Late afternoon, Friday, June 27th, 2008.
My partner and I were driving back
to Vermont from Unity, New Hampshire. We were sunburned: we’d been
outdoors from about ten to two, and neither of us had worn a hat or
enough sunblock. We were damp: towards the end of that time, the
skies had opened up, bursting very pregnant clouds into a complete
And we were happy, more or less stunned with happiness and possibility. We turned on NPR to listen to the coverage of the event we’d just been at: Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton in their
first joint appearance since he became the Democratic presidential
But more accurately, as I’ve come to think about it, what we’d
really heard was Hillary giving her acceptance speech. Now, I doubt she or anyone else thought of it that way. But it was.
And yes, this is ironic, poignant, and contradictory. But also triumphant. And, though political, to my ear and heart, its triumph
The context of that speech (the year-and-a-half
struggle for the candidacy, the historic nature of the two who were competing for that candidacy, the known-from-the-get-go fact that one of these brilliant, gifted contestants would
lose, and that, finally, she was the one who lost) went to the core choice which being human
asks of us: when faced with difficulty, heartache, and loss, will we fall or will we rise?
Will we act and live from the best and strongest in ourselves, or from the worst and weakest?
What I call Hillary’s acceptance
speech, then, given to about 6,000 people in a woods-edged field outside a small New Hampshire high school, was in a sense far larger than anything she might have given in
Denver or for that matter Washington.
It was an acceptance speech, and more.
First, the "acceptance" that day: it was of loss, the loss of her chance to be
the Commander-in-Chief of the United States. It was loss acknowledged and moved on from.
The "and more" was
the extraordinary force by which she did the moving-on. She took this loss, and her acceptance of it, and transformed it. She made meaning from it, took purpose and found direction from it, rose from the ashes and flew, phoenix-like. And in doing this, she lifted up herself, Obama, and all of us in the
Transformation, the refusal to be embittered or victimized when
things do not turn out in the way you thought you wanted, is uplifting and powerful. Inherently. And because every human life has its tragedies,
difficulties, and setbacks, this kind of transformation is a skill that every human being urgently needs.
Just as Hillary had modeled not taking the candidacy for granted (at the time when she was the media’s
anointed one) nor giving up the fight (at the time Obama was the
media’s anointed one), she now modeled how one works with defeat in a
manner that is positive, honest, and powerful. It was strong stuff, watching her take her very public defeat, and transmute it into the
ultimate win: a win that showed her wisdom, strength and courage
transparently, but that also demonstrated her respect for her opponent.
spoke first, followed by Barack Obama, who thanked and praised her
effusively, citing, among much else, "… her unyielding desire to
improve the lives of ordinary Americans." When an audience member
shouted "She rocks!" he added, "Yeah, she rocks… she rocks. That’s
the point I’m trying to make! I know how much we need Bill and Hillary
Clinton, as a party and as a country…" Photo, David Koff.
Most of all, her deep concern about the state of our country and its
people shone from her like a beacon. Though her words were powerful, her delivery was transcendent: radiant, glowing, confident, strong. Lots of eye contact with the
audience. Determination on her face and in her body language, careful
pauses, gravitas (this balanced, nicely, Barack’s slightly less formal style, which followed).
But let’s don’t forget the touches of
self-deprecating (never, for an instant, self-pitying) humor here and there:
was honored to be in this race with Barack, and I am proud that we had … a
That was the nicest way I could think of phrasing
Pause. Waiting until the laughter, whooping, hollering, clapping subsided.
But it was spirited because we cared so much.
And one had no doubt that she, and Barack, did care.
(The quote above gave me powerful deja vu. It’s almost exactly how I used to respond when people from other
parts of my then-home state, Arkansas, asked me, as they frequently did, why on earth the
population of tiny (1200), prickly Eureka Springs was always getting riled
up and litigious about something absolutely without consequence to the rest of
the world: fighting like cats in a sack about, say, if a street a single block in length should be made one-way part of the year, or whether a particular business should be
grandfathered in or given a conditional use permit, or were tour buses a heaven-sent economic boon to the community or spawn of the devil? I used to say precisely what Hillary did: that we fought because we cared, and because we actually believed we could make a difference.
"It’s the opposite of apathy," I used to say.)
