The Year Obama Broke

by J. Tobias Beard

or, How I learned to keep worrying and love campaign journalism

Reflections on political journalism. Published in C-VILLE 01/01/2008.

Last February I covered the state Democrats’ Jefferson-Jackson Dinner featuring guest speaker Barack Obama. Seven days earlier, Obama had announced that he would run for president, answering a steady whisper that had turned by then into a dull roar. It seemed insane for him to run—way too early—and yet he was. The joy his announcement brought to many people was enough to make me think that maybe, just maybe, politics was worth caring about.

I dubbed him The Charisma in that article, and I was hoping to experience some of that magic myself in Richmond. Obama was still limned with a holy fire. He seemed, in the media at any rate, to be a young saint: too decent and smart for the shit to stick. The audience, young and old, but especially the kids, spoke of him with flushed cheeks and quickened breath, the entire crowd just wanting to touch, see, hear this man. The whole scene was a bit mad; those who shook his hand vowed to never wash theirs again, and someone on the street afterwards said, “I shed a tear when Obama spoke.” I shed no tears that night, nor did I feel any magic. But I liked Obama a lot.

My first political memory is of my parents voting and losing. I was 5 when Carter limped through the doomed campaign of 1980, and over the next 27 years I learned that paying attention to politics is a good way to feel horrible about your country. Clinton’s victory in 1992 almost changed this, making me giddy, as though I could feel something of that passion you see in most Boomers’ faces when they talk about politics (“I wish it was the sixties,” Radiohead sings, “I wish I could be happy”). But that hope soon faded. I confess I didn’t vote in 2000. I was too stoned, living out my generation’s “slacker” sobriquet. But by 2004 I was awake and aware, just in time to have my faith in the political process ripped from me. Leaving the polling place on that sick, gray day three years ago, I steadfastly refused to wear the “I Voted” sticker. Why bother? What was there to feel proud of? Politics in the 21st century seemed to be the province of the filthy and the cruel. I was certain my vote hadn’t mattered.

To prepare for the Jefferson-Jackson Dinner, my first foray into political journalism, I read Obama’s books Dreams from my Father and Audacity of Hope. It’s not hard to like the person they portray. If I were being cynical, I would say that his books are calculated self-hagiography, and that he probably had help writing them. But I didn’t feel cynical when I read them. I felt entranced, hopeful even. They are startlingly open, revealing his past drug use, his frustrations with the Washington money game, and his emotions. These books, I remember thinking, will ruin his presidential bid.

When Obama surprised everyone by coming to Charlottesville in late October, I went to see him again with a mix of anticipation and ennui. After the Jefferson-Jackson dinner, as 2007 steadily advanced, The Charisma had lost his aura of purity and was starting to sound an awful lot like every other power junkie running for office—hedging, bickering, polling, and raking in the dough.

At the Pavilion the signs of Obama-mania were greater than ever: the screaming, the up-on-tiptoes rapt attention. The Charisma was framed in cell phone screens, as a hundred flashbulbs splatter-painted the air. The crowd was young, and he delivered a loud message, marked with the preacherly thunder that had caught the country’s attention at the 2004 Democratic convention. He was smart and passionate. But here’s the problem with covering politics: There’s little chance for inspiration. More so than most, journalists hear a politician speak and think, “How many times has he said that before? What effect is it supposed to have on me?” I could tell that the Pavilion crowd, like Richmond before it, was inspired, but what does inspiration feel like? If the chirping volunteers wearing Obama t-shirts and vapid smiles were any indication, it feels a lot like being high on Ecstasy.

About a month after the Downtown Mall revival, I was talking to a major Democratic fund raiser about why he was leaning towards Hillary. Presented with two resumés for a CEO, he said, one like Clinton’s and one like Obama’s, he would have to pick the one that most showed an ability to run something well. He would choose skill over inspiration. I couldn’t disagree with him, and yet, part of me remained unwilling to surrender the notion that inspiration counts, even if it’s inspiration by proxy.

Obama is post-Boomer, meaning he sees the world not through the blood-spattered rear view mirror of the 1960s, but through the kaleidoscopic windshield of the modern era. What, I asked the party elder, would it say to the world if America elected someone whose father had herded goats in Kenya? What would it mean to our international profile if we elected someone with a fundamental knowledge of what it’s like to be a foreigner?

Time for your metaphorical, crowd pleasing, end-of-the-speech story: Back in February, standing in a semi-circle of reporters at an outdoor press conference, I leaned forward, freezing, trying desperately to hear what Obama was saying above the locust whir of the speed shutters. It took a while for me to understand that the microphone in front of the candidate wasn’t amplifying his voice, but recording it for the TV crews. As journalists, the tools of our trade necessarily stand between us and the world. We are not, and cannot be, an audience. We are conduits, witnesses. I am a camera, or in this case, a notebook. As a journalist, I try to write about what it might mean for our country to be inspired by someone like Obama, even if, as a citizen, I am still unsure how to gain that inspiration for myself.