When a young senator took the stage in Illinois politics, few took notice of more than his youth and his skin color. However, after his first scenes, people started to take notice. My father was an early attendee back then. He was the first to tell me about this Obama guy. He displayed an optimistic enthusiasm for the political arena I had only previously seen when he talked about “the 60’s” or his great luminary, Robert Kennedy. My father wasn’t one to throw his loyalty around blindly. So, I began to take notice too, following somewhat this new player. I liked what I saw and heard. Slowly, I began to develop a faith in Obama too – not so much a faith in what he could do for us, but what he could inspire us to do for ourselves. But my faith was not as profound as my father’s. Not yet.
My father was motivated to act on behalf of Obama. He began to call other leaders of his quiet Illinois community – mayors past and present, aldermen, business leaders, councilpersons and his old education colleagues. Most of them, like me, were listening interestedly but not cheering. Not yet. As his message resounded and his spotlight grew brighter, the faith grew. But it was like everyone was holding their breath. Afraid to overextend themselves. We’ve believed before and we’ve been burned. Let the election cycle begin. Let the caucuses stir up conversation and see what happens. Then I will better know the stage of players. Then I will better know where this Obama really stands. People seemed to be sitting back reading the rosters and preparing for the big season that would open in Iowa.
My dad decided to get involved. He had not voted with his feet since the age of iconic initials – MLK, JFK, RFK, and LBJ (“What else do we have to say!?”). Now he was motivated to act. Weeks before the Iowa primaries, he called up some old town friends. Like minded men of faith – faith in this new call for change and the repossession of our place as participants in the system. Dad woke early one Saturday and drove his Buick to pick up three retiree friends. They had a map of Keokuk, Iowa and a thermos of coffee. They headed across the river to start canvassing neighborhoods to talk to other Midwesterners about Obama. He called me a couple days later. He was excited about being involved and the responses he got. His enthusiasm was contagious over the phone. He estimated that he, going door-to-door, probably spoke with 60 people. His buddies figured they each hit about the same number. Most people they met were, like me, hesitant but hungry. They wanted to believe but were cautious. He told a lot of people his story, how he was motivated to act and we all have to take a step at some point. Dad felt that many of the people seemed stirred, enthused that they are not alone in this hunger for hope. He felt perhaps he had watered these seeds of hope and they might grow into action. After relaying his excitement and pride over the phone, his Midwestern modesty took over.
“Ah, who knows? Maybe we didn’t make any difference at all. But at least I did something.”
I did not want his pride and enthusiasm diminished. After all, I was really starting to feel it too. I was the one who grew excited and animated now over the phone.
“Hang on, now, Dad. You know that no matter what those people think they are at the very least going to talk to a friend or two about ‘this out-of-towner who came to the door to talk about that Obama fella’. Just knowing that people are talking about him, excited about him, believing in a leader again…. That has power, Dad. And I really think it will grow.”
This got him back on track and we started exchanging grand ideas about how far reaching his impact might have been. If he talked to sixty people and each of those talked to two friends, and they talked to just one friend, he’d initiated over 300 people to at the very least seriously talk about Obama, if not truly believe in his message. If his friends had the same impact – that is nearly 1000 people taking those ideas to their caucuses. Now that is People Power. That is what this democracy is supposed to be. Involved and concerned and informed citizens talking to neighbors – across the street or across a river.
Well, history holds forever the revolution that occurred in Iowa shortly thereafter. I still tell my father, a native Chicagoan turned downstater, in terms a Chicagoan can fully appreciate, that he quietly delivered Iowa to Obama. Similar to the way Daley delivered Chicago to Kennedy, but much more subtly, much more purely. This election holds in it a great deal of hope. Most importantly, I think is the hope that we can wrench this system back into the hands of the people. We have to be active. We have to get off the couch and go to a neighbors’ house and ask them what they think. Ask them who they are voting for and why? Tell them how they feel and who they support and why? We have to stop looking for a savior and start saving ourselves. We have to do this together. Neighbor by neighbor, house by house, state by state, until we become one country again. Our country.
-Peter J. Burns