Obama, SC, and Me
I apologize in advance for this column. It is far more personal than my usual weekly columns but then my reaction to Barack Obama has always been more personal than political.
My boyhood growing up in a small Southern town was pretty traditional, other than two things – I became interested in politics at a very early age (9 years old) and my father became involved in civil rights. Neither of these things happened as a conscious purposeful decision so much as they just sort of happened. I was captivated by John and Bobby Kennedy and my father felt compelled by his faith (he was a Presbyterian minister) to respond to the racial injustice that he saw all around him.
As a boy, I began working in campaigns and later I studied politics in school. As an adult, my professional focus moved on to other forms of community service, technology and the internet. After serving in three churches, my father’s focus moved on as well to other aspects of his life in the church.
But, my fundamental interest and commitment to the issues of politics and race never left me.
Fast forward to August 2004. As I stood on the floor of the Democratic National Convention in Boston, the issues of politics and race took on a whole new meaning for me as I listened to a skinny black guy with big ears and a funny name make a speech the likes of which I (and the rest of America) had never heard before.
I called a friend who worked for Obama and said, “Sign me up.”
Fast forward again to February 2007. I’m standing on the tarmac at Owens Field in Columbia as that same skinny guy with big ears bounds down the steps of a small white jet to begin his South Carolina campaign for President of the United States. I stuck out my hand and said, “Welcome to South Carolina.” I gave him a blue palmetto tie as a welcoming gift.
That night at his first rally in Columbia over 3,000 people showed up. His speech was full of hope and optimism and over the deafening roar of the crowd, he ended with, “…and now let’s go change the word!”
Over the next year or so, I had the great privilege of spending a little time with him, watching him up close and most importantly being reminded again of the power and joy of politics driven by high purpose and selfless idealism.
I don’t want to overstate my role in his S.C. campaign; I was not the campaign manager, I was never paid (I didn’t want to be) nor did I pack up and join the national campaign after his big primary win here. But, I was close enough to spend time with him driving around the state, at campaign events and watching how people reacted to his message of hope and change.
It was amazing.
Though my personal role was not large, the impact of South Carolina on his campaign was – and it continued to be felt throughout his presidency.
On our first ride in from the airport, I told him that our state motto was ‘While I breathe I hope.’ His face lit up and with a grin he said, “I can use that.” And he did. Throughout the campaign and for the next eight years, I would periodically hear him use the phrase again and again. My face would light up and I would grin.
One of the S.C. campaign’s early breakthroughs was in April 2007, with the success of a major fundraiser at a big house near the Battery on Obama’s first trip to Charleston. No one expected that we could raise so much money here and on the way back to the airport, I recounted to him the names of all the new people who came that had never been involved in politics before. With a grin, he said, “Maybe we really do have a shot.”
In June 2007, on a bleak and rainy morning at a Greenwood campaign event, a grumpy and sullen Obama trailing far behind in the polls, was himself first inspired by 60-year-old Edith Child’s chant of “Fired up! Ready to go!” This familiar call and response that had lifted South Carolina Democrats for years – now became a standard part of the Obama campaign and inspired millions nationwide.
One day in October 2007, I got an email from my family doctor’s son with a graphic attachment and the message, “Feel free to use this if it will help …” It was Shepard Fairey’s iconic red and blue image of Obama with the single word “Hope.” I sent it on to campaign manager David Plouffe – and as they say, the rest is history. That image now hangs in the Smithsonian Museum.
In February 2008, Obama carried 44 of 46 counties and won the South Carolina primary with over 55% of the vote – the pundits were shocked. Weeks later when I was in the Chicago campaign headquarters, I noticed a big poster with the South Carolina vote totals still hanging in the entrance hall. When I asked him about it, he said, “That was one of the pivotal events of this campaign. Tell everyone in South Carolina that I will never forget that night.”
In his November 2008 Election Night victory speech, he recounted his campaign journey and referenced ‘while I breathe I hope’ and then said, “Our campaign was not hatched in the halls of Washington — it began in the backyards of Des Moines and the living rooms of Concord and the front porches of Charleston…”
I will never forget that night.
But there have been low points as well. I’ll also never forget how my heart sank in pain when a S.C. congressman yelled “You lie!” during Obama’s 2009 State of the Union Address. That’s not who we are.
And then there was Emanuel. Neither I, nor the whole nation will ever forget his stirring words at the funeral that expressed our shared searing pain and then the triumph of our lifted spirits when his lilting voice broke into singing Amazing Grace.
It was a hard eight years for President Obama and America. His presidency was not perfect; he made some mistakes. But, through it all and above it all, through the rancor and senseless partisanship, through the vile insults and the unceasing taunts of the haters – there was always his grace and his quiet dignity … and hope and optimism.
Campaign advisor David Axelrod has been with Obama since his days as an unknown Illinois state senator. In a recent TV conversation with Obama, Axelrod said: “I told you at the end of the 2012 campaign that you gave me the greatest gift because you helped renew my idealism… you’ve done that for a lot of people, and that’s the greatest gift you can bestow.”
He did that for me.
Thank you, Mr. President.