Sitting on a small campaign jet during Barack Obama’s 2004 race for the U.S. Senate, I found myself lost in thought. The candidate, dressed in a crisp white shirt and striped tie, sat a few feet in front of me and to the right. I was staring ahead without realizing that I was looking directly at Obama himself, until the aspiring U.S. senator interrupted my rambling thoughts: "Hey, Mendell, what are you looking at it?" he asked with a puzzled look.
I muttered something of an apology because, as a newspaper reporter striving to remain impartial and balanced, it was not my place at that moment to say what I really felt: I was thinking into the future, and I was wondering if Obama himself could fully comprehend what was happening around him, and to him.
Obama had already given his now-famous Keynote Address to the Democratic National Convention, and while the Obama phenomenon was in its nascent stages, the historic possibilities were palpable to any close observer, and at the time, I was the closest. I had never seen people react so emotionally to a political candidate, and no candidate seemed so perfect for the moment. He was anti-Iraq War as the war devolved into chaos; he was liberal as conservatives were foundering in Washington; and perhaps most of all, he was mixed race at a time when America is becoming ever more diverse.
Of the thousands of questions I have fielded since releasing a biography of Obama in August 2007, the most often asked is whether I thought his ascent to the presidency was possible. I’d answer that ever since Obama won that Senate race, he was a on path toward a serious presidential run, but I didn’t think it would be as soon as 2008.
Early in that 2004 Senate campaign, I confided to people close to me that I thought I might be following the first legitimate black contender for the White House. Most scoffed at my naiveté, with my African-American friends chief among the skeptics. Indeed, even though Obama was far ahead in the U.S. Senate race, some of them even thought he would lose that race in the end, felled by lingering racism. These blacks had been so scarred by our country’s history of racial division that they surely could not fathom an Obama presidency in just a few years. Deep down, I wondered if they were right.
Last night, as I listened to Obama deliver yet another eloquent speech that was a newer, more seasoned version of the same themes from his Senate race—that we are all one people, interconnected, with a common humanity guiding us—one of these formerly skeptical black friends sent me a text message asking me what it felt like to be so right. I replied that I simply felt privileged to have played some small role in an important chapter of this country’s history.
But looking amid the diverse crowd of blacks, whites, Latinos, and others listening to Obama tell the country that, with hard work, determination and unity, a more tolerant and healthy nation is possible, I have to admit, it never felt better to be right.
No matter what one’s political persuasions, and no matter how successful or unsuccessful his administration is, Obama’s amazing ascent to the presidency is yet another sign that this country is slowly overcoming its historical sins of slavery and racial bigotry. We certainly have not reached Martin Luther King Jr.’s idyllic promised land, but just maybe we are on the way.
Photograph: Esther Kang