February 21st 2018

World / Africa & Diaspora

The Obama I will remember

In the cadence of an African-American preacher, Obama moved the nation with soaring rhetoric, before crashing both the Clinton Machine in the Democratic Party and, that historic November, the Republican Party.

By Jesse Masaijesse.masai@gmail.comFriday, 20 Jan 2017 11:56 EAT

Barack Obama addressing journalists at his last press conference as U.S. president yesterday.

In May 2008, I found myself in the summer heat of Washington DC, a few weeks after the disputed 2007 polls, in which I had been a youthful, if naïve player in Kenya’s fluid North Rift. This was my second sojourn in the land of the free and home of the brave, following my previous incarnation as an undergraduate student in the George W. Bush years at the nearby State of Pennsylvania. 

Now on a fellowship at a conservative think-tank, my education in the American experiment continued in improbable ways. In classrooms, field trips, public testimonies and media appearances, I saw first-hand the contested nature of American life, and how its varied notions of public policy often take shape. 

At about that time, a young Barack Obama was taking the American nation with a storm. Where my Republican friends were suing for limited government, ordered liberty, a bullish foreign policy and traditional family values, the Kenyan-American was seeking bigger government, a restrained foreign policy and a more nuanced vision of the family. 

His speech on race relations in Philadelphia, following incendiary remarks from Jeremiah Wright – his pastor – might, just perhaps, belong to the ages. In the cadence of an African-American preacher, Obama moved the nation with soaring rhetoric, before crashing both the Clinton Machine in the Democratic Party and, that historic November, the Republican Party.

Minorities of all shades found immense inspiration in his victory, with some pundits celebrating the prophetic vision of a post-racial presidency in both the movie Head of State and Aaron Sorkin’s much-storied television series, The West Wing. To have been in DC during the campaigns, election night that November and the swearing in early 2009 felt historic. 

While the last two events found me on fellowship at two other conservative think-tanks, the all-American feeling was considerably widespread, perhaps only comparable to our own euphoric moment with Mwai Kibaki following the 2002 elections. The one thing I remember the most from the early months of the first Obama administration was how it grappled with the 2008/2009 financial crisis. 

I shudder to imagine how I would have pulled through that season without the bi-weekly cheques of gracious employers, and the generous support of friends. Wall Street was in shambles, but the milk of human kindness kept me going, and my trips to Bank of America more hopeful. Apart from our very own post-election violence in 2007/8, perhaps no other major event has had a more personal impact on my worldview. 

To their credit, veteran journalists Macharia Gaitho (with the Nation Media Group), Dennis Onyango and Mutuma Mathiu (with The Standard) sought regular contributions from Kenyans in the diaspora – myself included - on the unfolding events. Their decision to rely less on international wire services greatly inspired those of us who had for a while mused about the potency of communication systems in Africa. 

One story will particularly remain etched on my mind. Two weeks after the elections during which he had dominated the media with speculations about his association with United States President-elect Barack Obama, Weather Underground veteran Bill Ayers took to the lecture circuit. In the campaigns, Republican presidential nominee John McCain and his running mate Sarah Palin had accused Mr Obama of “palling around with terrorists”, a reference to links with Mr Ayers, who gained notoriety as leader of the radical Weather Underground group during the anti-Vietnam War protests in the 1960s.

Mr Ayers had been unapologetic about a series of bombings targeting the US establishment, including the Supreme Court and the Pentagon defence department headquarters. Mr Obama allegedly launched his 2004 campaign for the US Senate in Ayers’ living room, and had served on education boards with him in Chicago.

At Georgetown Law one evening, the University of Illinois professor of education revisited his radical past, suggesting that his behavior and actions in the 1960s may have been “illegal and extreme” but not terrorist. What he had billed to be a talk about wrongful convictions and their place in conversations on social justice turned into a post-mortem on his politics and association with Obama.

“I would love to be remembered as a good father, a good grandfather. The Associated Press should write that if it is here,” he said, while responding to questions from nearly 50 students of law, whom he asked to help bring closure to debate about the 1960s.

Some had their backs to the wall in protest as he spoke. He advised those still poring over the elections and Obama’s victory to turn off the “television and go read a novel.”

As a journalist, it was priceless watching these aftershocks of the election. It would be equally priceless to later cover Obama as he addressed the Kenyan nation at the Safaricom International Stadium in Kasarani, Nairobi, on his visit last year. 

Of such moments is the rough draft of history made. In the new Donald Trump era, we can only wait to see what the next four – if not eight years – might bring.

The writer is Nyandarua County’s Director for Communication and Public Relations. The views expressed here are his own. (@JesseMasai)

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