As I said, in the car on the way back from Unity, David and I turned on NPR, to listen to the coverage.
And we heard it described in one throwaway sentence as
An unspoken hunh??? , a glance of mutual disbelief, passed between David and me.
That was the best they could come up with? NPR? "Well-orchestrated?"
Had they even been at the same event we had?
You probably heard about this particular Barack-Hillary appearance,
although, in the ephemeral way of politics, this probably seems long
ago by now. But when we saw them that morning in Unity, we felt we
were witnessing a miracle: unbelievably long in coming, yet wholly
natural: a black man and a white woman, both intelligent
and articulate, both of whom had, until recently, been rivals for the presidency.
To most accounts, bitter rivals. But that was not the sense I’d had when I listened to the debates (unlike, seemingly, every single other public pundit and pontificator in the universe, on- or off-line.)
campaigned with and against (Senator Obama) for lots of months. I have
stood, or sat, on a stage with him for, I’ve lost count, but I think 22
debates. So I’ve had a front row seat to his candidacy. And I’ve seen his strength and determination, grit and grace.
Hillary spoke first. Strangely, or perhaps not so, it was really her
day, not his. When he did speak, he, like her, did so with passion,
graciousness, clear and easy camaraderie, generosity, and a stunning
lack of bitterness.
Stunning, that is, if you had believed those
accounts. I hadn’t, as I’ve said. I felt, and feel, it is pretty easy to sit at the side-lines, critiquing and second-guessing relatively simple problems and fights (popularity, strategy, who-said-what-about-whom-and-what-they-meant, salivating over presumed interpersonal nastiness, thus enlarging it, while at the same time self-righteously decrying it). Easier, by far, than to engage in the real, and unanswerable questions of our day.
Such as, almost everything in the American economy and way of life is made with, made of, or transported by fossil fuels. Almost everything in our economy and way of life is predicated on the cheap, easy availability of those fuels. Cheap, easily available fuels are over. The way of life we purchased with them, with stunning profligacy and entitlement, is also almost certainly over. It was an anomaly, a one-shot deal. What now?
Now that’s a hard question: evidently too hard.
So let’s discuss internecine fighting, which, in one way or another, we’ve all been discussing since high school, and are thus well-practiced in doing. Let’s not look much at the actual issues that distinguished one candidate from another, but let’s see how outrageously we can conflate each candidate’s alleged personal animosity and attacks on the other. It’s the People Magazine, National Enquirer, scandal-and-celebrity driven model of journalism.
And naturally, at the Unity event, both Hillary and Barack had to deal with this avoidance-of-the-important-questions, largely media-created created ruckus.
I don’t think it’s … at
all unknown that this was a hard-fought primary campaign.
But almost immediately, she — and we, those of us privileged enough to be present — moved from this one-phrase allusion ("hard-fought") to what really mattered about the campaign; that it was about differentiating the positions of the two candidates.
traversed America, making our case… we have gone toe to toe in this.
And, from there, to the still more important question, essential in Unity, and towards unity: what now?
But today and every day going forward, we stand shoulder to shoulder.
For the ideals we share, the values we cherish, and the country we
(Barack and I) may have started on different paths, but today
our paths have merged. Today our hearts are set on the same destination
We are one party, one America, and we are not going to
rest until we put our country back on the path to peace, prosperity,
and progress in the 21st century.
them, but especially Hillary, had an almost crystalline clarity about
the corrosive interconnected choices
we’ve followed that, regrettably, have led us to the crossroad that is our time:
the damage that has been done: environmentally, to the economy, civil
rights, education, foreign policy, the Supreme Court…
Now this wasn’t, and isn’t, new: how many time have you both made and listened to such a laundry list (or a much longer version) with friends, colleagues and an astonishing percentage of fellow citizens? But this has almost always been on a personal level, leaving us shaking our heads and sorrowing, feeling helpless, outraged, and frustrated as we’ve watched the most arrogant, obtuse, corrupt and absolutely opaque administration in American history drag us to what looks ever more like our collective doom. ("Who would have thought," said David, not too long ago, "that we’d ever say, ‘Ah, Nixon, the good old days?’ " )
But here, in an overtly political context, these issues were
being articulated clearly, simply, and urgently. And by people who were in a position to do something about them; to, perhaps, provide the leadership whereby we could wrest our future back from its collision course with doom.
