I first saw Barack Obama in the flesh in Columbia, South Carolina, in December 2007. Thirty thousand people had waited for hours to receive his powerful message of hope and renewal. He greeted them with “Look at the day the Lord has made” and ended with “Let’s go change the world,” and during the 40 minutes in between, I stood there, transfixed, realizing that I had made a horrible mistake. Hillary Clinton was supposed to have the Democratic presidential nomination wrapped up. I had written as much. But I had not seen Obama in action. This was not a politician. This was a force of nature.
“It is probably impossible for Barack Obama to overcome Hillary Clinton’s organization and the support she commands within the senior ranks of the Democratic Party,” I wrote that night. “But the impossible sometimes happens in politics.”
At least I got that right.
Covering the primary campaign turned into a whirlwind tour of the United States: listen ing to the worries of villagers in Amana, Iowa; testing the political currents in Houston; driving through an Ohio snowstorm; rolling in a campaign bus through the soft twilight of the Indiana prairie.
The battle between Obama and Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination pivoted daily from thrilling drama to political farce to Shakespearean tragedy. Now we are engaged in an epic contest between Obama, a young, charismatic but inexperienced challenger, and John McCain, a wily, veteran maverick senator – at a time when Americans believe, as never before, that their country is going in the wrong direction and in need of fundamental reform.
The United States is still a young, dynamic country, whose people are blessed with unquenchable and completely justifi ed confi dence in their nation and its future. Lately, that national self-confi dence has been tested, but it is, perhaps, the only thing that most Americans share. As for everything else, no matter what you say about America and Americans, the opposite is equally true. They are friendly and angry, charming and rude, loud and – actually, most of them are loud, at least compared to most Canadians.
And yes, they still struggle to bridge the terrible chasm between the races. It darkens Americans’ lives. But that gap is finally starting to narrow. And an African American has at least an even chance of becoming president.
Americans of every class and colour and region remain a generous, open-hearted people, in love with life and their country, and fi ercely determined to defend their liberty. They thrive on their own contradictions and don’t care in the least what you think of them.
It has been a high privilege to be able to tell their stories. I’m having the time of my life.
John Ibbitson (BA 1979 TRIN) writes on American politics and society for the Globe and Mail. His next novel, The Landing, will be published in September.
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