44: An Oral History of the Election of the Barack Obama

The Forward to 44: An Oral History of the Election of Barack Obama

Studs Terkel died one week ago tonight.
I heard about it on NPR radio the next day while driving from from Alton to Edwardsville, Illinois. An interview with Studs was being replayed on the air, in which has was describing one of his countless oral interviews. It involved a woman, nearly fifty years removed from now, who had never seen a tape recorder like the bulky device Studs had had with him. She had also never heard her own voice, an unthinkable idea to our modern age.

Once the interview ended Studs played it back for the woman. Upon listening, she gasped with amazement: “I never knew I thought that!” The woman’s revelation struck me. How many others today were similarly not on speaking terms with themselves, while also being quite aware of it?

I have pleaded my love for the city for Chicago countless times, but I now know, as a kid growing up many miles away in central Illinois, that I didn’t know what that really meant. I suspect that at the time “Chicago” to me meant little beyond my dire-hard loyalties to its resident sports teams. Studs, on the other hand, was Chicago.

In the last week I’ve had what would rightly be called a crash-course in Studs Terkel. From Southern Illinois University Edwardsville’s Lovejoy Library I found three of his books: Chicago, Division Street, and The Good War.

His oral histories were neither neat nor clean; they went to the heart and soul of tough, back-alley existences, the kind that rarely made the cover of Life or the front page of the Tribune. It may not have been pretty, but it was true. With Studs as my inspiration, I set out to compile a mad-dash record of this historic opportunity before us, the election of Barack Obama as President of the United States.

My first foray into politics, as it were, was an appreciation for Ronald Reagan. I was also seven, but the jelly beans he compulsively kept on his desk had my vote.

Past the Gipper’s and my shared sweet tooth, it is not by coincidence that Weekly Reader can so accurately predict a national election. Kids pick up a lot of their parents’ conversations, and I was no exception. I was raised in a spec-sized town amid corn fields, so it should not be surprising that I cast my fourth-grade ballot for a Republican, somebody named George Bush, not for Whoever’s-that-other-guy. I picked up, by varied-sized clues during my high school years, that one should not buy into, under any circumstances, the smooth-talkin’ salesmanship of Bill Clinton. By this sad standard, is it by anything other than Fate that my oh-so-developed political sense was intrigued by a second George Bush? He’s the son of another president! That’s so…rare!

I supported George W. Bush in 2000. Support meaning, as it most often does, tipping my mind to one side of the screen or the other, when a debate or news story is introduced. But I did, and admitting it is getting to be rarer a thing nowadays. But this must be revealed, to highlight how I myself remember being overtaken with queasiness whenever Bush would debate Al Gore. I recall slightly praying to the TV during Bush’s first State of the Union. Why? Because I really, really wanted him to get through the speech and not stumble, or in some way look bad.

My political education was underway, and the tests would come soon and fast. None of us were thinking the clearest, for good reason, granted, in the late days of 2001. And if far in the future this is being read, perhaps do not be too harsh. They were difficult days.

Me? I joined the Navy.
Now that sea-time is well behind me, perhaps it was a wise move in some respects. I never did get the chance to fight Evil, but I did pick up a few important things along the way. They say that you travel in order to learn about home. I think that applies as much to my hometown as it does to our shores. Perspective! Through the service I came to live on both our horizontal coasts, and visit numerous countries in Europe and Africa. In each port, once it was known I was American, two questions nearly always followed. First, did I know anyone famous like Brad Pitt, but the question sure to arrive was “What do you think of George W. Bush?” But it was always asked with an honest curiosity that sought to understand our nation.

I read newspapers and books detailing this decade’s front-page story: Iraq. I saw this as the event of my generation, and as such I felt a personal responsibility to learn its truths, wherever they led. I myself, with a certain regret, never got closer to this still-unspooling story than patrolling the Mediterranean in 2006.

My current life, now shed of the sailor’s uniform, is kept busy completing a degree in historical studies. The past has always fascinated me, especially the history of the United States. Once, when I was about eight years old, a group of elderly Swedish cousins finally traveled across the wide ocean to see America for their own eyes. What they found was something called Wal-mart and a hyper child who recited for them all of the American presidents chronologically. There were less then, of course, but not a skill that will now get me many dates.

Taking leave of the Navy at the close of 2006, I was excited to take on a life of normality. To sometimes get up after the sunrise, and to enjoy freedom of movement. But I always to be engaged in the world, just as the Europeans and Africans I met had done with me.

Like Studs, Barack Obama is also from Chicago, yet it sometimes seems that half of the world could rightfully claim him. On February 4, 2007, the Illinois senator began his run for the presidency at the Old State House in Springfield, only an hour north of Edwardsville. I was there. The bitter cold tore through the huddling, eagerly waiting crowd. I had to stand on my toes, way in the back, to see the distant figure of Senator Obama. But I remember the electricity, the excitement, and surprise I felt seeing the first time in my life snipers stationed on the buildings far above.

Could he win? It seemed a little audacious to think this relatively unknown junior senator with a strange name could emerge from a crush of contenders, and best the institutional-fixture of Senator Hillary Clinton.

But some how, some way, he did, and three days ago he became our next president.

