Video still by Jim Manion

Barack Obama's victory in the 2008 Democratic Primary does seem to hold out the potential for real change. Americans may have reason for hope. Maybe.

Anyone who has read a word I've written these past 30-plus years had better be firmly planted if he or she plans on reading any further.

Let me just get it out there. The Barack Obama phenomenon has persuaded me that Americans may be catching on. The nation's Great Black Hope and the national Democratic Party, dare I say it out loud, have given me some hope.

I've not felt this way since the June 1968 morning I sat in my 1962 Chevrolet Impala convertible before school waiting on my girlfriend to emerge from her apartment. It was there, in the Kingston Square parking lot on Indianapolis' east side, that I heard on the radio that Bobby Kennedy had been assassinated.

Coming less than five years after John Kennedy's and two months after Martin Luther King's murders, it was hard to put too much hope into any one individual after that. It didn't seem like the good died young, as the song Abraham, Martin and John said. They died, regardless of their ages.


My fragile, newfound optimism hasn't come easy. I didn't even attend Obama's speech at Assembly Hall. I opted instead to bring my camera bag -- knowing bags of any kind were prohibited in the building -- and shoot photographs of people outside. All those suckers for hope.

As a member in good standing in the Indiana media pool, I was on Obama's e-mail list and had followed his state campaign. (I didn't get a single communique from the Clintons, but I regularly heard from McCain. Go figure.)

By Indiana primary night, the Obama effort felt like politics-as-usual.

For example, I had learned from sources in Evansville that the senator had professed support for I-69 during a stop there. I sent his press people a question from an I-69 activist, and they had ignored me.

A friend and colleague sent me information on Obama's campaign contributions from Wall Street concerns, and they mirrored Hilary Clinton's, contributor-by-contributor, practically dollar-for-dollar.

Largely based on those two pieces of evidence, I nearly penned a column writing him off the Sunday before the primary. The only reason I didn't was that I didn't want to piss on the hope of some people I admire, respect and/or love.

And I did have a gut feeling that they might be right, that Obama was only doing what he had to do to get elected and offers the best hope for meaningful change in America in decades, since June 1968, to be exact.

Besides, I was raised to be a racist but left the farm after hearing Jesse Jackson chant "I am, somebody," outside the governor's mansion on North Meridian Street my senior year in high school and reading James Baldwin, Eldridge Cleaver and Angela Davis in college.

I voted for Jesse Jackson in 1988 and just couldn't I bring myself to disparage the first African-American who really could be president. I would like to see that day.


I am also old enough to have witnessed our democracy work, as well as it seems capable.

My political memory pretty much dates to the first Catholic being elected president. Specifically I recall Chuck Callahan Jr.'s "Kennedy for President" hat and his instruction that if anyone asked, he wasn't a Catholic. He was, and I was intrigued.

I remember a Southerner signing the Civil Rights Act, the Supreme Court ruling on Roe v. Wade, and Richard Nixon signing the Clean Air and Water Acts and withdrawing troops from Vietnam.

All of those and other progressive steps were the results of elected officials reacting to the will of the public, through the civil rights, environmental, women's and peace movements. Richard Nixon was no environmentalist or peacenik. A functioning American democracy left him no choice.

I felt some of that RFK hope when I cast my first vote for George McGovern in 1972, even though I had written a political science paper fall semester castigating him for selling out after he got the Democratic nomination.

The early to mid-70s were some of America's best. Everyone was fed and housed. Jimmy Carter campaigned on a platform of decriminalizing small amounts of marijuana and put solar panels on the White House roof after he was elected in 1976.

And the bastards pretty much left us the hell alone.


Carter's 1979 decision to allow the Shah of Iran, a brutal, U.S.-backed dictator, into the United States for medical treatment spawned the Iranian hostage crisis that gave the world the Ronald Reagan presidency and the modern American conservative movement.

Reagan was elected in 1980 and directed America down the path to melting ice caps, Rodney King, Enron, 9/11 and the Iraq War. After 20 years of Bush-Clinton-Bush, they can legally listen to, watch and read anything we do.

Hell, I've been writing about Indiana's environment for more than a quarter century. We're No. 49. How could anyone expect me to trust anyone in 2008?

Then came the end of the primary season and Obama's victory over Hilary Clinton, who disqualified herself from consideration when she voted to authorize George W. Bush's cataclysmic blunder into Iraq.

Clinton really had kicked Obama's ass in the waning stages of the campaign. Had voters in Michigan and Florida had competitive primary elections, she likely would have had the stronger argument for the Democratic nomination, and big money and old ways may very well have carried the day, again.

Instead, this black man, whose path to great personal wealth and power was unimpeded but chose instead community organizing on the south side of Chicago, is now poised to become the next president of the United States.

The cultural and historical aspects of this phenomenon aside, Obama has tapped into the real issues of the day, those that impact the people directly: social, environmental and economic justice.

His message and the public and media response, plus the reactions of Democratic Party leaders, suggest that it just might be time for a real change in America. At the very least, it's time to sit back and watch, not to piss into the winds of hope.

It's a long time between now and November, though. Barack Obama is no George McGovern, but this is still post-9/11 Amerika. Hence the name of this column -- cynical optimism.


I tried to finish this column before watching a documentary on Robert Kennedy that I had rented, a film whose title I won't even write. I was afraid it would dilute this surreal feeling of hope.

The RFK video confirmed suspicions and answered questions I've had for decades, with names and faces, but it didn't blow my mood. MLK and RFK were products of the people and the times. The movements that empowered them have outlived them.

It could happen again. At least I hope.

Steven Higgs can be reached at .