These people are called … politicians.
Politicians: a profession we often use as an epithet, an insult, shorthand for untrustworthiness ("He’s just a politician."). Our derision,
distaste and disdain for politicians says, "We know what you’re up to, you power-hungry
con artists, we know how you talk about us behind our backs, we know your contempt for us and it is mutual: we know how
much you’ve had to have sold out to get to where you are."
At some deep level (and
perhaps understandably, especially since the Watergate era), politics,
to us, is synonymous with manipulation, with measuring one’s words, opinion poll-driven, for effect. With dirty back-room deals and being beholden to special interests.
But how about this: what if such perceptions actually bring about or
strengthen this side of political reality?
If we see the seeking of
public office as filthy enough, who in their right mind will take it
on? Our views become self-fulfilling: we
seem to believe that anyone who does take it on is not in their right mind; must be
inherently flawed. We (in the guise of our media, often) seek those
flaws with a salacious vigor that leaves objectivity behind, with arm’s-length scorn and cynicism… as if we had no stake in the outcome of who is in office.
We don’t look to the
good, the — at the risk of sounding naive — pure, in the
motivations of those who run for office; we look for, and expect, and discuss, the
And we fail utterly to take responsibility for the part this
belief-set plays in creating government that is indeed, often corrupt,
only looking after its own.
But that day in Unity, Hillary, and then Barack, articulated a different kind of "own."
do not want to see our country continue on a path where people feel
that their government doesn’t work, and their President doesn’t care.
We want to make sure that once again every American is seen. That there are no invisible Americans.
What issues define our time? Let me ask this differently: what is our time, and what time is it? In my view, it’s a time that may be 11 hours and fifty-nine minutes before the damage is finally irreversible. The damage done to
each other, in and on our joint home, the planet from which we have
taken so unthinkingly for so long and to which we have failed so utterly to give back (with an
arrogance and greed so blind to its consequences that it’s no wonder we got ourselves the uber-blind-to-the-consequences George
W. Bush as president).
And the clock is ticking.
"…when we think about the lost opportunities and the damage that has been done during the last 7 1/2 years…"
Yet there were Hillary and Barack, at what may literally be the last minute. Their humanity, and sense of urgency,
finally made the issue of skin color or sex immaterial; they were daring to exhibit "the audacity of hope," to quote the title of one of Barack’s books. Never has so much been so dangerously awry on a global scale; because of this, never has hope been quite so audacious.
That the two of them called the issues by their correct names mattered. That they had not given up mattered. That they could still hope, with and for all of us and our shared country and world, mattered.
In short speeches (hers was about 20 minutes, his 10) of course what they
said was not nuanced, not detailed. It was broad, painted in bold
unvarnished strokes, designed to inspire, not explain policy. Well, of course, obviously.
But to hear politicians speak thus, in a tone of
reconciliation and clear ease with each other, despite and after all
those allegedly terribly personal attacks, that also mattered.
Because those who aspire to this
office aspire to lead us, and we deeply, deeply need reconciliation. We need to create a world in
which our differences dwell side by side with our commonalities, a rich and functional social bio-diversity rooted in a
… deep equality, where we reach beyond the boundaries of color and creed, gender and geography, to embrace all our people.
campaign, fought hard and passionately, it was necessary for the
candidates to elucidate
their differences (not that most heard them; the media was too busy picking apart inconsequential personal details). But now, just as clearly, it was time for them to elucidate their
As they came together publicly for the first time since
the race, they were gracious, mutually respectful, cogent. And they
were convincing. What Barack and Hillary, what all of us, have at stake
is so much larger than whatever the disagreements between them may have
been or are. They knew it; they showed it; they said it.
Just as, mostly, whatever we hold in common in our time
is far more important than what divides us.
to anyone who voted for me and is now considering not voting, or
voting for Senator McCain, I strongly urge you to reconsider. I
strongly urge you to remember who we are standing for in this
election… all of those who lost jobs and health care and can’t afford
gasoline or groceries, who felt invisible to this president.
David and I knew history being made when we saw it.
Part 2 of this series will be published on Saturday, July 26.
To see and hear the full Unity speeches, both Hillary’s and Barack’s, click here.