W hen you walk around with Barack Obama's new book in hand, people give you looks.
These are not the looks you get with Dean Koontz or Walter Mosley books, not looks that register and forget in the same moment. No, if the book is The Audacity of Hope, with Obama on the cover, the looks are different. Some lifting of the eyebrows, some lightening of the expression, some change of face that suggests not just recognition, but engagement.
They will talk to you about him if you give half an indication that you're willing. The room-service guy will tell you why Obama shouldn't run for president just now - still too soon. The woman in the next seat on the airplane will want to know what the book says. The former political operative will say simply that Obama is "the real thing."
Obama, who speaks today at the Miami Book Fair International, is trailed by a permanent cloud of buzz in which words like "smart, " "handsome" and "presidential" figure prominently.
'I'VE GOT WARTS'
His response? Don't believe the hype. Obama is well aware that for many people he is, after only two years a senator, just unformed clay they mold into the shape of their own political needs and wants. "I do hope people understand that I've got warts and will make mistakes, " he says. "If they don't understand that, they should call my wife and she will be happy to outline those flaws for them."
It's a smooth laugh line, but it sets up a larger point: If people want to see change, they need to understand that change is not a man. "Dr. King is one of my heroes . . . but I'm also mindful of the fact that it was a bunch of women who were willing to walk rather than ride the bus after doing somebody else's laundry and looking after somebody else's children that lifted up Dr. King. . . . I like to remind people that if you leave it up to the politicians, the problems in this country are not going to be solved. It's a group effort and citizens have to be engaged if we're going to deal with these issues."
Paradoxically, it's the very fact that Obama says things like that, that he speaks in complete sentences and pitch-perfect paragraphs and is willing to demand something more out of us than patriotic consumerism, that draws people to him. He stirs some long dormant sense of the possible.
To put it another way, Obama doesn't sound very much like a politician. Take his response when asked last month on Meet The Press if he was thinking of running for president. He did a strange thing for a politician. He gave a straightforward answer. That the answer was yes was front page news around the country. Obama says he was surprised at the intensity of the response.
"When I watch other politicians who are coy about what's going on in their head, I always feel like they're not being straight and I felt like it was important for me, particularly since I'm being asked about this every day, to just go ahead and indicate that it's something I'm thinking about but haven't made a decision about."
GOOD JUDGMENT REQUIRED
And what about those who say he lacks the experience? "I think the one thing the American people require of their president is good judgment. In most of our lives, we hope that more experience gives us better judgment. But not always. Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld had an awful lot of experience, but displayed poor judgment in this Iraq war in my mind. So the part of the measure I also have to take is: Do I feel I have the judgment to take the toughest job on earth?"
Some clue to how he might approach that job might be found in The Audacity of Hope (Crown, $25). The phrase comes from his electrifying 2004 keynote speech at the Democratic National Convention in Boston, which for most Americans was their first look at the junior senator from Illinois.
Audacity is a book less about policy than vision, i.e., a different and more idealistic way of framing a nation that lately has seemed split along seams of red and blue. And never mind that red and blue are too small, too simplistic, too limited, to encompass the complexity of human lives.
As Obama puts it in one striking passage: "I imagine the white Southerner who growing up heard his dad talk about niggers this and niggers that but who has struck up a friendship with the black guys at the office and is trying to teach his own son different, who thinks discrimination is wrong but doesn't see why the son of a black doctor should get admitted into law school ahead of his own son. Or the former Black Panther who decided to go into real estate, bought a few buildings in the neighborhood, and is just as tired of the drug dealers in front of those buildings as he is of the bankers who won't give him a loan to expand his business.
There's the middle-aged feminist who still mourns her abortion, and the Christian woman who paid for her teenager's abortion and the millions of waitresses and temp secretaries and nurse's assistants and Wal-Mart associates who hold their breath every single month in the hope that they'll have enough money to support the children that they did bring into the world."
It's a paragraph you cannot imagine from any other politician, if only because it acknowledges the humanity on both sides of some of the vexing questions of our time. More to the point, it acknowledges that human lives and, therefore, human challenges, are complex and often contradictory, that there are truths beyond dogma and that sometimes, the other side has a point. Suggest to Obama that all this makes him a politician willing to split the difference, to seek the middle ground, and he will disagree.
He'll tell you he's a Democrat and he has certain "core principles" upon which he will not compromise. What you see in him, he says, is not centrism so much as just a willingness to listen to the other guy. Something we don't do much anymore.
Maybe people want leaders who listen again. Maybe that's what it means that faces change when they see Obama's image on a book. Maybe that's the reason somebody calls him "the real thing" in the same tone of voice you'd use for found gold. He will allow that he's gratified at the idea he might help inspire people to listen. "Because I do think that our politics over the last decade, at least, has been small . . . oftentimes petty.
And I think people are weary of that.
I think we saw a little of that in last Tuesday's election. We had all the negative ads and the slash-and-burn tactics seemed to have been rejected or at least were not as effective as they have been in the past. But, " he adds without irony, "I think people are still looking for what the next thing is."