on hope

the president elect

“Hope is the bedrock of this nation; the belief that our destiny will not be written for us, but by us; by all those men and women who are not content to settle for the world as it is; who have the courage to remake the world as it should be.” -Barack Obama, after winning the Iowa Caucus

Four years ago, I cast my very first presidential ballot. I was 19, living in one blue state and voting absentee in another, and there was something vaguely unsatisfying about putting a little X next to John Kerry’s name. I was voting against George W. Bush—who terrified me, a memory that’s hard to reconcile with our 2008 keep-as-low-a-profile-as-possible president. Bush’s first term marked a strange time to grow into a thinking member of the electorate: September 11th, the hyper-patriotism that followed, the lead-up to the war in Iraq, the invasion of Baghdad, the Patriot Act, and Abu Ghraib. I didn’t think we could afford four more years, but a slim majority of the American public disagreed with me. I cried on election night, and when I woke up the next morning, I wrote an editorial for the campus newspaper that basically endorsed resigned disillusionment. There was hope and there was fear, and the latter had prevailed. Reading over the piece now, this passage stands out:

This presidency may define our lives. The majority of us will graduate from college at some point during Bush’s second term, and his policies will determine what kind of lives we lead: our job opportunities, our level of safety and our civil liberties, at the very least. If every generation is defined by its most trying times, wars and social upheaval and economic extremes, then will we be defined as the generation that comes of age as Bush reorders the world?

And where are we now? Our economic situation is dire, but the blame lies on both sides of the partisan divide—and all across the private sector. It’s still a terrifying time to start a career. During my unpaid internship this past spring, I fretted over rising food prices and the stagnant job market. Right now, freelancing for a major media corporation, I know it’s only a matter of time before budgets dry up. I doubt that a President Kerry would have worked miracles. But the slow, systemic Bush changes—like the quiet overhaul of the DOJ—will be hard to reverse. Addressing the credit crisis in July, Bush famously uttered, “Wall Street got drunk.” The same could be said of a good portion of the American public, swallowing everything the administration offered. It will take some time to sober up, but I have faith that we can fix things. It’s all I have, really.

I guess it was impossible to give up on hope completely. There’s always been a little bit of it in my writing, the (hopefully) just-this-side-of-cheesy optimism that I use to tie up loose ends and leave the reader with a positive message. But I really do take a lot of it to heart. I believe that everyone—save psychopaths and Dick Cheney—has an inherent capacity for good. It’s easy to be cynical, though I guess it’s not so hard to be hopeful. It’s just more disappointing when things don’t work out. I waver from time to time—those periods of disillusionment—but for five years, my closest friend kept me on track. Alice was an activist and a pragmatic optimist; she embodied hope and campaigned for systemic change, even as she kept an eye on the broader world and the realities that govern it. She kept my spirits up during college, and, as we spread across the globe in the months following graduation, I did my best to take her hope with me.

Last fall I was living in Edinburgh, Scotland, and the British press were too busy pointing fingers in the Madeleine McCann case to pay a whole lot of attention to the U.S. presidential primaries. But just days after I flew home, I sat up watching the Iowa returns. My memory of Barack Obama’s national debut at the 2004 convention was sketchy, so when networks called the caucus in his favor and he took the stage, his speech was something of a revelation. The lofty rhetoric that would be blamed for a poor showing in Pennsylvania had me sold in a matter of minutes. For the first time in my entire life, I had found a candidate I could be passionate about and proud of; a candidate I’d be happy to vote for, not in spite of. The primaries feel like a lifetime ago, but I don’t think I’ll ever forget that feeling, sitting on a couch in my parents’ living room on a chilly January night. Before the spectacle that has marked this election season—Joe the Plumber, Jeremiah Wright, Sarah Palin, the implosion of the MSNBC news team—there was a pragmatic optimist that I could stand behind. This was the candidate we deserved. I had no doubts the night of the Iowa Caucus: hope would prevail.

Ten days before the election, This American Life aired an episode called “Ground Game” about both parties’ efforts in Pennsylvania. The stories were pretty depressing across the board—I was left wondering why we care so much about the opinions of working class white men—but the last segment was an “air check” from Steve Corbett’s talk radio show on WILK in Scranton. Corbett went from Hillary to McCain, and he had spent the majority of this particular show talking about Bill Ayers. TAL played an exchange with one caller, a sweet, soft-spoken guy who said that whatever you think about Barack Obama—or Sarah Palin—it’s what you feel that matters. He said it with such simple eloquence that I’d recommend listening to the clip yourself. Corbett responded with this:

People will see what they want to see, and very often, we see very the same set of circumstances in very different ways. But you’re doing exactly what you should do; I just wish more people would follow your example. Thank you. And that’s exactly right. He’s trying to figure it out. And he knows, as we all know, if we think it through, it’s risky. It’s risky to go into that voting booth and believe in somebody.

There are two ways to view Corbett’s response. One sees wordplay—voting for Barack Obama is risky—and the other sees truth in that final sentence. It’s hard to put your faith in a political candidate. It’s hard to care so deeply about the outcome of an election. I chose the latter interpretation, and ten days later, I walked into a voting both and kissed Barack Obama’s name three times before pulling the lever. Twelve hours later, I was standing in the middle of a screaming crowd in Times Square. Once again, I was crying on election night. It was another election of hope or fear, and, finally, America had made the right choice.

The next day was mild and overcast in New York. Everyone seemed sluggish, and I wasn’t happy anymore. I think for so many of us, who’ve put so much faith in the outcome of this election, there was a rapid letdown when the adrenaline wore off. But I also couldn’t get a friend’s words from the night before out of my mind: “Don’t you wish Alice could have seen this?” I did. If anyone should have seen the election results, it was her. But she was killed four months ago, hit by a truck while biking to work in Washington, D.C. There’s a tragic injustice in the fact that Madelyn Dunham died the day before the grandson she raised was elected president. And there’s a tragic injustice in the fact that Alice, the one person who did more than anyone else I know to enact change and stay positive, died before Bush left the White House, before Barack Obama became president elect.

The joy of November 4th has already given way to skepticism and criticism—how dare Barack Obama employ lobbyists on his transition team?—so I’m finding it best to put aside the negativity for now. We were hopeful three weeks ago; can’t we be hopeful now? During her funeral, Alice’s mother expressed a wish that we’d all try to lead our lives with Alice’s spirit and ideals in our hearts. Alice had “the courage to remake the world as it should be”; she simply wasn’t given enough of an opportunity. It’s my sincere hope that Barack Obama’s election marks the beginning of the remaking—or, perhaps, reordering—of the world. Doing good is imperative: we can enact the changes that Alice would have been proud of. We’ve collectively taken the first step; for her sake, I hope we can take millions more.

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