CHARLOTTE, N.C.—Politicians often start their speeches addressing the big development of the day. When Barack Obama took the rain-soaked stage here, the new material at the beginning was the sad news that his grandmother had died. “She has gone home,” he said, his voice halting. “It’s hard, a little, to talk about.”
Obama used a handkerchief to wipe away a few tears, a rare moment of spontaneity from a highly controlled candidate. He paid tribute to the woman who raised him in a two-bedroom apartment while his mother lived in Indonesia. She was one of the “quiet heroes,” he said, moving her story into his stump speech. “Not famous names, not in the newspapers, and each day they work hard. They aren’t seeking the limelight. In this crowd there are a lot of quiet heroes like that. The satisfaction they get is seeing that their children and grandchildren get a better life.” It was to those quiet heroes, he said, that his campaign was dedicated.
Madelyn Dunham’s grandson may be elected president Tuesday, which makes her death so poignant. A chapter in Barack Obama’s life is closing in a definitive and complete way.
In Obama’s last day of campaigning before the voters have their say, he traveled through Florida, North Carolina, and Virginia, facing the same large crowds that have met him at each stop along the way. “I have just one word for you,” Obama said at the start of each of his rallies. “Tomorrow.” His message was simple: “I’ve made the arguments. Now it’s all about who wants it more.”
After hundreds of arid hotel rooms, soggy sandwiches, and countless handshakes and smiles for the camera, Obama can now rest a bit—no matter what happens. No more making sure he thanks the right local officials before every speech and properly pronounces their names. No more unwrapping his hotel bathroom cup from the sanitary plastic. On Monday night, he went home to Chicago to sleep in his own bed. In the coming days, he’ll stay there for the longest uninterrupted stretch in more than a year.
Obama’s final day of campaigning began with 45 minutes at the gym and a phone call to African-American leaders. Joined by Oprah, according to Politico, Obama said he looked forward to watching his daughters play on the South Lawn of the White House.
Though it was his last day of campaigning, Obama did not let up on McCain. He did mix his remarks with occasional compliments, though. He congratulated McCain on “the tough race that he’s fought” and reiterated that McCain was a genuine hero. When knocking him for misunderstanding the economy, Obama said: “It’s not because he’s a bad man. He doesn’t understand what’s happening in America.”
On Election Day, Obama will vote and make a quick visit to neighboring Indiana. He’ll also squeeze in a basketball game and visit with friends. His aides say he doesn’t watch the election returns, because, as David Axelrod explained, making the universal hand signal for mindless talk, “He doesn’t like all the chatter.”
At the last rally of the campaign, in Manassas, Va., Obama faced a crowd of 90,000 spread up a hillside. Members of the audience said they had come to watch history. At the back of the crowd of mufflers and ski hats, school-bus-size letters spelled out “Vote for Change.”
At the conclusion of his remarks, Obama, dressed in suit slacks and a black windbreaker, reprised a story that was once a staple of his stump speech but that he hasn’t told for a while. He told of his encounter with Edith Childs, a city councilwoman from Greenwood, S.C., who had lifted his spirits at the start of his campaign when his rallies were small and no one gave him a chance. She inspired him with her chant of “Fired up and ready to go.”
It’s a story he’s told hundreds of times but probably never so well. He lingered for effect, described the councilwoman’s church hat with a broad theatrical sweep of his hand and somehow was able to convey a time when he was small and vulnerable to the crowd of 90,000 that came to see him. “That’s how this thing started,” he said. “It shows you what one voice can do. One voice can change a room, and if it can change a room, it can change a city, and if it can change a city, it can change a state, and if it can change a state then it can change a nation and if it can change a nation it can change a world.”
As Obama told the story for the last time in this campaign, on the day his grandmother died, it was easy to imagine that, as he told it, he was thinking not only of Edith Childs but also of a woman he called “Toot.”