I wasn’t in Iowa on that cold, bright morning in January of last year when President Barack Obama made his first improbable step to the White House. I watched from home, and like a lot of people, I was shocked that this freshman senator was able to pull off such an audacious feat against a two-time first lady whose coronation seemed all but assured by the pundits.
I wasn’t on the campaign trail, where the quiet, steady confidence of a man whose story followed the arc of America’s own crooked path to equality won over voters one by one, then by the thousands, then by the tens of thousands, then millions. The wins kept coming, and this insurgent campaign that was given long odds began to take shape. Watching as the usual suspects bashed and swatted at each other, saying and doing all the things that for the past five election cycles had soured me on what felt like the most mean-spirited and petty way to choose our leaders, I began to notice small things. Obama said he would try to run a cleaner campaign, one that didn’t recede into negative attacks and political petulance. And, for the most part, he did.
As the country’s mood turned bleak — beaten down by two wars, increasingly falling into economic peril due to failing mortgages and a growing financial crisis — Obama stuck to his message of hope. Hope. What seemed so quaint for all those months, a word that reeked of empty hippie platitudes slowly morphed from a slogan that looked good on T-shirts and posters into a concept that more and more Americans could, and wanted to, embrace — needed to embrace.
And then, in August, I was there. In Denver at the Democratic National Convention, I saw what the hype was about. I saw this well-oiled machine, this juggernaut headed by the calm political general they call “No-Drama Obama.” It wasn’t just the ability to stay on message, it was a feeling you could almost touch: that this hope Obama had been speaking of was not just a slogan, but a set of ideas, ideals, that might actually bend the arc of history toward justice, toward a future we could be proud of.
Sitting in the crowd at Mile High with more than 75,000 people, I got a feeling I’ve never had before from a politician: This man was not speaking to me or at me but for me, about me, with me — inviting me, and anyone else willing to take that leap, to believe that past does not have to be prologue and that ideas can matter.
I didn’t want to leave the stadium, afraid that the moment would dissipate into the thin Denver night air and become just another faded memory in a long year of repetitive stump speeches, debates, attack ads and bald-faced pandering. I wasn’t alone. Thousands hung around for an hour or more after the speech, trading highlight moments, quoting their favorite lines and talking about hope, about how they were energized for the first time in their lives or for the first time in decades.
Even as the campaign against Senator John McCain heated up, I said to myself, “This is an honorable man, a nation’s hero,” who, if he should win, I would accept as my president, even if we don’t always see eye to eye. Because, for all his flaws, McCain has given his life over to serve his country, a noble path and one that deserves respect. But as McCain turned his rhetoric into the same old divisive, petty sniping that had been used against him in elections past, I began to lose that respect, even as Obama stayed mostly above the fray, his eyes on the prize, his mettle tested but his spirit resolute against the more seasoned politician and his well-oiled, dirty-politics machine.
And on election night in November, I was there again. I stood among tens of thousands in a field on the lakefront in Chicago and watched as Obama steamrolled to a surefire win. My heart leaped every time the numbers flashed on the screen and the crowd screamed, “Yes we can!” I was overcome when the victory was sealed and the chant switched to “Yes we did!” And when Obama took the stage and gave the most eloquent speech I’ve ever heard, I knew without question that this “hope” he’d been speaking of for more than two years was much more than a brilliant sales pitch or a shrewd political gambit. It was those things, yes, but more than that it was a lifeline to fellow citizens who felt like America had lost the thread and that they’d been washed out in a flood of bad decisions and economic missteps that some of them may never recover from. It was an extended hand that said to anyone who would listen: This country made me, and now it’s my turn to remake it for the better. Now it’s our turn.
“If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible; who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time; who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer,” Obama said. The words still give me chills.
And, then, today, I was there again. I snaked my way through the millions gathered on the National Mall to watch the president-elect cross the threshold to history. I was more than a mile away, in the shadow of the Washington Monument, the sound of the circle of American flags whipping in the wind sometimes drowning out the announcements from the steps of the Capitol. I stood among the millions who had heeded Obama’s call, and I heard them answer it, in Spanish, French, Arabic, Italian and languages I couldn’t decipher. I saw them brave the bitter cold with their children bundled to their chests, with elderly parents and special-needs teens in wheelchairs. I heard their hearts leap as Obama took the oath of office and promised a “new way forward.”
Here’s what I heard: a hand up to the less fortunate, out to our enemies, our friends and the world. Those who would stand against us and with us. Those who believe in our god, their own god or no god at all. Those who’ve given up on us, who never left us and who are ready to stand with us again. Anyone who still believes this country can and will be great again. Soon. Not today, maybe, or tomorrow, and maybe not in the next four years, but again, anew. Those are the words I heard today, echoing from the Capitol, across the water and up to the Washington Monument like an unstoppable wave. I heard them standing shoulder-to-shoulder in a crowd that contained the multitudes President Obama spoke of. Ones who’ve heard his call to service and his warnings that the road will be steep and hard and that it will take hard work to climb that mountain.
I heard those words and, for once, I totally believed them.
“Be the Change: Live From the Inaugural” will air live on MTV on Tuesday, January 20, at 10 p.m. ET/PT. MTV News will have wall-to-wall coverage of the event and of the scenes in Washington, D.C., New Orleans and Kenya in the days leading up to the event and in the days that follow.