Can I Just Tell You?Can I Just Tell You? NPR's Michel Martin gives a distinct take on news and issues

Obama's Climb Says a Mouthful

The program's host weighs in on the meaning of White House hopeful Sen. Barack Obama's recent win at the Iowa caucuses and surge in popularity.

Copyright © 2008 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

Finally, I want to talk about the Obama phenomenon. And no, I'm not making an endorsement. We don't do that here. Plus, it's too much fun covering the campaign.

But I do want to talk about what I think his success so far means - to me, anyway. I was thinking about this because as I was listening to all the post-Iowa commentary this weekend, I was thinking about something Denzel Washington said in an interview he did with us just before Christmas. We were talking about his new film, "The Great Debaters," based on a story of the winning debate teams produced by the tiny all-black Wiley College during the Depression years, when blacks were routinely treated like second class citizens in every sense of the term. I asked Mr. Washington if there was anyone in particular he hoped would see this film, and what he hoped they'd get from it. And he said, quite sensibly, that that all depended on who you were and what you were bringing to it.

What I got from the film, what I liked most about it was its passionate argument for excellence, for learning the rules, even if the rules are rigged. The film made a case that true excellence is not inherited. It is earned, and that excellence will be its own reward, even if that reward is long in coming. Obviously, what I'm bringing to that formulation is my own biography, my own belief in the power of words, of education, of mastery. I'm dismayed by the idea promulgated consciously or unconsciously by those on all sides of the political spectrum at one point or another that really, only a few of us have ever supposed to do anything or be anybody, be anointed to be determined by rules that seem to change all the time.

Could I just tell you I think the Obama phenomenon is an argument for excellence as well? It's a warrant for learning the game, even if when it's a game you're never supposed to win. He played by the rules, a black man achieving victory in a state that's 97 percent white, a child of mixed heritage in a country where interracial marriage was once against the law. The son of an immigrant in a country that loves and fears immigrants at the same time, often in a same sentence. He set up an organization staffed by the veterans of previous campaigns who learned from the mistakes of predecessors and then bent that organization to their purpose.

This is not to take anything away from Hillary Clinton or John Edwards or Bill Richardson or Mike Huckabee or Mitt Romney or John McCain. Lord knows that being a high-powered professional woman in the law and politics is its own cross to bear, that rising from poverty to the top of the legal profession and then trying to use that expertise to offer hope to others is worthy of praise. That achievement in many areas, diplomacy, government and politics is properly a source to pride, even more so for a man of Latino heritage. That putting one's faith in the service of the world is worthy. That being a pioneer in figure for a little understood religion is a burden and responsibility. That serving one's country as a prisoner of war is an act of sacrifice that cannot be acknowledged often enough.

But having said all that, race has been the hangman's noose that has killed dreams, stifled potential, murdered progress in this country for hundreds of years. Even if the Obama steamroller ends tomorrow, his success so far has proven that race is no longer the determinant of human potential in this country. A passion for excellence is, or can be.

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MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.

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Can I Just Tell You?Can I Just Tell You? NPR's Michel Martin gives a distinct take on news and issues