Dear Senator Barack Obama,
It was Norman Rockwell material. We were gathered on the lawn of our county's courthouse square. You could see the splinters of sleet (later snow) hurtling through the yellow glow of the streetlights. The statues and the gazebo were snowcapped. The flags audibly snapped and rustled in the stiff north wind.
It was quintessential Kansas winter weather in a quintessential Kansas location.
It was Super Tuesday.
Originally, we were to be herded into a church. The overwhelmed Democratic party officials eventually realized that church would never hold the thousands of people in attendance. They toyed with the idea of using a separate chapel for overflow, but correctly assessed that wouldn't solve the problem. A change of venue was announced, primarily by word of mouth, that we'd gather at the courthouse.
It was already chilly and everyone could sense that the foreboding weather forecasts we'd heard all day had a very good chance at being accurate for a change. The winds were picking up and what had once been mist was now something between rain and sleet. I suddenly wanted to be inside a cramped, too-hot church. Subjecting myself, my wife, and my little kid to inclement weather during what was obviously going to be a confused and long affair wasn't attractive.
I don't think anyone liked the idea. They grumbled. They wondered about the lack of preparation. They questioned the level of organization. This, I thought, was the ugly underbelly of high voter turnout. Some folks were mildly perturbed. Some were downright angry. Others worried and few seemed amused by the situation.
I met a few people at the Kansas caucus last night. The John Brown family was in the sign up line near Anthony, Bob, Christi, Dave, and Ellen (names changed, of course).
Anthony was still wearing his work uniform. He was young, black, and carrying an Obama sign. Bob was white, in his sixties, and wore a ball cap celebrating his status as a retiree. Christi was young and quiet. You could see her college sweatshirt under the sleeping bag she draped over her head and shoulders. Dave was well-dressed white overachiever. He drove a Mercedes. I know that because the car was parked close to our line. When he noticed my wife and daughter shivering, he offered them the keys. "Get in there and warm up for awhile," he told them, "when we get closer to the front you can hop back in line." (Thanks, Dave). Ellen looked like one of our neighbors and one of her comments indirectly inspired this letter.
Ellen made a remark a few minutes before my wife and daughter sought temporary refuge in Dave's car. I was looking down at my little girl, who was looking up into the purplish threatening skies with a wide smile. A few minutes before, she had joined a chant of "Yes, we can", not knowing it was in support of a candidate and not even thinking about what she "can" or "cannot" do. She yelled along, even though I was silent (I'm not a big cheerleader) because the affirmation resonated with her. Yes, she can. She's convinced of that, regardless of the task in question. Yes, she can.
That's when Ellen said, "You really gotta believe in your candidate to suffer through this!" "Anyone who makes it through the night is a real Democrat!"
Ellen's comment was jarring because it was clear that her interpretation of events was radically different than my own. I started to look at the faces around me, wondering if the stamina displayed by those standing in the cold was a byproduct of party affiliation.
Some may have been there because of party affiliation, but that didn't explain the massive turnout. Christi, shivering under her makeshift poncho didn't seem like a party hack. She seemed like a kid who believed strongly in something that went beyond party affiliation.
Anthony worked all day and barely made it into our first line before the required 7:00 deadline. He was visibly tired. Nothing about him or his comments led me to believe he was a partisan suffering through a mess of a caucus out of organizational dedication.
Bob had to fill out a change of registration form when we made it to the tables. He was flipping from Republican to Democrat as a retiree. He doesn't sound like part of "the base" to me.
Suffering through the Kansas Democratic caucus in Olathe last night didn't prove you were a good Democrat. No, it had very little to do with that.
The record turnout and the unwavering desire to see the caucus process through to the bitter end wasn't a politics-as-usual moment. This was about the running themes of the Democratic nomination process. It was about hope and change.
Mobilizing thousands of people to freeze their asses off for a Democratic caucus in a red part of a very red state can only happen when those people believe they are doing something truly important.
College girls don't sludge through a long muddy line with sleeping bags over their heads unless they feel "it" in their hearts.
People don't offer their expensive cars as ass-warmers to strangers because of political affiliation.
