Rise in the ranks

It was a long time ago when the Black race, especially those in the African continent, were made slaves and exploited by the Whites. During those times, who would’ve thought that over centuries later a Black man would have a chance to lead the world’s biggest White nation.

The historians can put aside their reference material. This is new. America has never seen anything like the Barack Obama phenomenon.

I was surprised all day Thursday, before the results of the Iowa caucuses were in, by the apparent serenity of the Obama forces here in New Hampshire. The stakes were enormous, but the campaign staff members and volunteers seemed as cool as the candidate.

The students, veterans, middle-aged moms, retirees and others working steadily to make Barack Obama president seemed to accept as fact that the country is ready for profound change and that their job is to help make it happen.

“We’ve been busy knocking on doors, making phone calls, inputting data and basically just spreading hope,” said Kathryn Teague, a 19-year-old who has taken a year off from Keene State College to work in the campaign.

There is no longer any doubt that the Obama phenomenon is real. Mr. Obama’s message of hope, healing and change, discounted as fanciful and naïve by skeptics, drew Iowans into the frigid night air by the tens of thousands on Thursday to stand with a man who is not just running for president, but trying to build a new type of political movement.

By midnight, Joe Biden and Chris Dodd had been chased from the race; John Edwards was all but literally on his knees; and the Clintons were trying, for the umpteenth time, to figure out how to remake themselves as the comeback kids.

Shake hands with tomorrow. It’s here.

Senator Obama’s victory speech was a concise oratorical gem. No candidate in either party can move an audience like he can. He characterized his stunning victory as an affirmation of “the most American of ideas — that in the face of impossible odds, people who love this country can change it.”

Mr. Obama has shown, in one appearance after another, a capacity to make people feel good about their country again. His supporters want desperately to turn the page on the bitter politics and serial disasters of the past 20 years. That they have gravitated to a black candidate to carry out this task is — to use a term I heard for the first time this week — monumentous.

The Clintons, especially, have seemed baffled by the winds of change. They mounted a peculiar argument against Senator Obama, acknowledging that voters wanted change but insisting that you can’t achieve change by doing things differently. Senator Hillary Clinton has had a devil of a time trying to cope with the demand for change while shouldering the legacy of an administration that defined the 1990s.

Barack Obama has none of that baggage.

But for all the talk of change, it’s just one of the factors driving the Obama phenomenon. The simple truth is that hardly anyone — in politics, in the news media or anywhere else — realized what an extraordinary candidate Senator Obama would turn out to be.

He’s smart, hard-working, charismatic, good-looking and a whiz at fund-raising.

He has an incandescent smile, but it’s not frozen in place. He seems authentic. When he laughs, you have the feeling it’s because something is funny.

People are lining up to believe in him. He has the easy demeanor (in a long, lanky frame) of someone who’s comfortable with himself. Even when he fires up a crowd, he doesn’t get too hot. He has the cadences that remind you of King but the cool that reminds you of Kennedy — John, not Robert.

If the Clintons are going to stop Mr. Obama, they need to do it now. If he wins the New Hampshire primary Tuesday, the news media will go nuts and he will head toward the Jan. 19 caucuses in Nevada and the Jan. 26 primary in South Carolina (where half the voters are African-American) with incredible momentum.

I expect that African-Americans, under those circumstance, would view his campaign with almost religious fervor. All those questions about whether he’s black enough would be history. Mr. Obama would be perceived by many as within striking distance of the presidency, and there will be very few blacks in favor of stopping that train.

However this election turns out, Mr. Obama can be credited with a great achievement. He has drawn tons of people, and especially young people, into the political process. More than anyone else, he has re-energized that process and put some of the fun back into politics. And he’s done it by appealing openly and consistently to the best, rather than the worst, in us.

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