Courtney E. Martin

February 10, 2007

The UK Guardian reported this week that Barack Obama has been traveling with a copy of Robert Kennedy’s biography. They surmise that he is studying up on one of America’s great orators, hoping to pick up some pointers as he heads into what is sure to be quite an adventure–not just for him, his family and staff–but for an entire nation hungry for change.

For me, it confirmed a lurking suspicion that I’ve had since I first heard Obama speak at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. A politician actually has the capacity to inspire me. At 24, I’d gotten used to the idea that I would never feel authentically smitten with an elected official, that I would never trust or admire any the way that my parents did the Kennedys. I’d heard their stories of president-as-muse and thought it sounded preposterous.

After all, look at who I’ve had to work with. Monica was just a few years older than me when she became an object of Bill’s lust and public mockery. Though I admired some of his political decisions, his self-control left a lot to be desired. Bush one and two remind me of dumb, endearing uncles. The endearing part becoming less and less apparent as junior’s presidency wears on and kids my age and younger die in a war justified by imaginary means.

In 2000 and 2004, I was asked to choose between “nothing to write home about” and “nobody’s home.” I chose the former, both times, and my candidates lost in elections that did nothing to build my trust about our system. My “quarter life crisis” involved the painful realization that, not only would I never be able to afford health insurance as freelance writer, but I would never be entranced by an American president. I was ready to hunker down, throw back Vitamin C, and look for my inspiration elsewhere.

Then Obama appeared.

I know it’s too early to make claims about his greatness or even his capacity to handle the job of leader of our greatly disappointed nation, but it is not too early to tell you how he makes me feel.

Obama makes me feel like I imagine my mom and dad felt when JFK famously urged, “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” Like voting, canvassing, hoping; formerly boring and naive things are suddenly fascinating and swollen with something I have rarely experienced in the public commons…purpose.

He makes me feel like–amid all the frustrating lip service to progress and equality–we really have changed, we Americans. At last, a man with an African name and a multiracial past might just have the support of white Midwesterners, Nascar dads, and soccer moms.

Obama also has a great smile; it reminds me of the playful expressions of those I’ve known with complicated but honest pasts.

He makes me feel like the government is not totally and irreparably separate from me, like representation is not just a hollow word bandied about in civics classes. This man, with the big ears and the plain, white shirts, might just make sense as a symbol of my values and convictions.

He makes me feel as if there is a way for money to not absolutely corrupt, that perhaps leaders still exist who don’t believe that the ends justifies the means, or that winning is tantamount to wisdom or kindness.

He makes me feel young again, like the girl who wrote “save the world” on her list of “things to do before I die” in secret code in her Ramona Quimby diary.

I was sure that as an old, wrinkled woman I would never get the experience of sitting, in what will probably be some kind of virtual rocking chair by then, and reminiscing about where I was when that great speech or those generation-defining words were first uttered. All of the sudden, I’m not so sure. I might, my generation of Daily Show devotees and cynical hip hop heads might, just get more than we bargained for.

Courtney E. Martin is a writer in Brooklyn, NY. Her book, Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters: The Frightening New Normalcy of Hating Your Body, will be published by Simon & Schuster’s Free Press in April.