*    *    *    *     *

These two events of the last week, the passing of Studs Terkel and President-elect Obama’s victory and revivalist Grant Park acceptance speech, have left an impression on me. Obama’s twin campaign slogans of “hope” and “yes, we can,” derided as too simplistic by some, carried also a radiance because many Americans would rather look for solutions than place blame, rather see commonalities than differences. Just as Reagan and Kennedy before him tapped into elemental optimism of a better tomorrow than our today, Obama won, I believe, in part by rekindling a passion that has lately been of short supply. Beyond this observation I do not know—as no one really does—what if any fruits it will produce. But it is a good start, a necessary start, for the work ahead.

My goal, in its utter naivete, is to paint a second in time, and collect as best as I can many of its hues. Of the contributors I recorded, the only condition was to be honest. If lucky, there will be an “I never knew I thought that” moment here too, for my interviewees and myself. What has emerged is a small book about a single man, intersected by a series of conversations during which he is still introducing himself to fellow Americans. Sometimes Barack Obama is square in the spotlight; other times he is merely in the periphery of each life, or sideways of a challenge addressed that might well shape his future administration. The America he inherits is hopeful, hesitant, scared, yearning, searching, excited, suspicious, resentful, indifferent, and tense. Yet it occurred to me yesterday that our present decade will now be buttressed by seismic events. The first of these bookends was a grievous affront to humanity and served nothing but needless, senseless death and destruction. It is my great hope to have now been witness to an equal and opposing response.

Winning a national election by a healthy margin might cause a Democratic discussion of a “mandate” to arise, but I would advise against it. The term and use—and over-use—carries with it now an air of smugness that would be unwise and unsuited for our present crises. We must instead all work feverishly and cooperatively, as if a million-strong army were poised at our border. Make no mistake, we are in for a slog, an economic, environmental, domestic battle.

Finally, I’ve always been disquieted by the term “trust but verify.” The idea of “trust,” by its very definition, negates looking over Trust’s shoulder. But a president—any president, any leader—needs to be watched closely. This is certain. For this task it is the job of the citizenry to be both informed and self-critical of said information, in the event that a leader oversteps their prerogative of oath—or is asleep at the wheel. The provisions of checks and balances are a Constitutional ingenuity, yet there is greater weight to press upon the scale of good governance. Everyday Americans like you or I wield more power than Washington would care to admit, by virtue of simple arithmetic. As such, it is sometimes said that an efficient government is one that fears its people. Setting aside counter-intuitive and nonconstructive physical manifestations of fear, the greatest motivator of leaders is rather a cooperative, discerning, aware, and active populace.

So it seems more apt that we as a country hope but verify.

Will Carlson

November 7, 2008

   *     *     *     *     *

This book is in no way intended as a survey. Nor is it an attempt to spell out conclusions, joyful or joyless, about Chicago or any other city. It is neither the good news nor the doubter’s bad report. It is simply the report of one man, equipped with a tape recorder and badgered by the imp of curiosity…trying to search out the thoughts of non-celebrated people (with a few “newsworthy” exceptions)—thoughts concerning themselves, past and present, the city, the society, the world.

—Studs Terkel, Division Street: America “Prefatory Notes”

It seemed cleaner, it seemed more polite, and, of course, it seemed much richer from the material point of view. But I didn’t meet anyone who didn’t suffer from the same afflictions that all the people I had fled from suffered from, and that was they didn’t know who they were. They wanted to be something they were not. And very shortly I didn’t know who I was, either. I could not be certain whether I was really rich or poor, really black or really white, really male or really female, really talented or a fraud, really strong or merely stubborn. In short, I had become an American. I had stepped into, I had walked right into, as I inevitably had to do, the bottomless confusion which is both public and private, of the American Republic.

Now that we’ve brought this hypothetical hero to this place, now what are we going to do with him, what does all of this mean, what can we make it mean? What’s the tread that unites all these peculiar and desperate lives, whether it’s from Idaho or New York, from Boston to Birmingham? Because there is something that unites all these people and places. What does it mean to be an American? What nerve is pressed when you hear this word?

—James Baldwin, “Notes for a Hypothetical Novel”

Our stories are singular, but our destiny is shared, and a new dawn of American leadership is at hand. To those who would tear this world down—we will defeat you. To those who seek peace and security—we support you. And to all those who have wondered if America’s beacon still burns as bright—tonight we proved once more than the true strength of our nation comes not from the might of our arms, or the scale of our wealth, but from the enduring power or our ideas: democracy, opportunity, and unyielding hope.

For that is the true genius of America—that America can change. Our union can be perfected. And what we have already achieved gives us hope for what we can and must achieve tomorrow.

—Barack Obama, November 4, 2008

    *    *    *    *    *



1. The Street

I Might Have to Wear This Shirt For Awhile

Hitting Unpause: One Sailor Waits No Longer

Don’t Question It: A Student Volunteer For John McCain Holds His Conservative Ground Following the 2008 Defeat

Koderick Toney

Keeping Fingers Crossed: A Voter Unsure if Barack Obama Will Be Her President, Too

You Don’t Dance in the Street: One Man’s Reality

I’ll Never Forget: The Baseball Life of William “Lefty” Bell in the Negro Leagues and across Jim Crow America

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