Obama In Training
Barack Obama wrote an editorial yesterday outlining steps to raise the necessary funds for Gulf Coast rebuilding, wherin he makes many a valid point -- namely that we expect our government to behave in the same way we balance our own household budgets. Though this particular article is not very flashy, his style is -- and it's one I've come to enjoy, as I've been reading his Dreams from My Father. Here's an exerpt from his Chicago organizing days:
Scooting her chair up closer to mine she started to tell me about growing up in Tennessee, how she'd been forced to stop her own education because her family could afford to send only one child to college, a brother who would later die in World War II. Both she and her husband had spent years working in a factory, she said, just to see to it that their own son never had to stop his education -- a son who had gone on to get a law degree from Yale.
A simple enough story to understand, I thought: the generational sacrifice, the vindication of a family's faith. Only, when I asked Mrs. Crenshaw what her son was doing these days, she went on to tell me that he had been diagnosed with schizophrenia a few days earlier and that he now spent his days reading newspapers in his room, afraid to leave the house. As she spoke, her voice never wavered; it was the voice of someone who has forced a larger meaning out of tragedy.
Or there was the time that I found myself sitting in the St. Helena's basement with Mrs. Stevens waitng for a meeting to start. I didn't know Mrs. Stevens well, knew only that she was interested in renovating the local hospital. By way of small talk I asked her why she was so concerned with improving health care in the area; her family seemed healthy enough. And she told me how in her twenties she had almost lost her sight from cataracts. She had been working as a secretary at the time, and although her condition grew so bad her doctor declared her legally blind, she had kept her ailment from her boss for fear of being fired. Day after day, she had snuck off to the bathroom to read her boss's memos with a magnifying glass, memorizing each line before she went back to type, staying at the office long after the others had left to finish the reports that needed to be ready the following morning. In this way she had maintained her secret for close to a year, until she finally saved enough money for an operation.
Or there was Mr. Marshall, a single man in his early thirties who worked as a bus driver for the Transit Authority. He was not typical of the leadership -- he hade no children, lived in an apartment -- and so I wondered why he was so inderested in doing something about drug use among teenagers. When I offered to give him a ride one day to pick up a car he had left in the shop, I asked him the question. And he told me about his father's dreams of welath in a nowhere town in Arkansas; how the various business ventures had gone sour and how other men had cheated him; how his father had turned to gambling and drink, lost his home and family; how his father was finally pulled out of a ditch somewhere, suffocated in his own vomit.
That's what the leadership was teaching me, day by day: that the self-interest I was supposed to be looking for extended well beyond the immediacy of issues, that beneath the small talk and sketchy biographies and received opinions people carried within them some central explanation of themselves. Stories full of terror and wonder, studded with events that still haunted or inspired them. Sacred stories.