I’m watching my president, Barack Obama, give his final speech tonight.
All the while, I’m thinking back to my first impression of the man I met in Missoula in April, 14, 2008.
I’m re-reading my first impressions. The way he captured the University of Montana crowd. The way my kids were completely jazzed up to wait in a line for two hours to hear him speak.
It was their first major political event, the first time they would get to see and hear the man whose presidency would define their childhood.
He’s charismatic, I thought to myself as I tried to focus the video camera I was wielding for the Missoulian newspaper on a stage shared with CNN photographers. My assignment was to try and capture the color, sound and atmosphere of the event in a video to accompany the newspaper’s writings.
His hair and complexion were dark, which is not something you see in Montana often, even though the university has some more diversity than the rest of the city or state.
He speaks in this halting style that I would come to love over eight years of listening to his speeches.
Tonight he’s speaking without pausing as much, because after eight years, I have to believe he’s speaking directly from the heart with conviction.
I’m watching on my phone in the bathroom as he says, “Michelle LaVaughn Robinson, girl of the South Side,” and I lose it a little.
His wife, the mother of his children, his best friend.
Have we ever had a president whose relationship with his wife was at once so sweet and so strong? I wonder if some of the hatred directed his way isn’t because he’s defied the norm in a town and a profession where power can compromise the soul.
My favorite aunt once asked me what kind of legacy Obama would have. How will people remember him?
And trying to diplomatically weave my way through the nuances of growing up in a strongly Republican immigrant family, I weakly said something like: “He’ll be remembered for enecting legislation that will help Americans have health care.”
If I had another chance to answer that question, this is what I would say –
Obama will be rememberd as a statesman, a father and a husband. A man who ran two campaigns asking America to elect and then re-elect its first black president. I’m proud to have voted twice for this man. I’m proud of his integrity. Proud of the way he loves his wife and children. Proud of the way he represented America to the rest of the world. I love the way he stood up to the racism and abuse that was hurled at him. He did it with a quiet dignity, as a man who might just simply wipe the spit and hatred from his skin and continue on with a compassionate smile. Mostly, I like that he tried to be a president to everyone through some pretty divisive and miserable times. Every time there was a shooting, he addressed the nation and talked to it like a friend. He didn’t talk down to the people. He didn’t berate. He was inclusive in his care of the those whom he led. He’s a graceful man whose words will stay with me for a long time.
As I watched his speech on my phone, I could see the comments popping up.
“Farewell, brown trout.”
“The Islamic Terrorist has left the building.”
“Not my president.”
“First and last black president.”
On a stage in Chicago, the man to whom those words were directed showed no ire, only a passion and a willingness to continue to promote democracy and his great love of this country.
He didn’t dwell on any one thing. After all, it’s likely that many of the things he did as president may get stripped away in the zealousness of the opposing party’s desire to ransack his legacy.
The man who gave us jobs, rebuilt our auto industry, de-weaponized Iran, directed the killing of America’s Most Wanted terrorist and who laid down a potential pathway for better medical care, talked about the bright future he sees in the upcoming generation. He talked about his wife and kids, his Vice President and optimism.
I think that’s what I like most about him. In a time period where I don’t want to be optimistic. Where optimism seems to pale in comparison to the sardonic nastiness that is encompassing us, he’s almost annoyingly balanced.
Where I want to get angry, he was steady. Where I want to lash out, he had strong and stable words. Where I want to give up, he constantly talked about hope.
I didn’t like everything he did politically. But I understand that it comes with a fairly thankless job. Leader of the free world is not and never will be easy.
He didn’t accomplish everything I hoped he might. He backed down from fights I wished he hadn’t. He dropped an awful lot of bombs on people, and even though it made my life safer, I wish we hadn’t.
When I look back on that April 14th, where I said he was like a rock star, I had no idea who or what he’d be. I didn’t honestly think he’d win at that point. He was just a well-spoken Senator from Illinois.
I’ve seen eight presidents in my lifetime. Some of them I liked, because my father liked them. Some of them I didn’t like, because the narrative about who and what they were told me I shouldn’t like them. Some of them I watched as a citizen and later as a member of the press.
Reagan was a childhood hero. Nixon was an enigma. Carter was an absolute failure. Clinton was an abomination. Bush 1 was hope. Bush 2 was well-meaning but not very smart.
We are all a product of what others around us tell us and the perceptions we have at various stages of growth and maturity.
Reagan’s light dimmed for me as I read more about his life leading up to the presidency, though his legacy as the man who took down Communism has stayed with me. I understand Nixon more now than I did as a kid. He was a terrible human, as are we all at times. He just couldn’t seem to overcome that. I’ve come to love Carter for the human he became after the presidency that was a disaster. He, more than most, exemplifies what a statesman can do with the years that are left to him. Clinton was, at times, or perhaps still is, a terrible human. His weaknesses as a man nearly undid everything he would have held up as his legacy. But I appreciate his wonkiness and the contributions he made to some of the most difficult parts of our economic framework. The Bush presidents remain largely the same. I didn’t really get to know Sr., and Jr. will have to live with the wars he didn’t think through. Some people say America should be more reactionary. Those people don’t really see the true cost of war. It’s not money, it’s the lives, the people whose blood does not spatter on their shoes all these miles removed from the violence.
Obama may change with time. He may become a very different person. I may have a very different view of him twenty years from now.
Somehow I doubt that, but it’s not out of the realm of possibility.
I will miss his speeches. Some call him pompous. Some feel the same way about a Barack Obama speech that I feel about listening to the Orange Menace speak. I truly understand the feeling, even if I don’t understand the merits.
He has a way of coloring America in when he talks. It’s not abstract or generalized. It’s not your typical political speech carefully designed to appeal broadly to the constituency. H paints America as only a black man can. He paints it with two sets of eyes. Where many of us only have one set of eyes, one set of experiences. He made me feel included in an America that would rather divide itself. And he made me understand not only who I am but who my brothers and sisters are around this country we live in together.
Tonight I watched my kids watching their president. A man they were too young to vote for but who was instrumental in their lives nonetheless.
They’ve seen and heard him in ways I never saw or heard all the presidents of my lifetime. And as he described them tonight: “unselfish, altruistic, creative, patriotic — I’ve seen you in every corner of the country. You believe in a fair, and just, and inclusive America; you know that constant change has been America’s hallmark, that it’s not something to fear but something to embrace, you are willing to carry this hard work of democracy forward. You’ll soon outnumber any of us, and I believe as a result the future is in good hands.”
I’m glad he recognizes that in them. I’m going to follow his lead and choose to believe the same thing.