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By Philip Revzin

CHICAGO, 12 JANUARY 2017 — They were white, black, brown, yellow, old, young, even babies; college kids and college professors; suited-and-tied and blue-jeaned; adorned in church-worthy finery, pant suits or tee-shirts. There were veterans of the 2008 and 2012 campaigns, many sporting for perhaps the last time their Obama T-shirts, sweatshirts, campaign buttons and caps, reuniting with and hugging old comrades. They were politicians ranging from the vice president down to the chairman of the Cook County Board of Commissioners. They were normal folks who wouldn’t know a canvassing sheet from a bed sheet.

Most (not the politicians) stood in line for three or more hours on Saturday in the freezing cold and again for a similar time waiting to get into the cavernous lakefront McCormick Place convention center, with barely a murmur. Four college kids ahead of me tried to play a complicated card game, with no table, and with little success, as the line shuffled slowly toward the metal detectors. Jay and Barbara from Milwaukee had been up since 4 a.m. Helen and Eileen from Deerfield had taken the elevated train to the right stop, and were in the act of trying to call an Uber to take them to McCormick Place when I pointed to the gigantic convention center two blocks away and walked them over.

Despite this diversity, those gathered had one common goal: to say goodbye to Barack Obama, the nation’s first African-American president, who started his career as a community organizer a couple miles from McCormick Place, and whose eight years in office was marked by political controversies but also by the grace, eloquence and compassion that kept 20,000 people crowded into the windowless room rapt throughout the hour-long talk.

There was meat in the Farewell Address, an American tradition since George Washington warned of the need to preserve self-government with "jealous anxiety," and used by Dwight Eisenhower nearly 60 years ago to warn of the military-industrial complex. President Obama argued for a "basic sense of solidarity" that seems to be lacking right now. He said "democracy won’t work without a sense that everyone has economic opportunity." He urged everyone to get involved in politics at the most basic "pick up a clipboard" level.

His tone was level, and seemed a bit flat in the room, though much more effective when I watched it again on video, seemingly tailored to the camera, as has been the case for most of the past eight years. But none of this really mattered to the bulk of the crowd, which was there to show solidarity, pay tribute, but mainly to say thanks. This was not a well-mixed bunch, politically. President Obama mentioned President-elect Trump once, politely, and the crowd mentioned Trump’s name more often, and a lot less kindly. "Four more years!" the crowd shouted at one point, to be told "I can’t do that" by the president. "Lock the White House gate and don’t let Obama leave," shouted another.

The diversity, the energy and the love in the room were palpable and a measure of how much Obama’s presidency meant to people in his home town and beyond. Forget, at least for the occasion, the political battles and defeats and disappointments. Forget even the political lessons the president preached. What came out the address most strongly was this president’s integrity, energy and drive, from his scandal-free administration to his assorted accomplishments to his steely calm in the face of massive provocation, and, above-all, his amazing family, who drew the longest and warmest applause of the night and a tear from the president, even down to the detail of daughter Sasha, who is still in high school, missing the event because she had a test the next day. 

This all comes to full-circle completion, it seems to me, in Obama’s most lasting legacy: his example.

On the Metra platform waiting for my train home, I chatted with an African-American woman and her eight-year-old son, who had stood for six hours to see their president one last time. Uncreatively, I asked the young man what he wanted to be when he grew up.

You can guess his answer.

Philip Revzin is an award winning journalist and former editor-at-large for Bloomberg News. Previously, he was a long-time reporter, editor and publisher for The Wall Street Journal Europe in London, Paris and Brussels. Later, Mr. Revzin was named publisher and editor of the Far Eastern Economic Review and the publisher for The Wall Street Journal Asia in Hong Kong. He last wrote on the film Arrival for Culturekiosque. More recently, Philip Revzin is the author of Just One Before I Die: A Cubs Fan’s Chronicle of a Championship Season, currently available in a Kindle edition on 

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