Hot night, New York: a little breeze in the trees in the deep stone canyons as I look out my window, thousands of little lighted windows of private lives, one of which is mine. I'm reminded of this by the fact that a hundred feet away, a man stands at a window looking through binoculars that seem to be trained precisely on me, and though he surely would prefer looking at someone more exciting than a tall bespectacled man in black T-shirt and jeans, a man who is not jumping around playing air guitar or fastening his hair to his head with strips of tape or unzipping the dress of a beautiful woman, nonetheless he is focused on me, and I don't leap back from the window in horror -- I feel (slightly) honored by his attention.
This is what we do in the big city: We look at each other. I take my sandy-haired daughter on the subway down to Houston Street and she sits, holding my hand, gazing into faces and because it is the subway and not the Cold Spring Harbor Sailing Regatta, there is an astonishing variety of faces, all shades, all shapes, all hairstyles from punk to post-hair. Back where I come from, we are rather similar -- it's like the old joke about the little ant who was confused because all his uncles were ants -- but in New York there's plenty to catch your eye. I have to remind her of the five-second rule. You can stare at anybody for five seconds but then you have to look away. Look, but don't make a scene.
And now we are all staring at Barack Obama, who is -- if you listen to him on the radio -- a commanding presence and a towering candidate for president. I heard the speech he gave in St. Paul to an arena full of supporters, and the man can give a speech. Nobody else surfs on applause like Obama and drives his point home, and it all sounds as if he were telling you what he thinks and not reading off a Plexiglas reflector.
But when you look closely at him he is a skinny young black guy, and this is going to be a problem for some folks.
The year my father graduated from high school, Duke Ellington toured the country with his 15-piece orchestra, playing his hits "Mood Indigo" and "Don't Get Around Much Anymore" and "It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)" to ballrooms packed with his fans, but things being what they were, they traveled in a private railroad car because you just never knew if you could get a hotel room or a meal in a restaurant or be turned away by some jerk in a suit and tie.
They were all black, but Juan Tizol, the trombonist, was fairly light-skinned and had to wear blackface so nobody would think the band was integrated.
Ellington didn't complain. He loved his work and he was cool and he didn't deign to address bigotry -- he just played right through it.
That era is not so distant. A culture doesn't turn on a dime. Race is a part of this race, even though nobody wants to think so. But Obama has gifts that transcend race and his own slim résumé. On the radio, he is an orator resurrected from a distant time when people had higher standards for that sort of thing. He is graceful and quick and possessed of confidence, and if you like the English language you'll find a lot to admire in him. People can dismiss the importance of speaking, but that is a big part of the job he's running for.
We've lost 4,000 men and women in Iraq and induced vast destruction and misery, and all for a cause that has never been set forth in words that most Americans can understand and accept, and now the great majority of our people see the 4,000 as having lost their lives in a dishonest cause that was botched from the start. That is the failure of the Current Occupant. Whenever he steps to the podium, public confidence drops like a rock. He's not a leader, he's just a regular feller.
I know plenty of regular fellers, some smarter than others, and at the moment I am leaning toward Obama. He has those gifts and when he launches forth against the dismal darkness of recent Republicanism, he is throwing nothing but strikes.
(Garrison Keillor's "A Prairie Home Companion" can be heard Saturday nights on public radio stations across the country.)
© 2008 by Garrison Keillor. All rights reserved. Distributed by Tribune Media Services, Inc.