Twenty-five thousand people gathered in a field opposite Duke Centennial Hall at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte late this afternoon to see Barack Obama make his second-to-last appearance on the last day of his presidential campaign. The weather had been fine all day long, but as soon as Obama’s jet touched down, the skies began to darken — and as we waited for him to take the stage, the heavens opened up and a vicious downpour began.
One always wants to avoid metaphorizing the weather, but certainly there was something apt about the sudden cloudburst, given what we learned on the bus ride over to campus from the airport: Obama’s grandmother, Madelyn Dunham, died this morning in Hawaii after a long battle with cancer at the age of 86. The news was not exactly shocking; we all knew that Dunham was gravely ill, otherwise Obama would never have taken the time to visit her in the home stretch of the campaign. Still, that this woman — who was Obama’s guardian for years while his mother lived in Indonesia, whom he fondly called Toot, and who referred to him as Bear — has succumbed now, a little more than 24 hours before her grandson will most likely be elected the first black president of the United States, is almost unspeakably sad.
It’s testament to Obama’s unfathomable degree of self-containment that he was informed of Dunham’s passing around 8 a.m. and yet had gone about his business earlier today without betraying the slightest hint of grief. His speech this morning in Jacksonville was rousing and fiery. He recalled that on September 15 — a day that will, if the polls hold, be remembered as a decisive turning point in the election — John McCain appeared at the very same venue, and, in the face of the unfolding financial meltdown, declared that “the fundamentals of our economy are strong.” “Well, Florida, you and I know that’s not only fundamentally wrong, it also sums up his out-of-touch, on-your-own economic philosophy,” Obama said, “a philosophy that will end when I am president of the United States of America.”
On the way to the event at UNC, however, Obama stopped by his Charlotte campaign HQ to shake hands with volunteers, take some photos, and call a few voters. When one of those voters apparently raised the subject of health care, Obama turned away from the pool reporters and said into the phone, “Obviously this is happening in my own family … my grandmother stayed at home until recently.” When he turned back, he was visibly deflated, looking glum and tired.
When Obama finally arrives in the field, the rain has stopped, the crowd is drenched, and they are ready for him. He steps to the podium and begins his speech with a remembrance of his grandma. He says, “She died peacefully in her sleep with my sister at her side, and so there’s great joy as well as tears.” He says, “She has gone home.” He says, haltingly, “I’m not going to talk about it too long because it’s hard to talk about.” Even so, he says, he wants everyone to know a little about her and tells her story briefly. He calls her a “quiet hero” — like a lot of quiet heroes in the crowd, in the country. “They’re not famous. Their names aren’t in the newspaper. But each and every day, they work hard. They watch out for their families. They sacrifice for their families … That’s what America’s about. That’s what we’re fighting for.”
As Obama says all this, his voice is mostly steady, but tears are streaming down his right cheek — the first public tears he has shed, as far as I know, in his time on the national stage. When he finishes, he reaches inside his pocket, pulls out a white handkerchief, wipes his eyes, then carries on with his speech, returning a few times to the woman who shaped his character as much as anyone in the world.
It would be banal to point out the drama of this moment, the absurdly novelistic timing of it — yet another plot twist in this astonishing campaign that would be laughed out of a Hollywood pitch meeting for its sheer degree of incredibility. Better, perhaps, to end simply with this: Whatever happens tomorrow, Toot, ya done good.