by Susan Lavine
- USA -
Quoting from a historic speech given by Robert F. Kennedy during his visit to South Africa in 1966 to show solidarity with Martin Luther King and South Africa’s struggle for civil rights, Barack Obama brought his campaign to American University in Washington, DC. As Obama eloquently calmed the crowd he recited the words, “It is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped. Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope.”
Senator Kennedy is the second longest serving senator in the Senate, having been elected since 1960. He took over the Senate seat representing Massachusetts that was vacated when his brother John Kennedy became the 35th President of the United States. He is known as one of the most liberal Democrats on the Hill and a man who does not back down from a fight.
As I rode to the rally, the cab driver’s Ethiopian flag blocked the view from the rearview mirror. When I told him where I was headed, he asked if he could join me. He told me of his arrival in America in the eighties and how kind the people of Denver had been to him as an immigrant. When we arrived, the police informed us the event had been closed by the Fire Marshall as it was already over capacity. Crowds of people arrived as early as 5am, lines snaking off the campus and onto one of Washington’s main thoroughfares, coincidentally named Massachusetts Avenue.
Undeterred, I went to the press entrance with my invitation in hand. There I found major news outlets who were shut out as well. Directed to the amphitheatre, I found another mob of people waiting to go through security just to sit outside in hopes of getting a glimpse of the candidate; most had been waiting since 9am (the event was scheduled for 1pm). As I waited, I spoke with those around me. There were the early Obama supporters who had read his book, the “undecideds,” the Chinese law student from Beijing thrilled to catch a glimpse of an American political candidate. A couple from the University of Texas doing research in Washington had just returned to the states from Brazil; they said the “Brazilians do not like Bush and as a consequence they do not like Americans.”
The amphitheatre was overflowing with young and old, of all nationalities and races, in the 40-degree temperature. I approached a woman with a sign which read, “59, white woman Obama supporter.” She sat with her husband and explained that they felt he was the one candidate “who can bring America together.”
Next to her sat seven high school classmates, all seniors from the Washington International School. They laughed, telling me how they all piled into one car to make it here. This will be the first election where they can vote in either a primary or general election. Between them they represented incredible diversity – perhaps 15 countries. I asked them where they are from and got: France, Angolan-American, American, Indian and Bolivian, an American who lived in Belgium and Mali, and a French/Dutch girl who has lived on the Ivory Coast and in Thailand.The last of the students, Aziyade Knippenberg, said that perhaps since she and her friends have lived abroad and go to school in such an international environment, they don’t see race as a major issue. It saddens her and her friends to know that the Jena 6 is a reminder of how in other places in America, people self segregate and still have enormous racial divides to overcome.
Next to her sat a young Howard University student, Cales Tle of Shreveport, Louisiana, who will vote absentee for her first election. This was the first political candidate Cales has had the opportunity to see in person. Prior to Obama’s speech, she explained his appeal, “He is a humble man, a moral person, he represents change in that he doesn’t see a red or a blue state. He sees America.”
Seated behind Cales was D. Omen, wearing a black post-Katrina t-shirt which read, “George Bush doesn’t like black people.” D. is an artist and a Prince Georges Community College student. This was his second time hearing Obama speak and he came on his way to work. D. could be heard cheering over the crowd to Obama, “Adopt me!”
D. explained, “I am the only family member who can vote! The rest of the family has green cards, since they are from Guyana.”
These two young people started discussing past elections and how much they respected Al Gore for fighting for the election. Listening to them I realized that for most of their lives, every election has been contested. For me, the first contested election between George Bush and Al Gore was a shocking, dismaying experience. Elections were intended to be fair. The days of stolen elections, voter irregularities and stuffed ballot boxes were supposed to be a thing of the past. When asked if they were concerned about a close election and a possible recount, they agreed, “Hillary and Obama will both fight for each vote. Our votes matter to them.”
