By tonight, we'll know the results of 2008 elections in the United States. It feels exciting, in an important sort of way.
Well before Obama decided to run for president, a friend of mine insisted that I read 'Dreams From My Father', Obama's personal memoir. "You have to read it," she said. "It reminds me of your pilgrimage days, in some odds ways." Sure enough, on a roadtrip to Grand Canyon, Guri and I popped in the audio book to hear, in Barack's own voice, formative stories from Obama's upbringing: his visit to a Hanuman temple to his stay in a mostly-Muslim country to his encounter with some inner-city kids who were playing music all-too-loud outside his Chicago apartment. What became clear was that this was man who had the sensitives to refrain the sound-bytish, yes-no, black-white responses to complex situations. That is, no doubt, impressive.
Sometime in 2006, he decided to run for president. He was a definite long shot, at first. With long months of grueling assaults from Hillary Clinton, it seemed that he would have to stoop low to hold his own; at time, it appeared this "change" and "hope" campaign wouldn't survive politics. But it did. Next up was McCain. By many accounts, McCain was a decent man running an honorable campaign ... until he hired the same Bush campaigners that ran a smear campaign against him in the 2000. As a result, Obama faced some of the most vicious smear campaigning ever seen in a presidential campaign. Add on top of this, the numerous death threats at every step of the way (let alone the silent encouragement of "Kill him!" and "terrorist" statements at Republican rallies).
Amidst all this, though, what I kept seeing was the meditative poise of Obama. Whether one agreed with his policies or not, Obama's grace under pressure, unflappable commitment to a message of hope, and inspiring eloquence was witnessed by unprecendented crowds that he engaged. As NY Times' David Brooks, a moderate slash conservative reporter, accurately describes him:
There has never been a moment when, at least in public, he seems gripped by inner turmoil. It’s not willpower or self-discipline he shows as much as an organized unconscious. Through some deep, bottom-up process, he has developed strategies for equanimity, and now he’s become a homeostasis machine.
When Bob Schieffer asked him tough questions during the debate Wednesday night, he would step back and describe the broader situation. When John McCain would hit him with some critique — even about fetuses being left to die on a table — he would smile in amusement at the political game they were playing. At every challenging moment, his instinct was to self-remove and establish an observer’s perspective.
Through the debate, he was reassuring and self-composed. McCain, an experienced old hand, would blink furiously over the tension of the moment, but Obama didn’t reveal even unconscious signs of nervousness. There was no hint of an unwanted feeling.
They say we are products of our environments, but Obama, the sojourner, seems to go through various situations without being overly touched by them. Over the past two years, he has been the subject of nearly unparalleled public worship, but far from getting drunk on it, he has become less grandiloquent as the campaign has gone along.
And that's really what I've learned most from watching Obama -- a meditative poise.
Callie Shell, who has been photographing him before his presidential run, says of this photo below: "Obama listens from a back stairwell as he is introduced in Muscatine, Iowa. It was his second or third speech of the day. Unlike many of the politicians I have photographed in the past, I find it is easy to get a photograph of Obama alone."