I have been burdened for several days with the notion that I needed to blog about the election somehow. And yet, the voice on my other shoulder would say, this is surely what everyone is doing. Would I not just be joining the crowd? And one of my colleagues has already written blogs about the nonverbal communication of the candidates, and communication is my specialty too. I don’t want to do the same thing he has already done. And I’m not a politico. I don’t have great knowledge of political history or strategy or theory. But I do have a few opinions.
As I buckled down to some of my other work, writing a guidebook about how to use stories in leadership, it dawned on me that this was my blog: the stories. For many of us, the stories stole our hearts. Obama’s stories are wonderful, and he used them very well in his campaign.
Barack Obama is a natural storyteller. Obama’s own story, being from a Kenyan father and a Kansan mother, living in Hawaii with his grandmother and in Indonesia with his mother and stepfather, and ending up at Harvard, is a powerful example of the American dream. He noted that such a story could only happen in the United States. It reminds us of our potential.
I am the son of a black man from Kenya and a white woman from Kansas. I was raised with the help of a white grandfather who survived a Depression to serve in Patton’s Army during World War II and a white grandmother who worked on a bomber assembly line at Fort Leavenworth while he was overseas. I’ve gone to some of the best schools in America and lived in one of the world’s poorest nations. I am married to a black American who carries within her the blood of slaves and slaveowners – an inheritance we pass on to our two precious daughters. I have brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews, uncles and cousins, of every race and every hue, scattered across three continents, and for as long as I live, I will never forget that in no other country on Earth is my story even possible.
He told the story of his grandmother, and it ended up being a heart-touching part of his campaign, when he went to visit her on what was to become her deathbed, even before all the votes were in. Obama’s grandmother raised him during part or most of his childhood. He spoke of her lovingly and frequently. He mentioned the efforts she made in his upbringing and inspired legions of grandmothers who are also raising their own grandchildren. He made a powerful connection. He reminds us of our responsibility.
McCain’s stories we had heard before, but we hadn’t heard them from him. In his nomination acceptance speech, he told us about his experience as a war prisoner, and we were moved. In a debate, he also told about a bracelet that he wears for a fallen soldier. Those were the only memorable stories from his campaign, really. There is still so much he has never told us. He has always been more private about his personal life, and this campaign was really no different. Barack Obama told us almost as much about McCain’s heroism as McCain did himself.
One of the most impactful stories President-elect Obama told us was about Ann Nixon Cooper, in the closing moments of his acceptance speech in Chicago on November 4. He used the specifics of her life as well as generalities of the time in which she has lived for 106 years to create a powerful story about the resiliency of America. The audience followed his lead into a stirring repetitive response of “Yes, we can.” He reminds us of our own heroism, and that of others.
Americans like stories. They want to hear their leaders tell stories, and they want to hear the stories of their heroes. Storytellers are healers, because they look for the issues that touch our hearts as well as our pocketbooks and they look for the deep issues that are important to us. Stories are memorable. They are an encapsulation of stuff that’s important, and they give us a way to remember it. Obama’s stories speak of love for family, commitment to deeply held values, commitment to education and service. They inspire us. They remind us of our own commitments and our possibilities. Yes, America loves stories, and I hope we will love telling Barack Obama’s story for years to come.