Another woman at the end of the aisle talked about having been a poll runner in Chicago during the election of President Kennedy. She was here to witness history; she saw hope in the Kennedy endorsement and felt it was an indication that Democratic leadership would support the young candidate. She was hopeful that unified power on the Hill and in the White House would accomplish things for America. The division of powers in American politics causes things to move slowly. That deliberate institutional safeguard of the Founding Fathers can also result in a frightening impasse - not unlike when Nero fiddled while Rome burned, our great country lags behind while elected officials play political hardball.Then the moment we were all waiting for arrived. Someone exclaimed, “There’s Caroline Kennedy!” Obama and Senator Kennedy appeared from behind the motorcade and security. There was none of the pressing of flesh common to US political rallies as they took the stage, just deafening screams and cheers as Senator Kennedy thanked the crowd and spoke of this being the hour to elect Obama across the country and in Denver. (Denver, Colorado will host the Democratic party convention this August. There the delegates, media, and party faithfuls will gather one last time to energize their base of support. The convention will choose their political party’s nominee for the US presidency.)
Obama highlighted his domestic issues: the outrage of 47 million people being without health insurance, the need for good jobs, good wages, a comprehensive immigration plan, the closing of Guantanamo and bringing the troops home. And regarding issues outside the US, he noted the urgency of ending genocide in Darfur and helping other countries to fight HIV/AIDS and build schools. Smiling at the applause he declared, “America is back!”
The crowd roared.
Then he grew quiet, and admitted what those of us who have voted before, those of us who have worked in politics eventually come to realize and be humbled by: “I can’t lead by myself. It has to be from the bottom up. Each of us has obligations, those of us who are young and those who are young at heart, how much you are willing to create your own ripple of hope.”
As I walked away I chatted with one last woman. She had come because she is undecided. As we parted, she said she hoped that she would have the opportunity to hear Hillary before the DC primary.
I left significantly more optimistic about the future of America and its role in the world if the young people in America are this bright, this engaged and this energized.
The Obama campaign clearly appeals to the young. When I was twenty-five the young Governor of Arkansas captured my imagination; I worked for President Clinton tirelessly. The Clintons were inspiring then and now for their passion, energy and commitment. I remember sitting behind Jacqueline Kennedy, John Kennedy Jr. and other members of the Kennedy family as President Clinton gave his acceptance speech in 1992. I thought about that the very first time I heard Obama, then the newly elected Junior Senator from Illinois, give a speech at the 2004 convention in Boston. The youth of America and each of us that care about our future want a candidate who will achieve what Americans believe this country is capable of, both here and abroad.
I hope there will be a clear winner this November 2nd - that there will be no contested states (states in which the ballots would have to be recounted if the tally is too close to call). I want the hopes of these young people for a better America to be realized - for them, for the world and for the sake of our democracy. On February 5th, or “Super Tuesday,” 24 states will hold their caucuses and primaries. If the party nominees are not decided then, the next big races will move to Ohio and Texas on March 4th.
I personally suspect that Obama’s campaign may be similar to that of Howard Dean’s in 2004 – though he had tremendous youth support, he did not win the party’s nomination. One misstep, one unanticipated economic crisis or other issue may change the dynamics of these races. Obama’s opponent, Senator Hillary Clinton, is smart, experienced, and some believe a more moderate Democrat. If the results of Florida from January 30th are an indication, she will most likely win the nomination.
However regardless of who wins, the party will unite behind the candidate. The Democrats want someone smart, someone who will not abuse the powers of the Office of the Presidency, someone who can withstand the viciousness of innuendo and the mud that will be thrown at them, and someone who can win the national race. In the weeks ahead, there are still many votes to be cast, many ads to be run, and many endorsements to come.
About the Author
Susan Lavine is a native Washingtonian. She received her BA in Art History from Smith College and also studied at Yale University's Mellon Centre U.K. Now involved in historic preservation in the capital, she is restoring a house in Georgetown built in 1788 by a captain in the American Revolution who was a friend of President Washington and the Founding Fathers. The house also hosted foreign dignitaries during the Truman administration. She loves the history and significance of the properties which The National Trust for Historic Preservation strives to preserve.
Susan has extensive marketing and public relations experience, having worked at a Fortune 500 company, in the European community, and at the White House. She has worked for President Clinton, several Cabinet Secretaries, foundations, non-profits and with entrepreneurs.
A political appointee in the Clinton Administration, she was also White House Liaison for the Democratic National Committee. Working with the Curator and White House Ushers Office, Susan conducted private tours of the White House.
She will soon publish her first book, "So You Want to Work for The President."