Obama, King and Pushkin

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How should Americans explain to curious Russians the groundbreaking presidential candidacy of Illinois Senator Barack Obama? I'd say skip the lecture on caucuses and primaries and go straight to the candidate's three bullet points: change, hope and dreams.

The mantra of the Obama campaign -- "Change we can believe in" -- scratches several American itches at once. After seven years of government as a Wal-Mart of incompetence and Constitution shredding, U.S. voters of all stripes are desperate for believable change. Obama not only promises it, as do all the candidates, he embodies it like no other. He is the first African-American presidential aspirant with national support that crosses racial, ethnic, economic, gender and generational lines.

This unique "one-man coalition" is a new departure in U.S. politics and someone Russians may find both novel and familiar. If President Dmitry Medvedev looks into the soul of President Barack Obama, he'll see some soul, all right. And he may also sense a certain kinship: Every Russian is an inheritor of Alexander Pushkin, a great-grandson of Africa whom Russians also claim as "our everything."

Point two -- hope. For most of my lifetime, politics in the United States has run in cycles of enthusiasm and disillusionment. Obama's civic agenda, set out in his book "The Audacity of Hope," calls for a new kind of political ethos -- a less frenetic, "post-partisan" approach based on core values that Obama feels are still common to most Americans.

And maybe they are. But while "The Audacity of Hope" is certainly audacious and hopeful, it also permits of a certain idealism that the United States' best-positioned Democrats, the Clintons, can deride as a "fairy tale" (says Bill) that raises "false hopes" (says Hillary). In response, Obama cites examples of his hands-on pragmatism and, perhaps most tellingly, points out that "there's no such thing as false hope."

There is certainly nothing warm 'n' fuzzy in the senator's take on Russia, which he has soberly termed "neither our enemy nor close ally" and with which he urges more collaboration on the two critical nuclear issues, disarmament and nonproliferation. Some Russians may be irritated by Obama's stated desire for more "democracy, transparency, and accountability" in their country, but isn't Medvedev also for all three?

And finally -- dreams. Obama's first book, "Dreams From My Father," was a revealing and compelling memoir of the first three decades of a uniquely divided life. The son of an East African father and a white Midwestern mother, Obama grew up in exotic locations -- Hawaii and Indonesia -- and put himself through an identity search most Americans can't imagine. Through luck and pluck, he eventually took two Ivy League degrees and became a prime candidate for the American Dream. Yet, the Obama denouement proved somewhat different, tacking closer to another dream of another African-American dreamer.

Martin Luther King's famous "I Have a Dream" speech -- which will be read and reread across the United States on Monday, Martin Luther King Day, in countless venues -- envisioned a nation where all men really were created equal; where the sons of slaves and slave owners were reconciled; where people were judged by character rather than color; and where, finally, "all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics" could realize America's original promise, becoming "free at last."

I heard this speech as it was spoken, on Aug. 28, 1963, in Washington. My father, a clergyman and civil rights activist who had worked with Dr. King, took me and my brother to witness a moment at the Lincoln Memorial that many sensed might be historic. It was.

So is Barack Obama's campaign. Whether it captures this caucus or that primary, this African-American candidacy has superseded the symbolic and entered the actual, becoming indisputably, palpably real. And while one can disagree with the candidate on various issues, as I do, it's clear that for many Americans, the ideas of Obama matter less than the idea of Obama -- an idea whose time, perhaps, has come. At last.

There, Russian friends -- that should help put Obama in context for you. Now you do the same for us: Obama's parents met in college when they were both taking a course in ... Russian. Could you explain what it is about your language, literature and culture that might bring a Kenyan and a Kansan together in Hawaii?

Whatever did it, thanks. We owe you and Pushkin a big one.

Mark H. Teeter teaches English and Russian-American relations in Moscow.