The most diverse crowd in Johnson County history doesn't run back and forth between churches and courthouse grounds unless something bigger than usual is at stake.
Barack, you've started something and it's probably a little bigger than what you may have originally expected. I haven't seen it with my own eyes elsewhere, but I saw it in Kansas and the Super Tuesday returns lead me to believe it's happening from Georgia to Minnesota. You've fired up voters. You've motivated them to skip Simon Cowell for a caucus in what they all know is a mere "flyover state". You've given old guys a reason to cross party lines, tired working people a reason to stand in long cold lines, and college kids a chant they really believe.
You've handed out a great deal of something very dangerous. Bill Clinton mythologized his hometown of Hope, making it Everytown, USA. Last night, Barack, you brought serious hope to a place called Hope.
That hope and that belief in you and your message has created a spectacular opportunity for you to become the President of the United States of America. You may be able to ride the wave all the way to the White House. I wish you well and I'll be voting for you.
However, this excitement has also created a massive responsibility for you.
You've brought new people into the process and have re-energized many who have never bothered with involvement before. You led them to believing that yes, they can. You tore them away from televisions and fireplaces and out into the cold. You convinced them to line up for blocks and to gather in support of your vision of change.
I know you'd never want to claim it was "all about you". The story is, of course, that it's all about us. That's even a tagline, I believe, for one of your ads. It may be about all of us as a nation, but you're the messenger for many of "us". You're the one who now holds something very precious in your hands--the hopes of countless Americans.
I certainly hope you are up to the task of handling that precious commodity. I have one request: Don't fuck these people over, Barack. You brought them to the dance. Don't let them down.
That means it's time for you to stay on your message--your real message while avoiding those little temporary opportunities to score points at the expense of integrity.
That means it's time for you to run hard--you aren't just the novelty candidate anymore and you're not just the standard "outsider" story the press loves every four years. I saw these people, Barack Obama, they believe in you. They believe in your message. You owe it to them to run like hell.
That means you have a responsibility to them if you don't prevail. Don't leave them in second place with one "farewell until next time" speech. Take care of their hopes. Help them to direct their positive energies.
We talk a lot about winning and losing in America. We reduce politics to the level of the 6th race at Santa Anita. Wolf Blitzer stops just short of doing the bugle call every time they open the gates/open the polls. Culturally, we seem to love the game and the competitive aspect of the process. There are just as many Wednesday morning campaign managers in February as there are Monday morning quarterbacks in December.
Some of us, however, believe that there is more to it than that. We really do hold hope for the democratic process and that government can be better. Even a relatively bitter cynic like me has a tiny spark of belief left in him.
I wasn't out in the snow because I'm a Democrat. I wasn't out there because of you, either. I would've been out there no matter what. Based on what I saw, though, I'm not in the majority. Most of the 75% of our caucus who stood for you in the cold were out there because of you and your message.
Don't take them for granted. Remember them and why they showed up to participate in a process many cynically dismiss as utter bullshit. Think of them standing out in the snow chanting "Yes, we can" whenever you're tempted to abandon the good fight in favor of the expedient one.
Unless you're willing to tell Bob that he was a sucker for switching parties, you have an obligation.
Unless you're willing to tell Anthony that it wasn't worth skipping a night with his kids after a full day of arduous labor, you have an obligation.
Unless you're willing to look shivering Christi in the eyes and tell her that her attendance was a mere folly of youth, you have an obligation.
You have an obligation to my wife, Barack. She's voted in general elections before, but she's never felt motivated to turn out for a primary or a caucus before. She was there last night because of you. You have an obligation.
On the off-chance my daughter remembers last night, I want it to be as a precursor to a better country. I don't want her to smirk at the idea of people chanting "Yes, we can" because the world may later teach her otherwise. If you win, you'll be the first President she remembers. Don't screw that up.
You started this thing. Don't let it end with broken hearts, broken promises, broken spirits and a sentiment that the system itself is broken beyond all repair.
Yes, you can, Barack. We'll do our best to help.
John Brown of Kansas
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