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On His Birthday, Obama Asks for Faith in Possibilities of Youth

LANSING, Mich.—Today Sen. Barack Obama stepped out to an adoring crowd chanting his name — as he had so many times before during the course of the primary and general campaign. But this time he walked out to greet his fans as a 47-year-old.

After the expected group sing-along of “Happy Birthday,” Obama responded by telling the 1,500 assembled that “there’s no place I would rather be on my birthday than Lansing, Mich.”

Um, yeah. Leaving the veracity of this statement aside, the sight of Obama, standing before 1,500, was a reminder of how much the concept of youth and experience have played into the tenor of this campaign. In many ways, the candidates are physical manifestations of what qualities age and youth bring to a position of power. Here is Sen. John McCain, the venerated war hero, and symbol of steadiness, with a record of accomplishment behind him. Then there’s Obama, whose youth and blazing energy symbolize a repudiation against everything Americans loathe about their elected officials: complacency, sluggishness, sloth.

Near the end of his life, the greatest of all great American architects, Frank Lloyd Wright told Mike Wallace in a CBS TV interview, “To me young has no meaning, it is something you can do nothing about. Nothing at all. But youth is a quality, and if you have it you never lose it.”

However, during the course of this campaign McCain has seemed to lose that quality. The once affable maverick at times has come off as angry and cantankerous; while Obama, well, hasn’t.

As much as Obama’s candidacy has brought forth images of John F. Kennedy’s presidential run in 1960, seeing him today on his birthday reminded me of historian David McCullough’s remarks as the 2003 Jefferson Lecturer in the Humanities in Washington:

“They were nearly all young men in 1776,” McCullough said, “it should be remembered, young men who believed, as Thomas Paine proclaimed, that the birth of a new world was at hand.

“Jefferson was 33, Adams, 40, Benjamin Rush, the Philadelphia physician, was all of 30 when he signed the Declaration of Independence….When George Washington took command of the army, he was 43,” McCullough continued. “He had never led an army in battle before in his life, any more than the others had had prior experience as revolutionaries or nation-builders.”

Granted one should be careful to put Obama in the same sentence as the men who charted the course of the revolution and began the American experiment. However, McCullough’s words are a reminder that we were born a nation led by men whose youth gave them a certain audacity to move out into that dangerous and total unknown. It is a distant, but similar, unknown Obama is asking of his constituents and fellow citizens all these years later. It is a faith in the infinite possibilities of youth.

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