I was invited to speak in Chicago in early October at a forum of new ideas for the new president. Most speakers were covering ideas and topics that would be of interest mainly to the Democratic candidate, Senator Obama, but there were some there who hoped to influence McCain. I had made a few speeches in southern California for a few hundred dollars, but this forum paid the six speakers chosen to speak on major topics $1,500 each and with a chance to give the closing address for $10,000. I had been chosen as one of the six based on a 30-minute video of my speech posted on Google-video's site. That was top dollar to me, so naturally, I was keen. Since it was in the Democratic candidate's hometown, I made sure that his Chicago office received a letter that contained quality quotes of my speech.
I arrived in Chicago the day before the speech and dropped off another letter that revealed a few more of my unique ideas. I talked to a Mr. Robertson on that occasion, and in a manner that was neutral at best, he said he would pass it on to the Senator. I was at the venue the next morning, watching another speaker when I was delivered a note that said a staffer would be over to attend the forum and discuss my ideas if they merited it. A chap a decade younger than the Mr. Robertson showed up after I had already started my speech, but he seemed impressed and even took notes. Afterward, over coffee, I realized that he was not much more than a messenger, and I wasn't hopeful Obama would see his report.
Although beaten for the top prize, I was runner-up, which doubled the $1,500 that I thought I'd won, and for a week or two, I waited for the phone to ring. Reality soon came back to roost, and I began to actively seek speaking jobs. There was nary a word from Obama until I got home after a day of substitute teaching on the 7th of November and found Mr. Robertson's voice on my answering machine. It informed me that Obama would probably be in California on Saturday, November 22, and that he would like to have a brief meeting with me. When I heard that the meeting was to occur downtown, I faxed back a letter suggesting that the President-Elect have lunch at my expense in the back room of my favorite French restaurant, which was near town. Confident that I had several ideas that might be useful, I needed more than 15 minutes to discuss them. I was truly shocked when I got another call the Thursday before the Saturday meeting that said he would accept, but it would have to be a brief lunch.
Thus it was that Obama and Mr. Robertson showed up twenty minutes late and ninety minutes after the Secret Service secured the location. We both had ordered in advanced-I had faxed their lunch, dinner, and wine menus to his Chicago transition office-and he appeared, having entered the restaurant through the back door to prevent exposure to other diners.
"Thank you so much for coming, Mr. President-Elect. It is an honor to meet you."
"You're welcome, Mr. Cowan. I understand you have some ideas you'd like to share. I'm very glad to meet you," he said as we shook hands.
He seemed relaxed and jovial as he sat down while Robertson and I shook hands. The table was a French setup for three people, and as I had planned, the sommelier had appeared right behind Obama and performed the wine ritual with the Chablis that Obama had ordered as I, Mr. Robertson, and the two Secret Service officers, one at each door, settled into our chairs. At Obama's nod, the sommelier filled the glasses of my two guests. He placed the bottle in its ice bucket and presented and expertly uncorked the Rose I had ordered. I nodded, tasted, nodded again, and I spoke as he poured the wine.
"I'm so delighted you came because I have a number of good points. I know you're rushed, so I would like to start with the wisest paragraph I know... after we toast to the man who is going to change America, President-Elect, Barack Obama. I raised my glass, was joined in the toast by both men, and had a swallow of the rose, eager to see if I still liked it. I forgot the wine and started to speak, but he cut me off.
"The wisest paragraph you know? Ah...really?" He smiled a laugh.
With a subtle return-smile, I said, "Nothing in the Bible or the works of William Shakespeare can quite equal the succinct wisdom of this paragraph from Malcolm Little." I paused.
"Malcolm X?" he said, and his head moved back in surprise.
"El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz... when he said, 'I've had enough of someone else's propaganda,' I had written to these friends. 'I'm for truth; no matter who tells it. I'm for justice; no matter who it is for or against. I'm a human being, first and foremost, and as such, I'm for whoever and whatever benefits humanity as a whole.'"
He nodded in respect as I paused, and he sipped his wine, soon followed by Robertson as I continued. "'As a whole,' is in italics. His italics. To me the most important clause in that most excellent paragraph is, 'I'm a human being first and foremost.' Before you're black, white, or brown, you are a human being. Before you are male or female, tall or short, fat or thin, smart or stupid, beautiful or ugly, straight or gay, rich or poor-you are a human being. And in that simple fact, Mr. President-Elect, lies our equality. Not an equality of talent; Dr. Einstein, Mr. Jordan, and you yourself have shown us that. But an equality of person-ness; it is your person that the U.S. Constitution protects. Or used to before the Rough Beast took over the White House after twenty centuries and 20 days of stony sleep."
His jaw dropped, and he almost choked on his wine, which he had just sipped. "Wow. You know how to lay it on," he said grinning, but he quickly regained aplomb. "Does the poem follow," he asked teasingly.
I shook my head with almost no movement, widened my eyes as they bored at him, and said coldly, "No. We establish this fact-that we are all humans first and foremost-in the public mind via the electronic word, and we are then ready to establish that we are all equal as citizens. We then unnerve the Reactionary Right, who still control the tiller of the great ship America for a few more perilous weeks, with this stake through their black hearts: All of the public institutions of mankind are here to serve all of us, and that includes the largest of all public institutions, our economic system. We, sir, in this time of great peril, must make this the new American maxim, the new creed to which we hold all corporations, that they serve us. We, the people, will be served in the future, not the elite, as has been the case since Triple-six Ronnie took the helm in '81."
I snapped my fingers and nodded to the waiter, talking to the agent at the back door. He came and quickly served Obama and Robertson their escargot, while another followed with my French-onion soup. The Prez-elect was no longer smiling, and I suspected that he felt that he had made a mistake and now wished he weren't here. I felt that, but I didn't want to believe it. He was also known as a thoughtful man. He picked up his thongs and fork and went to work on his escargot, probably glad for the diversion. I broke through the crust of cheese on my soup and took a bite.
After swallowing, I continued, "We also must endlessly promote this statement from our only great Republican President: 'Labor is prior to and independent of capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital and deserves much the higher consideration.'"
He had just finished downing another well-chewed snail and said, "You must mean Lincoln. When did he say that? And where?"
"In a written address to Congress in December, 1861. I would add that his message is taken in loud and clear by liberals and progressives, but most conservatives would attribute those words to Karl Marx. I think this quote shows how far the Republican Party has evolved from its founder; they are now 180 degrees out of synch with Honest Abe."