Inquirer.net’s Global Nation Section
Text and videos by Ted Regencia
CHICAGO — Pressed against the steel railings, I struggled to keep myself from being completely crushed by the delirious crowd, all wanting to shake the hands of their idol. It was past 11 pm in Des Moines last January, and Barack Obama had just finished delivering his speech following a decisive victory in the Iowa Caucus that would propel him to the Democratic nomination.
Anxious not to miss a single moment, I feverishly clicked on my camera, now completely aimed on the subject who was inching closer and closer to me. All of a sudden, I hear Secret Service agents barking orders to people, “show your hands; show your hands.” It was part of the security measure to protect the candidate.
I had to clear my hands too. The next thing I knew, I was face-to-face with the would-be American president. He extended his right hand to me and flashed a toothy smile. All I could say was, “Thank You” as he I shook his rather skinny hand and looked him in the eye. Thank you? What was I thinking?
In fact, it was an improvement from the last time. In 2005, I had a chance to meet the freshman Illinois senator for the first time, when he campaigned for a Filipino-American candidate for village board in a Chicago suburb. I was completely tongue-tied. And I am the kind who rarely gets star-struck.
Nevertheless, both encounters were very memorable to me, because let’s face it, meeting Obama was pretty unlikely for me. I’m from an obscure barrio called Dap-dap in a small town in northwestern Mindanao. That’s about 9,000 miles and a Pacific Ocean away from Chicago. But there I was, a greenhorn journalist savoring a snapshot of history. I, who used to walk the few kilometers of dirt road to and from my elementary school, now working as a reporter in the big city.
I would also end up covering Obama’s announcement to seek the presidency on a very very cold February morning in 2007, in Springfield, capital of Illinois and political home base of Abraham Lincoln. A couple of months after, I also covered Obama’s Super Tuesday rally here in Chicago, his adopted hometown. But I would not get as close to him as when I was in Iowa.
In 2004, I interviewed Senator Obama by phone. He was only a state senator at that time, running for his current seat in the US Senate. But at that point, he had already achieved national prominence after delivering a powerful speech during the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston.
“It was a great honor to be able to speak to the nation. I am very flattered,” Obama told me.
During the same interview, Obama also said that despite his left-leaning, pro-choice politics, he has a lot in common with the more conservative Filipino-American voters.
“I always believe that labels don’t mean a lot to most people. You just have to show them that they can trust you to fight for the things that they care about, such as the delivery of healthcare, good education for their children, and creation of jobs,” he said.
“Ultimately, what the average guy on the street cares about is, how to pay the bills, save for his kid’s college education. That’s what really matters to voters,” Obama added.
“I also believe that people should be rewarded for their hard work and I know that Filipinos are hard-working people,” he said. As a young man who grew up in Hawaii, Obama also said that he had good memories of his encounters with many Filipinos there.
On immigration, Obama expressed his support for proposals that would give long-time undocumented residents a “path to citizenship”. “Obviously after 9/11, there were changes that we have to impose to secure our borders. At the same time, we have to recognize that the United States is a country of immigrants. The continuing influx of new immigrants, the new energy and ideas that they bring, that’s what make this country even more dynamic,” he said.
One other thing that struck me was his honesty. When I asked him how he could help Filipino veterans of the World War II, he readily admitted that he was “not familiar” with the issue. It was a refreshing answer because politicians usually tell people what they want to hear, and say anything even if they know nothing.
Obama was quick to add: “But this I can say, any man or woman who served his or her country must be properly honored and cared for.”
He followed through on that promise when he came to Washington D.C., by supporting $221 million worth of benefits for the Filipino veterans. Voting on the bill, he said, “for far too long, these heroes have been denied benefits they are owed.”
At the time of that interview, the political world was already buzzing about Obama as a “future presidential candidate” and I asked him about that. He replied, “It is not something I take seriously. At this point, I am working to win this Senate contest and serve all the people of the State of Illinois.”
How amazing that after four short years, essentially a sprint for an American politician, Obama is now on the brink of taking his place in the annals of history, as the first African American president. And I’m here to witness it unfold.