Watching Barack Obama become the presumptive nominee of the Democratic Party tonight, I am reminded of my first visit to Washington DC. It was the summer of 1974, and it was part of a family trip that had already taken us to South Carolina to visit cousins on my mother’s side and to Orlando, Florida, to visit the Haunted Mansion and the Pirates of the Caribbean. As luck would have it, we arrived in Washington on August 8. That evening, in our hotel room, I watched Richard Nixon become the first U.S. president to resign his office.
I remember tears springing to my eyes. I felt bad for the guy. I was 12 years old; I knew all about Watergate. But I still felt bad for the guy.
What I remember most vividly from that trip, however, is something the cab driver said when we were being driven from the Amtrak station to the hotel. My mother, sister, and I were in the back seat. My father sat in front with the driver, and they were talking about politics. I heard the driver say something like, “We’ll never have a non-white president in this country. Not in our lifetimes.” And then I saw his eyes glance into the rear view mirror and notice that a Filipino woman and her two brown children were sitting there. My father, a Parsi, is fair-skinned and, the driver had taken him simply to be a white person. “I’m sorry,” he said, somewhat embarrassed. “But it’s true.”
I wasn’t offended and don’t remember thinking too much about it much at the time. I realize now that this was because I didn’t disagree. Though I was never really subject to much racially oriented abuse during my childhood, I had nevertheless already come to believe that I could never really hope to be President of the United States.
When President Kennedy was shot, my father’s eldest sister apparently called him from Pakistan and expressed the hope that I would never run for president. She believed that in the United States of America anything was possible. Her nephew could run for president.
I knew better. And so I never considered a career in politics. I was interested in politics and government — interested, that, is in studying them. I put down “Government” as my prospective concentration in my application to Harvard. By the time it came time to declare a concentration, I’d switched to English. The rest, as they say, is history.
So it’s striking to me to watch a man who is my age (Barack Obama was born two months and five days before I was), who is a cultural hybrid and a brown person (and an African American rather than Asian American brown at that), who entered Harvard Law School (which I had elected not to attend) while I was still working on my doctorate at Harvard’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences — a man, in other words, who has made very different assumptions and choices than I have — become the likely nominee of the Democratic Party.
And, I firmly believe, the likely 44th president of the United States.
It took me a while to come around to Barack Obama. My mother-in-law, who was living in Illinois when he was elected to the Senate, was an early convert, and the car that we inherited from her last summer has a fading “Barack Obama for President” sticker on its rear window. I was originally more drawn to John Edwards’s populist message, but after spending a good deal of time during my convalescence learning about Obama, I was ready to vote for him in New York’s primary. And, I think, the moment that I was really hooked, the moment that I really began to believe in him, was when Teddy Kennedy endorsed his candidacy. (I bought a DVD of the endorsement and Obama’s reply from C-SPAN to show my kids one day.)
As the weeks progressed, it became clear to me that Hillary Clinton was using the old playbook in a moment when we — the Democratic Party, the American nation — needed a new one. Electing Obama to the presidency would be a sign to the rest of the world the United States was ready to change its course, a far surer sign that electing Hillary Clinton and the style of politics that she embraced during the campaign.
The United States led by a brown man, an African American, a cultural hybrid, a cosmopolitan being? I never thought I’d see it in my lifetime. And I can’t wait.
My wife would say I’m jinxing it, but if I had to put down a bet, I’d bet on Obama in a near-landslide come November.
June 3, 2008: it is, in the words of the U2 song that accompanied Obama to the stage of the Xcel Center in St. Paul, Minnesota, tonight, a “beautiful day.”