his eight years as president, and then into her term as senator from New York. No American president has faced such a long and sustained effort to destroy him and his legacy as Bill Clinton, and Hillary Clinton's political viewpoint is a product of that.
She is also wedded to the old style of campaigns--paying Mark Penn millions of dollars for advice is the way Democrats have been running (and losing) elections ever since consultant Bob Shrum took on a candidate. And Obama has shown us that times have changed.
So we move forward, into a contest where the contrasts couldn't be more pronounced: Barack Obama or John McCain. With any luck, and hope, this presidential election will be different from the last two--more open, more honest, and less pejorative than the ones we saw in 2000 and '04.
For me, anyway, there has already been a victory. Nobody ever told me that a left-handed black guy born in 1961 would come out of Chicago and be one election away from the presidency. But the great thing about this country is that nobody ever told me in my life that one couldn't, either. H
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