Mr. Cool's Intensity

Barack Obama
Barack Obama (Gerry Broome - AP)
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By David Ignatius
Sunday, May 11, 2008

Barack Obama called himself an "imperfect messenger" in his victory speech in North Carolina last Tuesday. That was a refreshing touch of humility, but it was also a fact. The presumptive Democratic presidential nominee is far from perfect. But he has demonstrated the most mysterious and precious gift in politics, which is grace under pressure.

Obama has remained "Mr. Cool," even when his campaign seemed to be blowing up around him. He didn't do the politically expedient things: He didn't wear his patriotism on his lapel with an American flag pin; he didn't promptly disown his race-baiting former pastor, Jeremiah Wright; he didn't apologize for comments by his wife, Michelle, that many Americans found unpatriotic. You can say what you like about the substance of these positions, but the interesting fact is that Obama didn't flinch.

"Yes, we know what's coming. I'm not naive," Obama said in the North Carolina speech. "We've already seen it . . . pouncing on every gaffe and association and fake controversy, in the hopes that the media will play along."

That's the message: Attack me; attack my pastor; attack my wife; bring it on. I'm ready.

The past several months have revealed Obama's vulnerabilities, but they've also shown his ability to take a punch. Many whites are furious that he didn't throw Wright overboard sooner, but blacks surely like him all the more for resisting the pressure. And there's an instinctive American fondness for people who don't rat out their friends, even when their friends are creeps. That's why a Wright-based strategy may backfire for the Republicans, just as it did for Hillary Clinton.

Obama has a transcendent ambition: It's part of what gives him the "man of destiny" quality. When you see him on TV or in pictures, he always seems to be looking into the middle distance -- not to any person in particular but toward "the people" and the far horizon.

One way to measure Obama's sense of destiny is to think about the choices before him when he graduated from Harvard Law School as the first African American president of the Harvard Law Review: He could have walked into a Supreme Court clerkship or harvested a fortune working for a fancy law firm. But Obama's ambition was much bigger. He went to Chicago to start building a base to run for . . . well, we know where this story leads.

People who met Obama in those early days in Chicago say they were struck by two qualities: First was his remarkable ability to work across racial lines; the second was his political ambition. His strategy was to straddle -- between black and white, between rich and poor, between Harvard and the streets. That's still the essence of his appeal: I am the person who can bring America together because I contain within myself all of its contradictions.

That protean quality is what Obama liked about his pastor. In his first autobiography (still the Rosetta stone for decoding the Democratic candidate), he says this of Wright and his church: "It was this capacious talent of his -- this ability to hold together, if not reconcile, the conflicting strains of black experience -- upon which Trinity's success had ultimately been built."

Obama's problem with Wright back then wasn't that he was too radical but that he was too bourgeois. Obama says that he told Wright at their first meeting that he worried "that the church is too upwardly mobile." He didn't want to be surrounded by "buppies" -- black urban professionals -- who had the lesser goal of making money.

What's compelling about Obama is that fusion of grace and ambition. He's playing for the highest stakes, but he makes it look easy. That cool, graceful quality evokes John F. Kennedy and the Rat Pack -- all these sleek, handsome men in silk suits and skinny ties who never break character, never miss a beat.

Albert Murray titled a collection of his essays on black culture "The Omni-Americans." That was his view of the African American experience, that it pointed in every direction at once -- toward anger and healing, toward rage at America and a patriotism that has led blacks to serve in disproportionate numbers in the military, toward the paradox of hating America and being intensely loyal to it.

That's the history-changing package that Barack Obama brings to the presidential race. Based on last week's primary results, we have a rendezvous in November with that vision of "Omni-America" and the transcendent and potentially disruptive change it represents.

The writer is co-host ofPostGlobal, an online discussion of international issues. His e-mail address isdavidignatius@washpost.com.


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