Barack Obama’s star-turn speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston sounds just as good now as it did eight years ago. It was hours before that performance that Obama told a reporter, “I’m LeBron, baby!” The boast is considered sheer hubris by his detractors, but it wasn’t such a bad self-assessment. The background noise of Obama’s 2004 speech is the low rumble of a political rocket about to slip the surly bonds of earth.
In the C-SPAN footage, Jesse Jackson stands and applauds, not realizing how thoroughly he would be eclipsed by the young African-American politician from Illinois. Hillary Clinton brims with joy, having no idea that she would be beaten by the newcomer for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination. “OH-BAH-MAH!” chants fill the arena — the first time most of the nation hears the name that will soon enough become iconic.
“Political genius,” Otto von Bismarck once said, “consists of hearing the distant hoofbeat of the horse of history and then leaping to catch the passing horseman by the coattails.” Obama’s speech in Boston was the first sign that he was about to grab hold for a hell of a ride.
But 2004 was a beautiful mirage. Very little that was distinctive or stirring from the convention speech survived first contact with the reality of Barack Obama. Back then, he lambasted “the negative-ad peddlers who embrace the politics of ‘anything goes.’” Now his campaign is a demolition machine with no regard for the truth. Then, he said, “There is not a black America and a white America and a Latino America.” Now he wants to squeeze as many votes as possible out of a few key demographic groups. Then, he lamented how pundits “like to slice and dice our country into red states and blue states.” Now he presides over an electorate that is profoundly polarized by him.