Quiet Heroes

This is a television review of the recent HBO documentary By The People: The Election of Barack Obama, from directors Amy Rice and Alicia Sams.

There is a moment near the end of this riveting documentary that is as powerful as any I’ve seen recently:  Candidate Barack Obama, on the eve of the election, in Charlotte, NC, memorializing his maternal grandmother Madelyn Dunham, when, with the crowd cheering on his historic run, he describes her as a “… quiet hero” and tears stream on his cheeks.  It’s a vulnerable a moment as the modern political system will allow, and as he continues to say, “… they’re not famous, their names aren’t in the newspapers…”, he echoes the immortal lines from Linda Loman in Arthur Miller’s Death of A Salesmen.

Yes We Still Can

The documentary, to anyone a fan of R.J. Cutler’s ’93 doc The War Room or Alexandra Pelosi’s ’02 doc Journeys with George, is irresistible:  It’s Campaign Hope, up close and with access.  And to watch one year into the presidency of Obama (a presidency in which, to my less than humble opinion, the man constantly gets blamed as if it’s his fault every option ranges from ‘sucks’ and ‘sucks a little less’) is truly fascinating.  It is to relive the days leading to Iowa, when no one outside of Team Obama thought this upstart candidate had any shot;  it is to get to know the previously unknown-outside-of-Chicago Davids, Axelrod and Plouffe; it is to hear anew perhaps candidate Obama’s finest moment:  The New Hampshire primary concession speech, in which “… a president who choose the moon as our new frontier, and a King who took us to the mountaintop…” before it became a Will.i.am video.  I remember speaking with my father that night (who, then, was supporting the trial lawyer Senator John Edwards– whoops) and saying, in effect, Watch this guy–  this is a concession speech.  (I wasn’t talking with my mother then; we had yet to mend the Hillary divide).

The doc is to relive those long days of “If it’s a Tuesday, there’s a primary somewhere!”, days when the daily declaration of a super-delegate could send you to the computer to consult Nate Silver’s brilliant website; the days in which I spent as much time with Keith, Chris, Rachel and the late, great Timmy R. as I did my friends.  It reminded me of Super Tuesday:  Canvassing in lower-middle-class urban areas somewhere off the 405, and talking baseball with would-be voters before dropping off literature; of going to a Super Tuesday returns party with friends and being worried as Senator Obama’s California numbers didn’t measure up, and later realizing his candidacy wasn’t D.O.A. after all.  It is, in fact, to relive a time when his very candidacy was very much a longshot.

Quick, picture the Fillmore logo? Taft logo? Hayes logo?

I can certainly think of no modern campaign that has yielded so much enduring iconography: the blue half-circle, red-striped logo; the slogan; the Shepard Fairey poster.  The doc makes brilliant use of the music of his campaign, for there was a time when those of us who were maxing out our donations and daily recording our telephone calls couldn’t hear Stevie Wonder’s Signed, Sealed & Delivered without seeing the Obamas dancing on-stage in our mind’s eye.

Of course the flick focuses on the general election as well, but it’s startling to remember how very divisive the primary was, how that doesn’t often happen in American presidential elections.  But when the second half moves to the general, it did indeed conjure up not-too-long-ago memories of a weekend spent in Nevada with an old college buddy, doing early GOTV work, finding the first house we knocked on foreclosed, becoming friendly with the campaign supervisor there, who had interrupted her college experience for something that indeed promised experience.  To that end, the doc wisely focuses on the youth who made his candidacy so viable: the young speechwriter John Favreau (shades of Sam Seaborn), a compelling biography of a rising staffer named Ronnie Cho.

Perhaps you enjoyed my work in 'Iron Man' or 'Swingers'.

The picture wisely halts right before that electric night in Grant Park, but not before it reminds of what it was to believe in something–in this case, a candidacy–larger than ourselves.  The President’s had a rough year, he’s a accomplished a lot he often doesn’t get credit for (avoiding a further, Great (er) Recession, dealing with Russia and Iran, passing a stimulus) and hears it from both sides of the aisle often (um, see: care, health), though he’s on the verge of the biggest legislative victory in a generation.  And no doubt I, for one, expect greater accomplishments in the next seven years.  But what the doc does is remind me of a fundamental (and perhaps schmaltzy) truth:  That much like I’ve heard stories of generations past who had two pictures on their wall, the Pope and John Kennedy, for what he does and does not accomplishment in office this man will always be my President, his picture will always be on my wall.  It’s enough to make me think of Ann Nixon Cooper.  It’s enough to make me think of quiet heroes.

You may find this to be far too much of an Obama hagiography.  That’s okay, I think; politics does not divide true friends or blog readers.

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One Response to “Quiet Heroes”

  1. “Let Obama Be Obama” « Wally's Blog Says:

    […] We here are This Way to the Egress don’t generally write about politics, though we have before.  And there’s good reason for this:  We want everyone (even you, nutty Tea Party-ers!  We […]

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