I drove to an appearance by Barack Obama in Manchester on Sunday, feeling more than a bit skeptical. I had seen more than a few similar rock star political candidates wilt in the heat of a political campaign. I came back, however, if not a true believer, then undeniably impressed.
Obama is not your everyday candidate. He does not even look like other politicians. Though middle-aged, he has the tall, lanky body of a young athlete. He is not handsome by George Clooney standards. His ears protrude a little. His mouth is large.
Yet, Obama has a friendly, agreeable, appealing face that lights up the room when he breaks into a broad, toothy grin. And, last, but not least, Obama is the first African-American to be seriously considered for the presidency of the United States.
An overflow crowd of 1,500 people paid $25 each and stood an hour and 20 minutes waiting for Obama to appear. Many more were turned away. Those in attendance were not disappointed. Obama speaks smoothly without notes and displays a sense of modesty embellished by self-deprecating humor.
"Both Gov. Lynch and I married up," he said. "We chose talented wives we knew would improve the gene pool of our children ... All the attention I have been receiving is surprising, particularly to my wife."
I have listened to so many political speeches over the years I have trouble paying attention to them because after a while they all begin to sound the same. On rare occasions, speakers stop trying to win votes, and tell the audience something worth remembering. An hour spent listening to Massachusetts Congressman Barney Frank is like an hour in a college classroom.
Obama has the ability to do the same thing. He reveals himself to be moderate and centrist in his thinking because he understands the truth is complicated, changing, and fraught with exceptions. Extreme positions are too simplistic to deal with these complexities.
Obama argued that today America suffers from an excess of cynicism and a deficit of hope.
"You have every reason not to expect much," he said. "You look in the newspapers or on television, and what do you see? You see violence and corruption."
Yet, he said, in the past, it is hope that has propelled us forward.
"To be hopeful is not to be ignorant of problems; it is not to ignore poverty; it is not to ignore injustice," he said. "You can look these things squarely in the face and still believe we can make a difference ... This country has been built on the audacity of hope."
Hope, Obama notes, underpinned the colonists' efforts to throw off the rule of Britain. Hope for equality ended slavery. Hope led to the vote for women. And hope for a better life brought immigrants to our shores.
He argues we need to re-kindle our sense of hope. The audience mobbed Obama at the conclusion of his speech. Clearly, they, too, were impressed and made hopeful by his candidacy.
Well, should we just call off the search for a Democratic presidential candidate and declare Obama the winner? Not so fast. Politics is notoriously unpredictable.
Who could have foreseen the outcome of last November's general election? Many questions about Obama remain. Will Americans vote for an African-American candidate?
Will Obama's relative lack of political experience be his downfall? Will Obama's amiability withstand a grueling, rough-and-tumble run for the presidency?
And, remember, all it takes is one false step for a candidate to fall into the trash bin of also-rans.
In 1968, Michigan Gov. George Romney (father of current Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney) said while running for the presidency he "had been brainwashed about Vietnam." He meant he had been misinformed about Vietnam. The public interpreted his remark to mean he was gullible and simple-minded. That was the end of Romney's candidacy. In 1972, Maine Sen. Ed Muskie appeared to cry while defending his wife from criticism by the Manchester Union Leader. That was the end of Muskie. In 2004, Howard Dean made his infamous scream after the Iowa caucuses. End of Dean.
So, will Barack Obama be the Democratic candidate for president in 2008? Time will tell, dear reader. Time will tell.
Gary Patton is chairman of the Hampton Town Democratic Party. His column appears regularly on the Hampton Union's editorial page.