When Obama wept

This video of Obama speaking to and thanking volunteers in Chicago yesterday is making the rounds because Obama tears up at the end. For someone who's always so calm and collected (he's often criticized by those who read it as an ironic detachment), it's a striking moment of emotion.

Though it's the first time I'd seem him cry, a few people sent me some other examples. 

This past Monday, the night before the election, Obama spoke in Iowa. He begins his speech as his usual controlled self, and what's moving about the moment he sheds his first tears is how he gets there. He tells the story of how Iowa was where many of the first youth volunteers helped launch his election campaign. And as he recalls stories of volunteers trying to stay warm because the heater was broken, or a volunteer painting a mural on one of the bare walls, he travels back to the roots of why he got into politics, and his tears seem to come from a real gratitude towards his volunteer corps. They say the greatest salesmen (or liars, if you're more cynical) are those who believe their own schtick, and it seems true of politicians, too.

This wasn't the first time he shed tears on the eve of an election. n the eve of the 2008 election, Obama learned that his grandmother Madeline had passed away. Early in this clip from the documentary By the People, you can see a closeup of Obama shedding more than a few tears as he recalls his grandmother and then transitions to his hope to bring change to the country.

If there's a common thread that runs through these three instances, it's that he seems to cry only in moments when he's speaking of why he got into politics to the people who worked on his behalf. Plenty will be too cynical to believe a politician's tears, but the body language has me convinced. It makes narrative sense, that got into politics as a community organizer and who believes in empowering people of all races to effect change would feel most emotionally vulnerable at those moments when he'd be confronted by thousands of them, many of whom had put in hundreds of hours on his behalf.

I volunteered on Obama's two Presidential campaign runs, doing a variety of things from canvassing to calling people. I can't lie, it's not fun or glamorous work. In fact, lots of it can be plain unpleasant. I can't think of two more uncomfortable things for someone of my personality to do than to knock on someone's door or cold call someone and speak to them about politics. The occasional crazy bigot who shouts the n-word at you is enough to leave you stirred and shaken with a variety of emotions, none of them positive.

It seems crazy to believe that anyone could rise out of a lifetime in politics without having their soul charred black with cynicism, but perhaps we have it all wrong, and it's only those who can retain some deep-seated idealism in the face of all evidence to the contrary that can survive that long in the game.

FOOTNOTE: On the topic of great moments in politicians crying, I can't leave out one for the pantheon, from the documentary The War Room, James Carville thanking the volunteer staff from Clinton's 1992 re-election campaign. The War Room is now available as a Criterion DVD, but you can also stream it in its entirety for free at Hulu. Carville's speech begins at around 1:13:45 in the Hulu stream. It's a short and wonderful speech.