A few weeks ago, I was brainstorming with our publisher and editorial director, Bryan Welch, about images we could use to accompany this month’s cover feature, “Reimagining the American Dream.” Normally we make a game of going back and forth, but as soon as I described the stories we planned to publish, Bryan had a flash of inspiration.
Our stories are about reorienting expectations, not downward but outward: putting community interest before personal gain; reclaiming and reengaging our local political systems; fighting for people who keep our economy running, but can’t keep up; and demanding that, no matter where we are or what we’re fighting for, we play by the international rules. What better way to visually represent this optimistic agenda than to feature a portrait of Illinois senator Barack Obama, whose presidential campaign has energized a scared, skeptical nation?
Well, Bryan, I answered, professionally predisposed to argue, it’s true that a grassroots organizer and legal scholar with populist appeal is an attractive option. His rallies have the look, sound, and feel of a Hendrix concert. And, hey, if everyone who already dropped a dime for the guy bought a copy of the magazine, our interns could retire to San Francisco and work for a nonprofit.
On the other hand . . . when it comes to photo ops, Google hits, and histrionic headlines, citizen Obama is giving Britney Spears a run for the record books. Utne Reader normally goes out of its way not to endorse political candidates (especially if they’re on a ballot and could actually win). And if our readers are anything like me, campaign fatigue started setting in when Santa was climbing down a chimney in West Des Moines to hide coal in the Clinton family stockings.
Bryan humored me, just as I would when other folks in the office worried over similar hypotheticals. He knew that, whether Obama wins or loses the Democratic nomination (undecided as I write), his image already represents something beyond the reach of any one politician. On the stump, candidates have come to define this something as a yearning for “change,” already 2008’s most overused and abused catchword. The kind of hope Obama inspires is much deeper and more lasting than the accompanying sound bites, however.
Watching others watch him, I’m reminded of the first time I saw long-shot lefty Paul Wellstone, who would ultimately win back-to-back terms in the U.S. Senate.
It was a brilliant October day in 1990 and hundreds of students and faculty were gathered in front of the University of Minnesota’s student union. Wellstone stood on a makeshift podium in wrinkled shirtsleeves and spoke passionately about the need for fair wages, universal health care, and an end to military madness. I was covering the rally for a story in the student newspaper, and vividly remember the Carleton College professor talking about how students were having to sell plasma to buy books. He was coiled up, jabbing the air with his index finger, screaming mad. “It’s outrageous,” he spat. “Outrageous!”
A month later, on election night, I watched as scores of jubilant Democrats waved Wellstone signs over their heads at a victory party in downtown Minneapolis. Grizzled beat reporters were giggling. Longtime liberals, so used to losing they wouldn’t really believe they’d won until morning, were weeping. Wellstone promised to never practice politics as usual. He promised to always fight for the dispossessed. He promised to never, ever sell out. I put my notebook in my back pocket, turned off my tape recorder, and began to cheer.
As I wrote for a local paper in 2002 after Wellstone died in a plane crash, I never forgot that campaign and I never let Wellstone live it down. No matter how tirelessly he worked, no matter how progressive his voting record, it was never enough. He radicalized a generation of young Minnesota voters reared on Reagan and Bush and, in the process, set the bar heroically high, leaving little room for human error.
Obama is a young man, and no matter what his political future, he too will disappoint the same people he instigated. It’s inevitable. Nevertheless, the millions he’s already touched will never forget this moment in history because, no matter your political stripe, there’s no denying that our nation has been sleepwalking for the past eight years. We put the covers over our heads on September 12, 2001, got up to look around in 2004, and then hit the snooze button again, hoping that things would work themselves out. They didn’t. And they won’t.
Obama has jolted us awake. The air is crackling again with the power of possibility, with the belief that there’s still some magic to be squeezed out of the American Dream. And that sensation is as real as it is unforgettable.