A Welcome Face -- and A Question

By Sally Quinn
Saturday, May 5, 2007

Some months after Richard Nixon resigned, my husband and I decided to go away. We wanted to get as far from Washington and Watergate as possible, so we headed to Bahia, in northern Brazil, for Carnival.

Bahia is a sort of melting pot for all races, a mix of cultures and colors. At a party one night I had a fascinating conversation with a Brazilian professor, but as I recounted it to our hosts the next day I realized I didn't know the name of the man I had talked to. "Was he black or white?" they asked. My answer, which stunned me, was, "I don't remember."

Now, I am from Savannah, Ga. I had never in my life not noticed whether someone was black or white. I felt an overwhelming sense of exhilaration. It was possible, then, to see someone as just another person, regardless of color. I felt good about myself.

I was reminded of this the other day watching Barack Obama. I realized that when I look at him, I don't see a person of color. I see a really smart, appealing, thoughtful person. There is something about his manner that seems to demand that he be seen for who he is and not for what color he is.

Of course, Obama has many attractive attributes. He is charismatic and has a youthful exuberance. He is a new face and connects with both young people and key Democratic constituents. But there's something else going on here as well.

Is it possible that Obama's incredible popularity in such a short time is a reflection of that same feeling I had in Bahia? Could it be that Obama makes people feel proud of themselves because they can look beyond the color of his skin? Perhaps some of the many people who are supporting him sense that doing so brings out the better part of their nature.

I recently took another trip, this one around the world, and everywhere I went, all that people wanted to know about was Obama. In every country, when people learned I was American, the questions were the same: Could a black man possibly be elected president of the United States? More important, would Americans actually elect someone like him to represent their country? In almost every case the reaction at the possibility was admiration.

The doubts about Obama in this country are usually twofold: He's too young and he doesn't have the necessary experience. People tend to forget that in fact, if Obama were elected next year, he would be older than Teddy Roosevelt, Jack Kennedy and Bill Clinton were when they became president.

As for the inexperience, who has ever had more experience in government than Dick Cheney and Don Rumsfeld?

The biggest problem that Obama has is this: We don't know who he is. Who are his people? Whom does he surround himself with? Whom does he listen to? Who gives him advice? He's so new to the national political scene that he hasn't had time to choose the team that would be with him in the White House. The more we see him in action, he's still just campaigning. He still has the quality of an unknown. And as attractive and likable as Obama is, we still need references.

The staff Obama chooses will speak volumes about his judgment of people and what he thinks the job of president entails. They would be the face of an Obama White House. More than any other candidate who has run in a long time, we need that reassurance from him sooner rather than later. I am not saying his capacity to hold the job centers on a selection of well-known Washington operatives. His biggest rival, Hillary Clinton, has a team that is well known and that can be judged by their past performances. Bill Clinton, Sidney Blumenthal, Terry McAuliffe, Howard Wolfson, Ann Lewis and Harold Ickes are all close Clinton advisers and will be running the country if she gets elected. The larger issues for Obama center on the perspective, values and life experiences he would bring to the job, and how he would use the talent he assembles.

You can talk about age or experience or race, but in the end a president is only as good as the people around him or her. A president can't be all things to all people and can't be an expert in everything. Obama may well be the most authentic candidate in years. But what will matter more for him than for other candidates, because of his youth and inexperience, is the expertise, wisdom and decency of the administration he puts together.

Whether you see him as black, white or opaque, Obama will be the face of America. But so will be his team. It's time for him to show us who would represent him, and therefore us, to the world.

The writer is a co-moderator, with Jon Meacham, of On Faith, an online conversation on religion athttp://newsweek.washingtonpost.com/onfaith.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company