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A Movie in the Making

Q&A with Rep. Neil Abercrombie

By Stuart Coleman // January 28, 2009 // Originally published on

NEIL ABERCROMBIE // Standing on the steps of the U.S. Capitol with his Congressional colleagues last Tuesday, Rep. Neil Abercrombie watched as Barack Obama was sworn in as America’s first African-American president. Looking out over the millions gathered to watch the historical event, he thought about Obama’s surreal, movie-like journey of his life: from his hanabata days in Honolulu to community organizing in Chicago to finally becoming leader of the nation. Abercrombie says Obama’s dream of being president began in the Islands, and he was there to witness the beginning of what is like the perfect movie in the making. Although he is a veteran congressman with tentative plans to run for governor, Rep. Abercrombie is also a writer and film buff with a keen eye for symbolism, acting and the art of politics.

Tell me about how you first got involved with Barack Obama’s presidential campaign.

The campaign started formally a couple of years ago, but years before that, I had indicated to him and others that I thought for sure he could be the presidential nominee in 2008 and that he would win it. It was clear to me just listening to him and speaking with him when he was out in Hawaii that he was an extraordinary personage. His message of hope and change came out of the idea of community and family. He mentioned these same things at his sister’s wedding out at Kualoa Ranch in 2003.

It’s amazing how it all unfolded in just a few years.

 I said to him at the time, “You know, there’s a great wave coming.” This wave of change, or this desire for change, was just rolling across the country. And I said, “It’s like any other wave, no matter how big, it eventually dissipates in the sand. And you either ride that wave or the wave rolls over you. It’s not a question of timing or planning. It’s a question of the time demanding someone to enter the fray. Someone’s going to be elected president. It doesn’t matter what you think about it—the election is coming like Christmas, and you can’t stop it. So the question is, Are you going to ride that wave or not?” And he obviously rode it and rode it beautifully.

What was the turning point in the campaign for you?

I think Iowa, no question. I had been campaigning all across the state, and I was just going into this auditorium when people ran through the doors, shouting, “We won! We won!” That proved to everyone that he was no fluke, that this was not some pop-culture phenomenon that was going to disappear. It proved that he was not a racial candidate per se and that his message of inclusion, of diversity defining us rather than dividing us, was scoring. People wanted to hear it, and he was the right vessel to bring that message.

If you had told the country at the beginning of the primaries that a young African-American named Barack Hussein Obama from Hawaii would become our next president, few would have believed it was possible.

 That’s because he became much more than that. Like I said, he was the right vessel to contain this message. The combination of physicality and delivery and that screen presence is the kind of thing that makes movie stars. It was amazing to me that he was being accused of being a celebrity. I thought to myself, “You guys don’t get it at all. That’s the whole point. He’s able to sell this message.” I don’t mean it in a cynical way. It was something where people said, “Yes, that’s exactly how I feel, that’s exactly what I want.” And it wasn’t much to go from “This is what I want to hear” to “He’s who I want to hear!”

How would you explain his transformational effect on people?

Like all great politicians, he’s a great actor. And what that means is that he’s able to deliver his lines in a way that embodies the role. And the role here is of chief executive of the United States, and he was auditioning for the part.

Would you say his campaign was probably the smartest political production ever run?

 Let me put it this way, you always want a good producer and director. So here you had talented directors and people who were associated with it. A campaign is a collaboration—it’s never about the star himself. That’s why he always says, “This is not about me.” And he’s right, that wasn’t just false modesty.

Was he always being genuine?

 Sure, because he understood perfectly well that he has a role to play here. I think Jerry Brown said, “The secret of successful campaigning is repetition of emotion.” That’s why great actors and politicians have a lot in common. You’ve got to mean it and get that message through every time you do it. When you have someone who can do that and understands what that’s about and then has a first-rate director and producer and supporting cast, it’s a phenomenon. And that’s what he had—he had a superb organization.

For the Inauguration to come right after Martin Luther King Day was perfect timing.

 Yes, it was a great coincidence, but it was a happy one, and it’s what’s happened to him all of his life. There’s another cliché about politics: You have to be good, but it’s better to be lucky. To be lucky and good at the same time, it’s unbeatable. And he’s been lucky in the sense of timing and things happening and coming his way. Branch Rickey, the man who brought Jackie Robinson up to the Dodgers, said, “Luck is the residue of design.” So whatever luck we did have we worked to get.

What was the highlight of the Inauguration for you?

 What could be a greater highlight than him being sworn in? That was the main thing, and waves of joy and energy were coming off the millions of people that were out there on the Mall, from the Capitol grounds and the reflecting pool and down to the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial.

Having seen that presidential timbre in him early on, you must have been amazed seeing him standing there in front of all those people?

 It’s almost too much to bear, and it leaves you a little breathless.

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