Believe me when I say that reporters are among the most cynical people in the world. I wasn't like this before I became a journalist. I was optimistic, idealistic, and had perfect faith that the majority of people in public service were good, upstanding citizens with our best interests at heart. Now, having spent the past ten years studying these people, hanging out with them, talking with them and watching them, I believe that most of them are self-serving, opportunistic phonies. Maybe they start out following the path of righteousness, but bit by bit, they give up some of their integrity in order to get elected and stay elected. By the time they are career politicians, not much is left of the young city councilman or school board president that they were.
So, the months between July and November in presidential election years are not my favorite. I get tired of the staged events, the cliche applause lines, the waving American flags and the way candidates are carefully dressed, lit and scripted to appeal to whatever audience they're facing. I went to Barack Obama's Labor Day rally in Detroit with a job to do: get the audience response to his speech, file the story and collect my check.
But as I stood there in the heat, sweating into my headphones and praying for rain, I had a totally unexpected reaction. I looked out over the crowd... tens of thousands of people waiting to see Barack Obama. There were white college students in oxford shirts, black fathers with their kids on their shoulders, Arab-American autoworkers with time off for the holiday... dozens of races, occupations, and faiths were represented. And there they stood, waiting to see a black man from Illinois. And I started to cry.
The past welled up on me rather suddenly. I thought about my great-grandmother, whose father was her white owner on a plantation in Mississippi. I thought about my grandfather, who had to drive to Tijuana to get married because his bride was white and their union was illegal in his home country. I thought about the time that he had to drive without stopping from Los Angeles to Ohio because the white hotels wouldn't take him and the black hotels wouldn't take her. And my grandmother was abandoned by family and friends because she dared to marry a man whose skin was brown. I thought about the kid whose eye I blacked in elementary school because he called me a "nigger."
And then I started to think about how my grandparents would feel if they could be standing in that crowd of thousands, waiting to see the first African-American candidate for president. That's when I began to cry. I was overwhelmed, in every sense of that word. I can't begin to describe how it felt when he stepped onto the platform and a deafening cheer rose up around him. Is this how Catholics felt when they watched John F. Kennedy speak? Is this how they felt in the audience watching Marian Anderson sing at the Lincoln Memorial? I don't think this feeling of hope and joy and sheer wonder has a political affiliation; I don't think it would have mattered if the man at the dais was a Republican or Democrat.
In his acceptance speech, Senator Obama said that his detractors don't seem to understand that his campaign is not about him, but about us. And that's something I can agree with. We are not on the edge of doing something historic; we have done it. And Obama's presence on that stage, as a candidate for president, is something that every American can be proud of, both Democrat and Republican.
I don't know if Barack Obama will become president. I know, sadly, that many people who say they support him will change their minds in the privacy of the voting booth. And it is sad, not because Barack Obama should or should not be president. It's tragic because those people will not vote for him because of the color of his skin, and they will feel guilty about it, and they may not understand where their fear springs from. But they will feel fearful and they will feel guilty, and they won't mark that box next to Obama. And if this man loses because his skin tone is brown, it will be a tragic day for all of us, and for our country.