Leonard Pitts Jr

'We need a leader, ' not a politician

I was 6 years old when John F. Kennedy was killed.

I don't remember much about that time, but do I recall that people felt as if hope had died. The murdered young president had embodied transformation, the startling power of the new, a sense of promise, optimism, new frontiers. Four decades of revelations about backstage politics, marital infidelities, gangsters and Marilyn Monroe have not stopped people from looking back on that era with longing. To his admirers back then, Kennedy represented a promise that we the people could be better than we were.

Much as Barack Obama represents for his admirers now.

That realization was crystallized for me by two events of recent days.

* The first was public. Shortly after the Illinois senator won South Carolina's Democratic primary, John F. Kennedy's daughter Caroline announced her support of him in a New York Times column that compared him to her father. This was followed by an endorsement from her uncle, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy.

* The second event was personal. A chat with one of my best friends. Michelle, 46, said she intends to volunteer for Obama's campaign. As far as I know, she's never volunteered for any candidate, ever. In that, she's like my brother, also 46, also a first-time volunteer, also working for Obama. Michelle, a registered independent, told me that if Obama is not the Democratic nominee, she will vote Republican, even though none of the GOP candidates excites her. She feels she'd have no choice, because she can't stand Hillary Clinton.

Clinton is a politician, Michelle said. And at this crucial juncture in our history, "We don't need another politician. We need a leader." Which strikes me as the most succinct explanation of Obama's appeal I've ever heard.

For months now, we in the punditocracy have struggled to frame the question of What It Means, this Obama phenomenon. We have talked about charisma, but that doesn't half explain it. Bigger crowds are coming out for him. Republicans are switching parties for him. People who have never volunteered before are volunteering for him.

"We don't need another politician. We need a leader."

I submit that the answer to the question lies there. I submit that maybe a critical mass of us have grown sick of the politics of acrimony, the politics of red versus blue, the politics of addition by division. I submit that there is a yearning to be called into the service of something larger than self or party.

It's not that Obama is a tabula rasa, bereft of political ideology. He has an ideology, and moreover, that ideology is -- pardon my language -- liberal.

Indeed, I interviewed him once and described him as a centrist, whereupon he promptly corrected me. It's more accurate, he said, to say that he tries "to understand the arguments that are being made on both sides and to see there are ways of finding common ground. But that common ground may not always be in the middle."

Yet if Obama has an ideology, he has managed to avoid being trapped by it or defined by it. He has not sacrificed intellectual honesty for ideological purity. He comes across as a man not so rigidly enslaved by political creed that he cannot be persuaded, a man who is, in a word, reasonable. And reason has become a rarity.

Obama appeals to American characteristics that have lately seemed used up, forgotten, discarded. Meaning our capacity for reinvention and the native idealism that powers it. That appeal has been Obama's most valuable political asset, his Teflon and shield through the rough and tumble of this political season.

"We don't need another politician. We need a leader."

If I were a politician, I'd be taking notes.