Two summers ago, I was awarded the opportunity to interview a relative stranger from the Illinois Senate. It was at a National Association of Black Journalists convention, as the two leading Democratic combatants visited Las Vegas to convince a room full of journalists why they should be the next Democratic nominee. Hilary Clinton came on Thursday. Barack Obama came on Friday.
I, along with another journalist, was assigned to cover his speech and possibly garner some quotes from this novel candidate: for he was the first black U.S. Senator since the Reconstruction period, and he was running for president! High ambitions this guy had. At this point, he was at least 20 points behind Hilary in the polls and had arrived in Vegas facing nagging concerns about whether he was “black enough.”
So like any black man, he showed up late. When he entered onto the stage, there was a calm about this character that would not fully become known for over a year. He leaned into the mike, and said, “Sorry that I’m late, but you said that I wasn’t black enough. So I figured I’d show you.”
He answered questions with ease, sitting in his chair with his elbows resting on his knees like he was sitting in a living room talking about sports. You couldn’t tell that he was double digits behind Hilary. The points he touched on weren’t as important as the way that he made them. The subtleties of a man are hard to measure when he is giving a speech in front of thousands because speeches are rehearsed. Spontaneity is minimal, and what you are seeing is a speaker’s representation. What I really needed to see was how he comported himself in a more informal setting. I would soon get that chance.
After his speech, he was escorted into a small intimate room in the back of the conference center where he was to sit at a table with about 15 of the nation’s top journalists – and yours truly – to answer their questions. No cameras. No chance of this interview making CNN. Just Barack and the media. The media and Barack. He didn’t blink. He wasn’t demure in his assertions. He took questions head on, impressing everybody at the table with his depth of knowledge. If nothing else, he impressed with his intellect alone. If he didn’t know how to solve all the issues, he was smart enough to find someone who can. And he was smart enough to learn how to solve them.
That is the impression that I left with from Las Vegas. He has since gone on to become the world’s greatest curiosity, a mainstay in the media publications and a man who would become a transformative figure in American history. He would face a more arduous campaign process than any presidential candidate ever. He would denounce a beloved figure in his life, show the world a coolness paralleled by few, and engage an apathetic community to believe.
But there, August 10, 2007, he had convinced a room full of critical thinkers that he was their choice. Equanimity would become his calling card. You know the whole “never let them see you sweat” thing? He has that down to a T. He won’t be the complete answer to the ills of African-Americans, but he can set the groundwork for advancement. Just don’t expect him to get bent out of shape about it.
He’s our next President. He’s black. He’s intelligent. He’s focused. He represents some of the best qualities in us and he’s a man with first class temperament. That’s something hasn’t changed since that hot day in Vegas.
So don’t expect that to change over the next four years. And beyond.