Matthew Norman: There's something about Barack...

I rather missed the boat on John F Kennedy, who was buried the day I was born
Click to follow
The Independent Online

There isn't much to be said for those sporadic bouts of insomnia that afflict so many of us, but now and again they do give cause for gratitude. It might be stumbling across a murderous century by Adam Gilchrist or catching Kind Hearts And Coronet at 3.30am, but in the early hours of a September morning in 2004 there was no cricket or Ealing Comedy on telly, so I found myself watching a live feed of the Democratic Convention from Boston.

Ordinarily, such a spectacle would detain only a senior officer in PAL (Political Anorak Army) for long. This time it was different, and within a few minutes I had seen two perfectly extraordinary things.

The first quickly proved a false vision. A bunch of placard-wavers, strategically placed beside the dais to greet the next speaker, were waving banners that appeared (thanks to a combination of drink and mislaid spectacles) to read: "We love Osama!". Whether or not the second was also a mirage is a question with barely calculable implications for the US and very possibly the planet.

The person the placard-wavers claimed to love, it soon transpired, was a man of whom neither they, nor anyone beyond, his immediate circle had ever heard. But by the time Barack Obama had finished speaking half an hour later, I found myself convinced this civil rights lawyer, although yet to be elected to any national office, was a future president of the United States.

It is hard to express what a shock to the system this was. Having rather missed the boat on John F Kennedy, who was buried the day I was born, only in the fictional Jed Bartlet from The West Wing had I ever come across an Anglo-American politician who seemed the real deal... charismatic, inspiring and anything but a charlatan.

Bill Clinton came close for a while, until you learned that, as governor of Arkansas and in direct contravention of his own principles and federal law, he timed the execution of a man with a mental age of six to boost his chances in a presidential primary. (Of Tony Blair, we need not speak at all.)

As Obama began talking, it was clear there was something different about him. He spoke simply but lyrically about how unlikely it struck him, as the son of a Kenyan goat herd, to find himself on that stage, and of how his father came as a student to "this magical place America, which stood as a beacon of freedom and opportunity to so many who had come before". He talked of his mother being the daughter of a farm hand in Kansas during the depression, who later enlisted into General Patton's army the day after Pearl Harbour.

In a single adroit paragraph, this ridiculously good looking young black man touched lightly on the two great traumas to afflict America in the 20th century; gently informed his audience that he brought a certain literality to the nomenclature African-American, and imbued that increasingly tired and risible term "the American Dream" with freshness and sincerity.

All this in a few words, with elegance and dignity, but without any of the schmaltz that generally transforms such rhetoric into a chemical-free emetic. Good grief, I remember thinking as he related how his parents gave him "an African name, Barack, or 'blessed', believing that in a tolerant America your name is no barrier to success", he means every word of it. This one could be the one.

That speech, as beautifully nuanced as it was delivered, had the same impact on the American public. A few months later, Obama was elected a Senator for Illinois, Obamania was born (thousands turn out wherever he speaks, and greet him as if he were a rock star), and now he stands on the verge of becoming Hillary Clinton's main rival for the Democratic nomination. All being well on the fund-raising side, he will make the announcement on 10 February.

The down sides to his candidacy are obvious. At 45 he is much the same age as Kennedy and Bill Clinton when they took their first steps towards the White House, but hasn't a fraction of their experience (something he will seek to turn to advantage by painting himself as Mr Obama Goes To Washington). And as a black man, he will have to confront the assassination threat from white supremacist loonies which some think did much to dissuade Colin Powell from having a crack.

But the more you examine the upside, the more exciting he looks. In post-Hurricane Katrina America more than ever, the potential for mobilising the black vote that remained stubbornly apathetic, even for Bill Clinton, and then for addressing the divide exposed in such brutal clarity by the abandonment of the poor of New Orleans, is immense. As for the psychological message sent to the Muslim world were America led by a man with the middle name of Hussein... well, it seems almost too cute to be true.

But then so does Obama himself. As if his looks, intellect and manner weren't enough, he comes to this race without a shred of the baggage that clings to the canny old triangulator Hillary like the smell of stale cigar smoke on a pullover. He was firmly, but not hysterically, against the Iraqi disaster from the start. Crucially, his record on green issues over more than 20 years is absolutely flawless. He has already owned up to a dodgy property deal he describes as "bone headed", and to using cocaine as a student, suggesting a level of transparency that might withstand the ferocious spotlight shone on all candidates by the American media.

Perhaps this is nothing more than the adolescent wishful thinking of a professional iconoclast sick of the grubby, self-serving cynicism of careerist western politicians, and desperately flailing about for someone to believe in. And perhaps it wouldn't take long, under the grinding pressure of the Oval Office, before he revealed himself as nothing more than a prettier, more engaging, cleverer, darker version of the same.

As so often, the phrase that comes to mind is the one spoken by the John Cleese character in Clockwise: I can take the despair, it's the hope I can't stand. But at least with Obama there is some hope, fragile and nebulous as it is, that under him America may soon begin to confront the challenges of climate change, a two-state solution for Israel-Palestine and its wider relationship with the Islamic world, not to mention its own social and racial problems.

Barack Hussein Obama, 44th President of the United States... it sounds wildly surreal, and his road from here to the White House is paved with land mines. Even so, if I were Hillary, or even the Republican front runner John McCain, I'd start working on a gracious concession speech the moment Obama announces he's running on 10 February.