I have never enjoyed washing up so much. I was riveted. I was transfixed. I was not transfixed by the soapy suds sliding off the plates, though I’m sure a poet, or a fan of mindfulness, might be. I was transfixed by the voice, and words, of one of my favourite people in the world. I was transfixed, in fact, by the calm, melodious voice of Barack Obama.
He was talking to Prince Harry, in his first interview since leaving office. Two of the world’s most famous men – and perhaps even two of the nicest. Harry seems to be determined to use his silver spoon, and gilded cage, to make things better for people who have lost limbs, and work, and hope, and homes, for people who have fought anxious thoughts, for people who feel lonely and lost. And Obama? Well, Obama. Where on earth do you start with Obama?
I still have his picture, hanging in my hall. It was the picture taken just over nine years ago. There he is, on the front page of The Independent, captured and frozen in a black frame. His hair is still black. His smile is like the sun coming out. And next to the photograph are the words that seemed to change the world: “Mr President”.
When I went home, just before dawn, after a party where joy spread like a new drug we each tasted and then passed around, it felt as if some creature in the sky had flicked a giant switch. On the bus, strangers smiled. Later that day, my friend Rob told me that he had told his two small children that the most powerful person in the world was now a black man. They were, he said, confused. They gazed up at Rob – who is big and strong and used to be in the Paras – and said they already knew.
What followed wasn’t perfect, because nothing ever is. The quiet, thoughtful lawyer who moved into the White House discovered, as politicians always do, that you campaign in poetry, but govern in prose. That “yes, we can” now seems a bit like a scratchy recording of a jazz gig you might find in your grandad’s attic. Plangent. Beautiful. Bittersweet.
If Obama sometimes came up against a “no, we can’t”, he did a damn sight more than most. He cut the unemployment rate in half. He ended the war in Iraq. He launched the $787 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which poured money into education, the environment, scientific and medical research while also cutting middle-class taxes. He rescued the car industry. He regulated Wall Street. He signed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, to combat pay discrimination against women. He supported gay marriage. Oh, and he signed the Affordable Care Act, which meant that 20 million Americans who didn’t have access to healthcare, now did. He succeeded, in other words, where five other American presidents had failed.
Since 20th January, one man has been trying to undo what he has done. It seems personal. It is personal. Perhaps it’s because of that White House Correspondents’ Dinner, six years ago, when Obama, who is witty and can laugh at himself, mocked Trump, who isn’t and can’t. Perhaps it’s because Obama is handsome and clever. Perhaps it’s because his hands are a normal size. Who knows? All we know is that Donald Trump’s only goal since walking into the White House seems to have been to wipe out every tiny trace of the man who lived there before.
I don’t want to say too much more about Trump. This year, he has already taken up too many of our words and too many of our thoughts. I don’t understand how such a man could have come to power in a once-great nation, but we are all learning that anything can happen, anywhere. One day, Trump will go. He will be impeached, or he will lose an election, or he will flounce out of the White House, claiming to have “made America great”. Whatever else is going on in the world, that will be a day to hang out the bunting.
I certainly don’t feel like hanging out the bunting now. When I hear about some of the things Trump has said and done, or think of my own country shrinking into Little England, I sometimes want to cry. We are all learning that history isn’t something that happens to other people. All we can do, as Oasis once sang, is Be Here Now.
Anyone else faced with the systematic dismantling of their life’s work would be exploding with rage. Obama was – Obama always is – cool. “Can you,” asked Prince Harry, desperate for a ray of hope in the global dog’s dinner he was surveying, “give us a reason to be optimistic next year?”
Obama paused. “The world,” he said calmly, “is healthier, wealthier, better educated, more tolerant, more sophisticated and less violent than just about any time in human history… If I had to choose any time in history to be born,” he added, “I’d choose now.”
Gosh. Well, I don’t like to disagree with Obama. If he asked me to leap off a cliff, I probably would. So, here goes. My new year’s resolution is to take a leaf out of Obama’s book, take the long view and hold my nerve. And if education, tolerance and sophisticated thinking are currently out of fashion, we’ll all just have to do whatever the hell we can to make sure the pendulum starts to swing back.