“Alex Okrent possessed a tenacious drive and an indefatigable spirit, both of which he applied in the fierce pursuit to further progressive values in the election, support, and re-election of Barack Obama. The entire Obama family mourns his loss tonight. We don’t frequently refer to ourselves as a family, but moments like these serve to remind us that we are bound by our shared experiences in ways we don’t consider as we move from state to state or job to job. Alex was part of the family. He was a brother. He will be sorely missed by all who knew him, worked with him, and fought beside him.” — Graves Spindler
In 2004, I witnessed the Democratic National Convention in Boston firsthand. As a founding member of an organization called 2020 Democrats, I was to keep an eye out for young delegates and up-and-coming political staffers interested in signing on to the
vision for a 21st Century America our members articulated the year before. On a hot, humid day that seemed initially unremarkable among uncomfortable summer days in New England, something unquestionably remarkable occurred: Barack Obama took center stage to deliver the keynote address and said the following:
“[I]t’s not enough for just some of us to prosper—for alongside our famous individualism, there’s another ingredient in the American saga, a belief that we’re all connected as one people… It is that fundamental belief: I am my brother’s keeper. I am my sister’s keeper
that makes this country work. It’s what allows us to pursue our individual dreams and yet still come together as one American family.
E pluribus unum: ‘Out of many, one.’ We are one people, all of us pledging allegiance to the stars and stripes, all of us defending the United States of America. In the end, that’s what this election is about. Do we participate in a politics of cynicism or do we participate in a politics of hope?
I’m not talking about blind optimism here—the almost willful ignorance that thinks unemployment will go away if we just don’t think about it, or the health care crisis will solve itself if we just ignore it. That’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about something more substantial. It’s the hope of slaves sitting around a fire singing freedom songs; the hope of immigrants setting out for distant shores… the hope of a skinny kid with a funny name who believes that America has a place for him, too.
Hope in the face of difficulty. Hope in the face of uncertainty. The audacity of hope!”
No Hollywood production could prompt the tears, chills, and hopefulness of these words.
After the DNC, I was to head to New Mexico. I took a detour through Chicago, just so I could bear witness, albeit brief, to the Obama Senatorial campaign. George W. Bush’s return to the White House provoked a tremendous sense of frustration, and a barrage of epic rants. But I remained hopeful, largely because I believed one day Barack Obama might run for President. In early 2007, rumors began circulating that he would announce his candidacy. I wanted desperately to work for his campaign, but my personal and professional networks were connected to every candidate’s upper level staff except then-Senator Obama’s. I turned down jobs with other campaigns. I upset many friends who felt my loyalties should have been with then-Governor Richardson or then-Senator Clinton. One former supervisor who remained a forthright friend warned me that if I kept chasing after an opportunity to champion the Obama campaign, I could kiss my professional reputation goodbye, because I’d be going up against all of the big name elected officials, and Democratic Party leaders—betting on a bunch of millennials to know how to beat them.
Based on Obama For America/Campaign For Change’s dominant use of social media in 2008, and President Obama’s wide margin of victory over Senator McCain, it’s hard to remember how unlikely his election seemed in 2007. In February, Ta-Nehisi Coates, wrote an article for TIME magazine titled, “Is Obama Black Enough?” In June, Gallup published a study, “Clinton Dominant Leader Among Hispanic Democrats.” In October, the cover of USA Today read, “Blacks split between Clinton, Obama.” In December, a number of Daily Kos members and several other politically savvy bloggers were predicting John Edwards would win the Iowa Caucuses.
Even after delivering a victory on January 3, 2008, the path to the Democratic Party nomination was epically contested. In February, the Telegraph announced, “Hispanic votes keep Hillary Clinton in the race.” In March, the Washington Post declared, “White Working-Class Voters Fuel Clinton’s Comeback.” In April, the Free Republic was one of
many publications to run Jonathan Tilove’s prescient prediction that women “will likely continue to frustrate Obama’s efforts to end the contest before the close of the primary season in June.” In May, Real Clear Politics, The Fix, Raw Story, and every political analyst with access to a television or radio program, and a print or online publication, offered an interpretation of then-Senator Clinton’s willingness to take the fight to seat Michigan and Florida delegates all the way to the Democratic National Convention in Denver.
