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Obama: The Rebirth of Cool

POSTED: October 17, 2008, 12:00 am

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There is much to be said about Senator Barack Obama and the manner in which he has ascended in national politics. It has been an incredible journey for the native Hawaiian, who with his mixed race parentage, embodies a more full representation of the American experience than any presidential candidate of the past. While much has been made of his Columbia University and Harvard Law School credentials, and his accomplishment as the first Black to lead the Harvard Law Review, what I have come to admire about Senator Obama is his demeanor; his calm persona and coolness under pressure.

Many of us would not have been able to restrain ourselves after watching attack upon attack upon our life’s work, our pastor, our education and our faith. I doubt if I could have, and those who know me would likely agree. Watching Senator Obama sit next to Senator John McCain during the last presidential debate, after two weeks of hearing McCain supporters shout verbal threats toward Obama and the Arizona Republican smugly refusing to take responsibility, I know I was not alone among Black Americans who were enraged. For many of us it was a reminder of all those horrible stories of white disrespect for Backs that our parents and grandparents conveyed on porches, in living rooms and around kitchen tables. Still, Senator Obama maintained his cool, managing to smile as his opponent simply lied about the level of racism and hate that was evident at McCain campaign rallies.

I was on the floor of the Fleet Center in Boston the night Senator Obama addressed the Democratic National Convention in 2004. Having also been on the floor in Atlanta the night of Rev. Jackson’s incredible speech in 1988, I was immediately drawn not by Senator Obama’s oratory but by his effect on people in that arena; his magnetism. It was clear, early in that speech that Senator Obama possessed a special appeal that candidates can’t buy or manufacture. It’s the JFK thing. Sometimes someone comes along that just has the persona of the moment. For Kennedy it was the post-war Baby Boom and Cold War challenge that provided the perfect landscape for his youthful and telegenic presence. I suspect for Senator Obama it’s the drag of two wars, a disastrous incumbent administration, and the nation’s rapidly changing demographics. Whatever it is, he’s got it.

I first met Senator Obama in the studios of National Public Radio in New York two years ago; a chance encounter when I was finishing a segment on Ed Gordon’s former NPR show and the senator was arriving for another program. We chatted for several minutes, during which I invited him to New York City for an event which he did attend a year later, and it became evident to me that his personality would serve him well in a presidential campaign. It wasn’t charm, that’s too casual a term. It was purpose. When I did see him at that New York event it was clear to me that Senator Obama had an aura that would be hard for his opponents to diminish during a hard fought primary. When we spoke the confidence he exuded suggested to me that his pursuit of the presidency was taking on a sense of mission that surpassed any conventional definition of a campaign.

Senator Obama is cool. Not the hang on the corner or rebel cool. More like the Harlem Renaissance cool; the Cotton Club cool; the shark suit wearing Vegas cool that walks in the room and suspends conversation. He’s got that Sam Cooke cool that serenades and romances without breaking a sweat cool. He’s got that cool that brothers admire and don’t react to with jealousy, only admiration. The cool that’s smart, yet down. Intelligent, yet home spun. Worldly, yet around the way. In many ways Senator McCain is learning what Senator Clinton, Senator Edwards and others did during the primary battle. Cool trumps anger all the time.

I look forward to a presidency where intelligence and style are back in season. After enduring eight years of governance on a grading curve, making “smartness” cool again will be a welcome change. It will be refreshing to watch our President overseas with foreign dignitaries, representing us and the nation, and thinking, “that’s one cool brother.”

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