Saturday, March 7, 2009

Mourning the Fantasy of Barack Obama

Almost immediately after Barack Obama was elected president, or at least the next morning once I emerged from the groggy, sleep-deprived state of euphoria, I began mourning the loss of the Fantasy Obama. On November 5th – and even more so on January 21st – Reality Obama was born, and I felt like something intangible perished at the same time. The future died to make way for the present. The dream dissipated to enable the actuality. The Fantasy Obama vaporized to reveal the real man.

One year ago, I was shoulder-deep in Obama fever. As the Obamas tirelessly pounded the campaign trail during 2008, I joined the other equally indefatigable flocks who poured themselves into following the presidential campaign. Yes, I was one of the many election obsessed. My family made fun of my need to sop up every last bit of campaign gravy. I became a watcher of CNN, fell in TV-love with solid yet sweet Anderson Cooper (who couldn’t adore someone with that leading man name anyway?), and became yet another fawning admirer of the intellect of David Gergen. My crushes expanded to our former local DJ Rachel Maddow as I proudly watched her use the campaign to rocket into the national consciousness. Though as busy as only a full-time mother can be, I still stole time away to check the campaign-related stories online at the major newspapers and blogs. I never missed “The Daily Show” or “The Colbert Report.” During the campaign, the cold open on “Saturday Night Live” was de rigueur viewing. Most of all, I used a virtual magnifying glass to monitor the polls on and the impossibly named I would have recognize Nate Silver if I passed him on the street, and I would have had a lot to talk to him about.

When I emerged from the virtual world, I greeted people at the library with “Looks like we’re up in New Hampshire!” I used code that only the obsession initiated could understand, “Arizona is pink!” “Florida turned yellow again.” “And Ohio is light blue.” I think I finally figured out how the electoral college works and what a caucus is, or at least as much as I’ll ever understand it. There was a U.S. poster on the wall near the dinner table, where my family and I would color states blue, red or yellow depending on how they were leaning in the polls. My 12-year-old, gloriously geeky son started tracking the polls on his own Excel spreadsheet. At night, I would excuse myself from dinner to sit in front of my computer to call people in New Hampshire and Florida and Ohio and Indiana to ask them banal questions about how they were planning to vote in the election as well as to invite their hang ups and ignorance and scorn and sometimes their support. I, a spendthrift, organized a fundraiser for a man who was setting monthly records for raising money in an election. I had never cared so deeply and passionately about an election as this one.

This one. The one. Obama was the one, the one we have been waiting for. The one we had stopped hoping for. The one who may have saved me and my liberal friends from complete and total disenfranchisement, dreams of secession and the need to disguise ourselves as Canadians when we left the country.

Barack Obama made me believe again in America. Wait, not “believe again” but just “believe.” My first political memory is Watergate. On a vacation in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, my parents insisted we spend days in a cramped and musty hotel room in order to watch the Watergate hearings on TV. The first thing I learned about the reality of politics was that the President of the United States is a liar. As I lost my innocence to political virtue and realized that our government was corrupt, I distinctly remember thinking, “Oh boy. If that’s how the government works then we’re in biiiiig trouble.” Even at the age of nine years old, I realized that if the government lied to the people, the system was a fallacy and we were totally screwed.

And that was my first political memory.

Obama gave me hope in a way that was far more than a campaign slogan. Before the primaries, sometimes I would watch him and think, “That man is going to break my heart.” But he never did. All through the campaign, he stood as mighty as a redwood while the other fell. I believed in Obama. It was the American people that had me worried. Would they be able to see the man as I saw him? Or would they be fooled (yet again! And again!) by smoke and mirrors and sound bites and lipstick?

The campaign brought an intensity into my life that I had never experienced before. It was unusual for me to feel so personal about something so public. There was a fervor and powerful passion brought to everything I consumed about the election. Tina Fey’s brilliant imitation of Sarah Palin was viewed through the lens of worry, fear, and impassioned laughter mixed with a hopeful feeling of not being alone in my views. That’s a lot of baggage to bring to sketch comedy! For a time, “Saturday Night Live” ceased to be just an entertaining TV show. It became a touchstone for my America. And, as it turned out, SNL had as much to do with getting Barack Obama in the White House as any other factor outside his control.

Once the election was over, I caught a repeat of those Tina Fey sketches. I was struck by how completely different it felt to watch it knowing that we won. An emptiness surrounded the viewing, a void where once all that passion and fear had been. After election night, I began missing my webmates like Nate Silver and Mark Blumenthal. I wanted to wander onto the online poll-tracking sites, but I was afraid it would be too depressing. Like walking through a ballroom after a wedding, and seeing discarded refuse too intimate for comfort. And among the jubilation, relief and disbelief, there was loss and confused sadness.

I knew once the election was over, Obama the Reality would be the only show to watch. He would morph from Superman to Clark Kent, from boyfriend to husband, from he-who-could-do-no-wrong to a human being, fallible like the rest of us. I can’t blame the man. He assured us that he would make mistakes as president, but he would learn from them. (This kept him as close to superpower status in Washington as a politician could get in my book.) And for a while, his otherworldly aura has clung to him. Even Jon Stewart would follow up any denigrating jokes about then President-Elect Obama with the chorus, “It’s too soon! Too soon!” None of us was in any hurry to pull the veil off the fantasy.

Fortunately, it’s been a slow transition from fantasy to reality. Almost two months into his presidency, and I still get a frisson of pleasure when I hear the words “President Obama.” The other day, I watched the First Lady host a room full of African-American school children in the White House for a Black History Month presentation. “Sweet Honey and the Rock” sang “This Little Light of Mine.” Michelle Obama, Sasha and Malia sat in the front row, singing along. And a shook my head in wonder at my good fortune to be alive to see this small-yet-huge event. And I cried tears of happiness to be able to see the Fantasy become Our Reality.

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