There should have been too much bad blood and acrimony, too many salted wounds and divisions for hatchets to be buried, and the campaigns to come together in time to deliver a victory in the fall. 2008 was not a year of hedged bets. The majority of Americans placed all of their eggs in either the Clinton basket or the Obama one. But we did come together. Two monumental campaigns became one grand family that made history on November 4th.
Happy to share in the celebration of the graduations, promotions, vacations, weddings, births, get-togethers and accolades to come like any family. Even in this grand one, there were moments of displeasure. Those given Purple Inauguration Tickets were trapped in tunnels and/or denied admission at their designated entrance to the never-to-be-duplicated, January 20, 2009, Swearing-In Ceremony. There were moments of discord. Despite the fact that President Obama signed the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act into law on March 23, 2010, grumblings over the lack of a public option remained until the Supreme Court declared the Act Constitutional on June 28, 2012. There were moments when some faced bleak prospects, and others who were already bright stars, just got brighter, and brighter, and brighter.
None of that matters now. Grudges, resentments, jealousies, gossip, backstabbing, exclusion, shame, smugness, anything petty, these have always been unworthy of this grand family. But I must admit to having forgotten until this truth until this indescribable loss.
Alex Okrent helped make Barack Obama a Senator in 2004, President of the United States in 2008, and had devoted his life to President Obama’s reelection in 2012—all before his 30th birthday. In its coverage, the Chicago Tribune referenced his statements at a 2002 anti-war protest in Washington D.C., “I’m trying to make my voice heard… I don’t want people killed in my name.” The war in Iraq ended, along with “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.” America’s standing in the world was restored by concurrently winding down the war in Afghanistan, and supporting the wave of change ushered forth by the Arab Spring. After nearly one full century of presidential efforts to bring forth national healthcare insurance, it became a reality. The President of the United States even took principled stances on same-sex marriage, and immigration, despite the fact that this meant clashing with state legislature after state legislature. It is a fact, in one decade, Alex Okrent, made the world a better place.
Even though I didn’t travel with him to Vietnam, witness the search for an Internet café in Hanoi where he could connect to live feed of the launch of the Obama For America campaign in 2007. I’ve imagined that scene multiple times, as it signifies the poignancy of that moment. He was in a position to promise a world overrun with memories of a painful past that a new era was possible. And he would spend himself on its foundation.
Although I have never been fortunate enough to count myself amongst his closest circle, I am nevertheless rendered speechless by his loss. I am overwhelmed by a torrent of emotions. I have wept and continue to weep. I don’t want to let him go. There are truths about his vitality and goodness I cannot articulate regardless of the language I attempt to conjure them in. I could share anecdotes about the laughter he provoked. But I know the reason I sought to connect and remain linked with him was because of his unwavering and inspiring convictions. Alex Okrent was the awesome embodiment of the words that made Barack Obama famous in 2004. He would not belong to a country where people waving American flags in support of war were deemed more patriotic than those carrying American flags in support of peace. He would not inhabit a world where only people of color spoke out against racism, while whites ran from controversy. He was a connector, a maven, and a salesman for what really mattered. He saw a broad range of virtue and vice in humankind. But he refused to be anything less than audaciously hopeful at all times.
In every family, there are a special few who are seemingly connected to everyone by choice, not happenstance, whose presence, however minor, is a constant reminder of moments of tremendous joy, brotherly love, and deep fulfillment. Alex Okrent was one of these special few. In fact, he raised the standard. This grand family needed tangible, incontrovertible proof change would not come if we waited for some other person or some other time, that we were the ones we were waiting for. And he gave us that proof: Proof that we could fight the good fight. And win.