I live-blogged on election night 2008, and as it began to look good for Obama, I wrote, "How long has it been since I felt this emotionally close with my wife?"
She and I were left staring at each other tonight through teary eyes—with our teary-eyed daughter in between us, the one who was five in 2008, and sang in her pre-school Christmas show that Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer would go down in history, "like Obama!"
Most of Obama’s speech tonight sounded like I’d heard it before, in state of the union addresses and other speeches. That’s how it is on a long car ride with an old friend you know you many never see again. “A boring speech,” I texted my sister, “that I wish would last forever.”
I write more frequently than speechwriters probably wish I did, that the essential social utility of speeches in this high-tech age is as symbolic cultural ceremony more than as direct communication of ideas.
Clearly in this farewell speech, Obama had some parting points he wanted to make, and made some of those points well.
If every economic issue is framed as a struggle between a hardworking white middle class and undeserving minorities, then workers of all shades will be left fighting for scraps while the wealthy withdraw further into their private enclaves.
Politics is a battle of ideas; in the course of a healthy debate, we’ll prioritize different goals, and the different means of reaching them. But without some common baseline of facts; without a willingness to admit new information, and concede that your opponent is making a fair point, and that science and reason matter, we’ll keep talking past each other, making common ground and compromise impossible.
In his own farewell address, George Washington wrote that self-government is the underpinning of our safety, prosperity, and liberty, but “from different causes and from different quarters much pains will be taken…to weaken in your minds the conviction of this truth;” that we should preserve it with “jealous anxiety;” that we should reject “the first dawning of every attempt to alienate any portion of our country from the rest or to enfeeble the sacred ties” that make us one.
We weaken those ties when we allow our political dialogue to become so corrosive that people of good character are turned off from public service; so coarse with rancor that Americans with whom we disagree are not just misguided, but somehow malevolent. We weaken those ties when we define some of us as more American than others; when we write off the whole system as inevitably corrupt, and blame the leaders we elect without examining our own role in electing them.
It falls to each of us to be those anxious, jealous guardians of our democracy; to embrace the joyous task we’ve been given to continually try to improve this great nation of ours. Because for all our outward differences, we all share the same proud title: Citizen.
For blacks and other minorities, it means tying our own struggles for justice to the challenges that a lot of people in this country face—the refugee, the immigrant, the rural poor, the transgender American, and also the middle-aged white man who from the outside may seem like he’s got all the advantages, but who’s seen his world upended by economic, cultural, and technological change.
For white Americans, it means acknowledging that the effects of slavery and Jim Crow didn’t suddenly vanish in the ‘60s; that when minority groups voice discontent, they’re not just engaging in reverse racism or practicing political correctness; that when they wage peaceful protest, they’re not demanding special treatment, but the equal treatment our Founders promised.
Ultimately, that’s what our democracy demands. It needs you. Not just when there’s an election, not just when your own narrow interest is at stake, but over the full span of a lifetime. If you’re tired of arguing with strangers on the internet, try to talk with one in real life. If something needs fixing, lace up your shoes and do some organizing. If you’re disappointed by your elected officials, grab a clipboard, get some signatures, and run for office yourself. Show up. Dive in. Persevere.
I was at McCormick Place at 6:00 a.m. on a dark and frigid Saturday morning, in line for a ticket to for this speech. I was there with thousands of other people who were there not because it was cool to be, the way it was cool to be in Grant Park on election night in 2008. And not because it promised a particular reward. We stood in line quietly, for the most part, not in anticipation exactly, and not in duty. It was more like a bread line. And the bread was going to be, hearing the last words, in person, together with one another.
I didn’t get my ticket. As the speech began, some family members texted me and asked if I was in the hall. No, I was home. They texted back that they were sorry. I texted back that I was glad. And I was.
As this fine human being sincerely thanked his staffers and supporters, a vice president who he had come to call a brother, and his wife and his daughter, I was glad to be with my own wife and daughter.
“I’m asking you to believe,” Obama said at the end. “Not in my ability to bring about change—but in yours.”
This time, I guess we don’t have a choice.
At the end, we were all overcome with emotion—not because of the words, but because the words had finally run out.
“How long has it been since I felt this emotionally close with my wife?”
We need each other now. All of us.