Hope Dies Last: An Ode To Obama
Clockwise: my cover of Black Enterprise magazine, a Yes We Did Sticker from the inauguration concert and a picture of Obama I took in 2007 at an AFSCME event in Chicago.
“Obama’s running so we can all fly”
It’s very easy to heroicize celebrities: athletes, movie stars, musicians are really the easiest to laud because they never actually have to make difficult decisions. Michael Jordan never had to take a stance on global warming, in fact he’s notorious for not really taking a stance on anything other than his very on point cologne. Meryl Streep never had to comb through the minutiae of an infrastructure bill, or Lady Gaga didn’t have to cobble together a healthcare system out of a completely broken ethos on medicine and Dave Chappelle doesn’t have to constantly weigh millions of opinions in a fiery hot divided country to come to a sound decision on what to do about ISIS.
To make thousands and thousands of decisions on extremely complex and difficult issues, to give hundreds of gaffe-free speeches, interviews, to conduct yourself with only grace under the biggest microscope in the world, would take someone who actually transcends even the idea of celebrity. And that insanely impressive person should then deserve much more credit and praise…enter Gary Busey. Just kidding come on, Barack Obama.
I firmly believe that is the job of a comedian to be skeptical of all people, institutions and universally accepted ideas (see: vaping). But as important as it is to be on high alert for faulty ideologies, telemarket phonies, religion in all forms, it’s equally imperative to stand up and fight for something when we know it’s good. Otherwise, we’re just rhetorical anarchists, throwing rocks from the sidelines at the people actually doing the work, and do you know how easy and widely accepted it is to say “everything sucks?” It’s way too trite, and I refuse to be a walking YouTube comment. With that, again I want to talk about Barack Obama.
I grew up in the suburbs of Chicago where for every person there’s a Wendy’s and for every lawn, there’s a dad in his underwear staring at his lawn to make sure it doesn’t run away. In 2003, my cousin told me about a rapidly emerging Chicago politician named Barack Obama. I remember being intrigued, and at the very least, his name sounded like a really fun thing you yell during a game of Yahtzee. I got three sixes, “BARACK OBAMA baby!!!”
As the days rolled on, my banal suburban town got more Wendy’s, the Cubs almost won the World Series, and much to my deep distaste, the first GWB administration was experiencing some of its highest approval ratings to date. But out of this Halliburton-stained, WMD’s-are-everywhere, who-cares-about-the constitution, torture-is-a-lot-of-fun-era, I kept seeing more articles about this unique politician with an unmistakable charisma, completely unique to Washington. In the middle of the Bush madness, his mere presence seemed like a faint and distant slightly illuminated lighthouse of hope in the midst of a Category 5 sh*tstorm.
In 2004, I went to the DNC with a bunch of interns from Michael Moore’s production company. Obama delivered his historic “Red States vs. Blue States” address in Boston and like most of America I was hooked forever.
Here was a guy, radiating life, rooted in a higher sense of purpose and himself and he best of all, he spoke like me, and he laughed like you. I became obsessed, pouring over “Dreams From My Father,” then later “Audacity of Hope.” Side note, these books are incredible, even though I’m sure half the country believes they were written by the ghost of Malcolm X, the Muslim Brotherhood, and the chair Clint Eastwood talked to at the RNC in 2012 #Pizzagate.
Proof that Barack Obama was my Comic-Con
-Saved almost every newspaper, magazine with his face on it. I literally just found only the cover of “Black Enterprise” magazine with his face on it, in my stuff. HOW DID I GET THAT?
-Spoke at length to anyone and everyone about him nonstop.
-Flew home to Chicago to see him with my Dad at an AFSCME event in late February 2007, where I stood six feet from him and took an unnecessarily large amount of pictures, and a choir from the South Side sang a song called “Come on Obama,” still a great tune.
-Canvassed for him in the primaries in New Hampshire for a few days with my friends Matt and Sabina, where I picked up and threw Hillary Clinton signs in the middle of an intersection in Portsmouth, sorry #IMWITHHERS.
-Made almost daily calls to my dad, Matt and anyone I knew involved in the campaign to talk strategy and how we were going to beat Hillary, and then McCain. I have no idea if this helped AT ALL, but it was fun.
-Watched every YouTube clip, speech, article, donated money, bought all of the Obama t-shirts ever made including my favorite, a kelly green shirt for Irish people that said O’Bama.
-Canvassed in Philadelphia in the general, saw a concert for Change featuring Bruce Springsteen and 10,000 other grown men who shouldn’t be crying so easily.
-Went to the inauguration concert that featured my own personal heaven-is-real moment when Springsteen opened the show by coming out to the parting gates of the Lincoln Monument, to stand in front of a gospel choir to sing “The Rising.” AMERICA WE ARE BACK BABY!!!
-The night he won I was in heart of Time Square, where thousands cheered, cried and for a moment let go of eight years of darkness and for many, a lifetime of repression. I then ended up in Harlem with my girlfriend at the time where I witnessed the biggest impromptu party that would make New Orleans feel bad about itself. It was and still is the single biggest moment of unfettered, pure cathartic magic in my life.
