Michael Chabon Gives Himself Permission to Support Barack Obama

Michael Chabon, the Pulitzer Prize winning writer, has been one of the first among the famous in California to support publicly Barack Obama's bid for the presidency. Yesterday on the steps of City Hall in San Francisco he told us why. When he first encountered Obama, "I had to give myself permission to feel hope." After years of cynicism about politics, "I had to tell myself it would be okay." Chabon is now convinced that "we can aspire as a nation, to build, to heal, not just to patch up and to prop up." Echoing Obama, Chabon says, "I had to allow myself to do something I had never done before in my life--to believe." Chabon asserts what Senator Obama, after Clinton's bounce back in New Hampshire, must henceforward prove: that he is not just a symbol or a demagogue (Chabon's noun) but a man who can validate the confidence people like Chabon and other early supporters have placed in him.

Chabon, unlike many voters, has not waited to be convinced. Supporting Obama, he says, "requires me to put my trust in the best part of myself and other people." If you stop to think about it, this is an extraordinary leap of faith for a post-modern novelist. Chabon thinks that an Obama presidency can "repair the damage fear has led us to inflict on ourselves and others. It can bring us a little truer to our better natures." Chabon has done a lot of background research in nineteenth-century America for his novels. Is that why he's suddenly channeling Abraham Lincoln? Regardless of the source (Lincoln or Obama, or both), Chabon lifts the quotidian day-after-defeat press conference to the verge of the empyrean. Last Saturday in the pre-primary debate at St. Anselm's College, answering Clinton's charge that all his talk of change was just that, Barack Obama stood by his rhetoric. "Words do inspire." This moment, it seems to me, was the significant one (not Edwards's attack or Clinton's anger) at St. Anselm's. Now here several days later stands Michael Chabon affirming the same truth. He's the epitome of hipster in his slightly-worn three-quarter length black leather coat and tweed fedora sporting a jaunty feather. As a bestseller scribbler, he is, of course, wealthy. He's the culture of materialism that envelops all of us; but he speaks, like Obama, for that part of us yearning for the ineffable, made flesh in mere words.

The community leaders who have to follow Chabon on the podium joke about it. The stated purpose of the San Francisco press conference (one of four around the state at noon) is to introduce a baker's dozen of new Northern California endorsements for Obama. With its characteristic insouciance, the Bay Area team holds its event on the threshold of the domain of San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, who has been an early supporter of Hillary Clinton. Behind the staged theatrics, however, is an important development. Although the support for Obama among Democratic politicians in California is still mostly second and third tier, their numbers are growing--if not quite "the groundswell of endorsements" that Steve Westly (Ebay wiz, former state controller and Obama CA co-chair) proclaims before Chabon speaks. The significance is the way in which support for Obama is rooting. A majority of the San Francisco Board of Education now endorse him, as well as the president of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. Outreach into the Hispanic and Asian-Pacific Islander communities is deepening.

Steve Westly brings "another wild renegade to the podium," Bill Bagley, a former state assemblyman and former Republican who is now head of Independents for Obama here. "I was on the [University of California] Board of Regents for thirteen years. I was a proud supporter of [Governor George] Deukmejian," Bagley asserts. "But now I'm a 'decline to state' voter, and my ballot arrives today." Bagley reminds us that Independents (the "decline to state"), who are twenty percent of the California electorate, cannot vote in the Republican primary, but they can in the Democratic. As in New Hampshire, therefore, the Independent vote will matter in California. "I'm eighty years-old," Bagley says, "and I've seen how the far right and the far left have destroyed politics in America." But like Michael Chabon he sees something in Barack Obama, a something that could restore "political civility and decency."

Are Chabon, Bagley and Westly caught up in one of those utopian moments to which we as Americans are prone? Or are they riding in the vanguard of history? Whatever the answer, on the ground the battle for California between Clinton and Obama is taking shape. Among his troops, Obama has the scrappier pols, those who are closer to the electorate. As for the voters themselves, "we'll put in the field the largest most sophisticated grassroots effort the state has ever seen," Steve Westly promises. Grassroots is the mantra of the California Obama Campaign. I speak for a moment with Brent Messenger, Mr. Grassroots himself, who runs the Obama Campaign in the Bay Area. At the Oakland HQ phone banking party the night before, Messenger had told me he wasn't getting too excited just yet because there was a long way to go. The room was jammed with volunteers, and every few minutes a bell rang to signify another "number one"--a committed voter. This was just before the late afternoon news coverage from New Hampshire, when pundits and polls were still predicting an Obama blowout. Today on the steps of San Francisco City Hall, I remark to Brent Messenger upon his prescience. "I just had a feeling," he said. "That's why I wanted last night's phone banking to be festive--a party."

Messenger ends the press conference with dispatch. "We have a war on our hands," he says. Indeed. As goes California, so goes the nation. One of the new Obamafolk has just said it from the steps. And all of us Californians believe it.