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Happy as a Brandenburg concerto

Ululating Recognition
The Obama Connection

There was a moment early in Barack Obama’s speech at Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate this evening that summed up everything that’s different about this man, everything that’s rich in the best sense of the term, and understanding, and knowing beyond horizons the current nullity in the White House couldn’t imagine if he tried. “The journey that led me here is improbable,” Obama was telling the crowd. “My mother was born in the heartland of America. But my father grew up herding goats in Kenya.”

 

At that point he paused, the crowd cheered, he began to say, “His father…” and was interrupted by the audible sound of a woman ululating for all her lungs’ worth. Obama immediately broke into an enormous grin, the woman still in the middle of her ululation, he stopped talking for fully 13 seconds, the crowd broke into cheers in accompaniment for the woman’s ululations, and he basked in the sound, knowing exactly what it meant, and grateful for the surprise.

He knew. The crowd knew. A world of people watching would know, even if most of those watching back in the United States could only scratch their heads, dulled as those heads have become by eight years of one W’s hand clapping.

It wasn’t just a moment of conjunctions between Obama’s Americanism and his Kenyan roots. It was a moment of recognition, refracted in his grateful grin, that here, finally, is a man who not only knows the sounds of the world — the sounds most of the world doesn’t need explanations to recognize — but with which he projects genuine solidarity, because he knows those sounds from within.

What’s bewildering is that despite moments like this his detractors and even some of his friends back home manage to paint him as elitist, as disconnected from blue-collar workers, as aloof from the concerns of everyday people. You only need to see and hear that moment, that call-and-response between the man who should be the next president and the woman who voiced the wished-for celebration of a planet, to know how pathetic the talk-show constructs of Obama as a pol have been, how desperate they are for a narrative that they can assume and control rather than the defiant, still surprising and astonishingly statesmanlike epic Obama is forcing them to reckon with.

It won’t be seen that way, but to me that moment at the Brandenburg gate is as defining as any for what it tells us about the intuitive connection Obama has (and more importantly, feels) with people, an understanding so much more genuine, so much more deep and purposeful than the back-slapping, nice-to-have-a-beer with pettiness that was the alleged populist attraction to George W. Bush. Obama doesn’t like back-slapping. It makes him uncomfortable.

It’s about time that we have a man of that caliber, and that we be more comfortable with him in situation rooms than with us sharing a moment with him in beer halls. What we’ll always know is that the same man would always be willing to herd goats, while the man he’ll replace will never spend another day in his life too far from his country clubs and dividend statements.

[The cartoon is by Rainer Hachfeld of Neues Deutschland, Germany]

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