I say all of this not to brag about my Obama super fandom, or to argue like how others do about a great band like Hootie and Blowfish, by saying things like “I was into them when they were COOL.” I mention all this because my expectations for the Obama presidency were top of the Empire State Building/Wiz Khalifa in a limo SKY HIGH! Again, like a lot of his supporters, I was convinced he was going to CHANGE EVERYTHING.
And then reality settled it. Fox news, the Tea Party, people on motorized scooters, Mitch McConnell and John Boehner when he wasn’t gently weeping, cocked back and threw everything at Obama. And in complete fairness, the president made some decisions that I wasn’t exactly cool with: certain members of his economic team, drones, unnecessary deportations. Slowly as some of the Obama spark wore off, people began to question, whether the candidate of “hope” and “change” was “full of it.”
During this time, around 2009-2010, I learned probably the single most important lesson from our president, in what would be a never-ending trail of sage wisdom coming from the highest office in the land, and that is really, truly it’s up of us to do something. That we can never rely on someone else to do all the work to remake the country into the place we want to live. Our clearest path to happiness and meaningful change is going to manifest from only us as individuals and collectively, because in the end, that’s the only point of view we can control.
And not that Obama didn’t accomplish a lot or drastically help America time warp into the diverse, progressive country it is destined to become. But our president taught me that it’s not enough to vote for someone once every four years and expect your world to be forever perfect. So I started relying on him and people I look up to less and me more, and in the process developed a renewed sense of inner peace and purpose.
I want to state emphatically, to the people who’ve criticized Obama fans and others for saying that you don’t have to like a politician to vote for them, or that it’s not their job to be likable, I resoundingly and deeply disagree. If I see a human being acting like a human being, grounded in a wellspring of deep authentic connection to humanity and spirituality, that’s actually ALL I care about. I can deal with ideological differences if a public servant’s intentions are based on a foundation love, gratitude and joy.
During Obama’s last State of the Union address, he talked about unconditional love and meant it. To deal with eight years of nonstop obstruction and slander from the right, from everything from incessantly and of course wrongfully accusing him of not being born in this country, to attempting to block most of his legislation, actually shutting down the government based on hack partisan principles, not even consider letting him appoint a Supreme Court justice almost one year before his term is up, to having a congressman, a grown man, scream “YOU LIE!” during a State of the Union Address (can you even imagine if a black congressmen yelled during a GWB speech, I’m sure the Fox crew would be cool with it), I say he more than lives it, he transcended it. And that’s not simply being “likeable,” that’s reaching borderline Zen Buddha status and I will cherish every damn second that kind of leadership is in the White House.
He has taken the high road EVERY SINGLE TIME, to the point where it actually got annoying. In his exit interview with David Axelrod, he said that after he leaves office he is going to go away for a while and “find his center.” Donald Trump would say, “I’m selling my center, it’s called Trump Soul, also follow me on Twitter.”
People have said that Obama successfully skated on thin ice his entire presidency but I actually think the ice was on fire and he did cartwheels over it. Seriously can you name any president with fewer scandals and basically no gaffes EVER?! The only on camera mistake that I can think Obama made is when he got caught calling Kanye a jackass which again proved just how ahead of his time he truly was. And mind you, he was the first president under the complete onslaught of the Internet and social media.
So in a way my admiration for Barack Obama has come full circle. I went from seeing him as this untouchable rock star celebrity with absolute certain visions of him making America ok again, to seeing him as something even better, a real person with flaws, who, despite a landmine of obstacles, flew above the deluge of Washington garbage to accomplish substantial legislation with uncharacteristic grace and ease. And even though his replacement is a man that I believe is the antithesis of Obama and joy and dolphins and coffee in general, the worst way to honor Obama’s legacy is to give up hope now.
As the legendary Chicago author, Studs Terkel, a man who was so excited to see Obama become president but died just a few days before he was elected, titled one of his books, “Hope Dies Last.”
For eight years, Obama was fighting against time. The Democrats only controlled Congress for a few years, so he had a finite amount of time to accomplish everything he wanted: saving the economy, passing health care, fighting climate change. After four years, he asked for more time, and then those days became numbered, and time settled in again when Antonin Scalia died, and the first thing the Republicans said to him when he wanted to appoint a new judge, was that he was out of time.
But ironically in the end I think it’s time that’s going to be Obama’s best friend. Because in the coming years, and especially in the nostalgia-crazed internet, people are going to realize just how truly great we had it with him. So hopefully, the Obama presidency will also be a lesson in sincere gratitude and just because you have an amazing thing every day for eight years, we don’t get tired of it easily, we don’t get bored and immediately want to look elsewhere for the quickest upgrade.
So thank you Barack Obama, thank you, your administration and your family. You showed a generation of people like me how to conduct yourself as a human being, how to laugh and love even if millions of people are viciously critical of your every move. Most of all, thank you for running, it’s now our turn to fly.