Thursday, September 4, 2008

Obama looked like a winner in 2005

Sometime after the 2004 Democratic National Convention I wrote this article for the Orlando Sentinel. The headline: Another Lincoln in the White House?

When Barack Obama was a schoolboy in Hawaii, I was managing editor of The Honolulu Advertiser, unaware that a major figure of the next century might have been surfing nearby. In the Hawaii I remember, racial identity sometimes required several hyphens (Filipino-Chinese-Hawaiian or Caucasian-Korean-Japanese). The boy with the soul of a Martin Luther King and the heart of an Abraham Lincoln might have been known as Black-Caucasian, the son of a black African father and white American mother.

Americans are often on the move. The one-time Hawaii resident ran for the U.S. Senate in Illinois, where he won by a wide margin. Obama now serves alongside the venerable Sen. Daniel K. Inouye of Hawaii.

Obama would have qualified for membership in the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick in Honolulu in the 1950s, when men with names like Ohata, Okada and Okino were welcome participants in annual corned beef and cabbage events.

Anybody who heard Obama’s address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, his hymn to democracy and the integrity that makes it work, may have wondered whether this man might make it to the White House. It took about 180 years for a Catholic to be elected, and no woman has ever been elected regardless of her race, religion or political party.

The first African American to be elected president will be Obama or someone very much like him, someone who is proud of his race and wants to lead an interracial nation, a country in which everybody belongs to some kind of minority – the elderly, the disabled, the unemployed, the Catholics, Jews, Muslims, even the Cubs fans. He’d have to win enough votes from Americans of European, Hispanic, Asian and other ancestries to get there.

Spirited words by Sen. Obama, delivered in Springfield, Illinois, at the dedication of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum, were recalled by Jeff Zeleny, national political correspondent for the Chicago Tribune in an article June 26. The words received less attention than they merited at the time because, Zeleny reported, the senator had barely finished speaking when the election of a new pope took over the front pages. Here’s some of what Obama said about Lincoln:

"At a time when image all too often trumps substance, when our politics all too often feeds rather than bridges division, when the prospects of a poor youth rising out of poverty seem of no consequence to the powerful and when we evoke our common God to condemn those who do not think as we do, rather than to seek God’s mercy for our own lack of understanding – at such a time it is helpful to remember this man who was the real thing."

The papal election may have grabbed the headlines at that moment, but it stirred memories of Pope John Paul II. His Polish ancestry was a joy to him, and he met with men and women of Polish ancestry wherever he traveled in the world – but he was not the pope of the Poles. He was everybody’s pope. Obama can be everybody’s president.

When I was a first-grader, almost 80 years ago, my hero was Lincoln. The first book I bought with the first half-dollar I earned was about Lincoln.

When I see Sen. Obama on my TV screen I see a bit of Lincoln. That’s before the beard, of course.

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