It is hard to separate out all the different levels of astonishment and euphoria attached to Barack Obama's acceptance speech tonight. For many people, Obama's triumph thus far so fundamentally shatters the worldview of what is possible in America that there are no words up to the task of describing what they feel.
For black Americans in particular, there is a head-shaking, never-in-my-lifetime quality to the entire episode that is impossible to shake. It is almost as if it is a dream. All week in Denver, there has been the extra edge in the cheers of some who appear to be doing something a little more than supporting their own candidate; they appear to be shouting back at history.
After Biden and Michelle, Bill and Hillary, Kennedy and Warner, after all the roll calls ringing into the night, there is the improbable truth of Barack Obama, Democratic nominee for president.
Set aside the history-making racial component of Obama's acceptance of the nomination, set aside the fact that in 232 years of the republic, only twice have sitting senators won the presidency. Set aside that Barack Obama was up against one of the most formidable political dynasties in modern memory. The sheer speed and force of Obama's meteoric rise is unprecedented in the annals of American politics. The only similar ascent came in 1896, when William Jennings Bryan won the GOP nomination after only two terms in the House.
With two best-selling books under his belt, Obama has developed a somewhat deserved reputation for introspection and self-analysis. In an interview in a dingy campaign office in Springfield, Ill. in June 2004, in the days before he delivered his speech in Boston, Obama meditated on his good luck so far and told me: "A useful quality I have is that the more things seem to be breaking my way, the more stressed I get."
It promises to be very stressful, indeed. Especially considering that all of this has happened in just four years.
In 2004, John Kerry introduced Barack Obama to the Democratic Party and the American people, by inviting him to deliver the keynote address at the Democratic Convention in Boston. Up until that night, Obama, the young candidate for the U.S. Senate from Illinois, had not delivered a speech using a teleprompter. Four short years later, Obama's words have captivated the nation, ransacked the old political order and given him control of a Democratic Party that had not heard of him five years ago.
With his lanky frame draped behind the convention podium four years ago in Boston, Obama tried to put himself in context: "Tonight is a particular honor for me because, let's face it, my presence on this stage is pretty unlikely."
Even now, as he stands on the brink of the presidency, his presence on stage tonight remains hard to grasp.
It is more than skillful Republican messaging to note that Obama's record in public service is fairly brief and his legislative accomplishments are fairly modest. But from the beginning of his political ascent, his impact has been powerful. Four years ago as he sought an open seat in the Senate, Obama partisans were fond of describing his political talents in superlatives. One newspaper columnist hyperventilated, without any irony, that if Obama won, he would represent the best political talent to come out of Illinois. It is exactly the kind of hyperbolic, aspirational thing you'd expect to hear about new talent— but one hardly expects the reality to match the fantasy so quickly.
The journey from Boston to Denver has been supersonic. By the time he launched his bid for president outside the Old State House where Lincoln delivered his "A House Divided" speech, Obama had been in the Senate for two years. To the extent that it was notable, he had demonstrated an interest in nuclear disarmament, he had been tapped to lead the Democrats' fight on ethics in the Senate, and he had voted with Republicans to limit class-action lawsuits. He voted no on the confirmation of Alberto Gonzales to be attorney general and yes on the confirmation of Condoleezza Rice to be secretary of state.
But whatever he did, as the only African American in the U.S. Senate, he was watched. And in a very basic way, what that keen gaze put on Barack Obama's disposal, and what he has used to great effect, was a stage a national platform on which to display his gifts.
In the opening passages of the Boston keynote, Obama said that the true genius of America is a "faith in simple dreams, an insistence on small miracles."
But of all the miracles that converged to bring Obama to this moment, none of them have been small.
Terence Samuel is deputy editor of The Root.