It is Monday 28th January and for me this is a day of transformation. Today, for the first time for fourteen years I have been proud to sing the American national anthem and to do so with a lump in my throat and a tear in my eye.
When I came to the United States in the days of President Kennedy I found a nation with problems, yes, but problems that could be solved. Anything seemed possible and everyone thought it was. Hardly a day went by when I was not asked by someone, black or white, young or old, "Isn't this a terrific country? Don't you just love it?" And I did. When I returned to England I bored my family with the possibilities of America so enthusiastically that in frustration my father said at one point, "If it's so bloody wonderful why don't you go and live there?" (He didn't mean it - - I don't think).
Then I met my wife and returned to the US in 1994 (in due course to become a full citizen) and suffered a traumatic culture shock. What had happened to the country I had so much admired? The national discourse had become rancid and the can-do spirit muted. Not even in the days of Thatcher had I seen a country so bitter and divided, each culture closed off into separate laagers where one side refused to engage as adults with the other, and the moderates were banished into some distant limbo. Black was painted as white and white as black.
But today my wife and I attended Barack Obama's Mid-Atlantic campaign launch at American University and for the first time in fourteen years I have hope in my heart. We had briefly met Obama, and this was the third occasion we have heard him speak in person. But today was special. Today he stood on the podium next to Ted, Caroline and Patrick Kennedy to receive not just their blessing but their enthusiastic support. The symbolism of seeing Ted Kennedy, the heir to Jack and the flag-bearer of those old times of possibility and hope, standing shoulder to shoulder with Barack Obama was deeply moving, and seemed to telescope the decades together into a brief, bad dream from which thank goodness thousands were waking.
We had arrived early as registered volunteers. The queue of people stretched out of the American university campus and as far as Massachusetts Avenue. Some young people were queuing, it seems, since 3 a.m. There was nowhere to park. The whole event was arranged at the last moment because of Ted Kennedy's endorsement. It was not even listed on the DC for Obama website. Yet the word had spread like a forest fire by email and word of mouth. A horde of volunteers had turned up, so many that it confused the management mightily. As it turned out there was nothing for us to do .
Inside the auditorium the average age of the huge crowd was about 21 and most seemed to be white. Another huge crowd had to be left outside and could not hear the speeches, although Obama and Kennedy addressed them later. All those inside, whether white, black or Latino seemed to share the same culture. This might have been because they were middle class or it might have been purely generational. But they seemed to dress similarly, to have abandoned the ponytail (ubiquitous five years ago) and to share a similar way of speaking and attitude, judging from conversations overheard. And one thing they, and we, had in common was an ache in the heart for change, change from the petty score-making, negativity and ideology of the baby-boomer politicians and a desire for a new, grown-up dialogue among people anxious to do something for all Americans.
The huge attendance of young people should strike terror into the hearts of old-style pols in both parties, for if these young people can be enticed to vote and keep voting, retirement will be the only option for most of the ideologues. It would then remain to pension off the likes of Rush Limbaugh and his fellow attack dogs who have done so much to divide and embitter the nation. They are part of the old politics of destruction.
Ted Kennedy's speech was stellar, touching on all the most disagreeable aspects of today's politics and contrasting the approach of Obama, whom he clearly very much likes and admires, with the self-absorbed and underhand tactics of other people in contention for the Presidency.
I am roughly Ted Kennedy's generation, and was proud that a man, obviously not in the very best of health, could rouse himself to declare so passionately that the politics of the baby-boom generation were due to be superannuated. The current batch of politicians have bequeathed to the younger generation a clutch of disagreeable problems, climate change being the most difficult. In their selfishness they have done little or nothing to address them, and have even tried to prevent others tackling them. These people have had their day and the less they say the better.
Man cannot live by bread alone. He needs hope of a better life and a better society, free of the sordid ambition of the few. A small minority seize the lead by fair means or foul in most instances, distastefully reaching their personal ends at the expense of the hopes and interests of the many. I cannot speak of the "majority" because it is clear that some people accept confrontation, lies and misrepresentation, perhaps because they find them entertaining. They prefer them to reasonable debate on issues. But for some of us our need for elevation of spirit and abandonment of cynicism is intense, a hope for a better, more civilized way of conducting public affairs. It would be good to see someone allowed to try true leadership of the whole country, not a partisan section of it. Obama is the new Kennedy . He is not just a great orator, although he is that, too. He is smart, thoughtful, collegial and potentially the greatest national leader since Kennedy. He even has the grudging admiration of the Republicans, who find they can actually discuss things with him and get things done. And he has barely started.
Obama gave a short speech, not wanting to upstage Kennedy, but his reception was deafening , and the message "Change we can believe in" was punctuated by chants of "O-ba-ma" and "Yes we can, Yes we can". The excitement! The passion! All so different from the grimness of the Republicans and the divisiveness of the Clintons.
Yes, today I have hope!