As an instructional assistant at Olympic High School, a 32-year resident of Santa Monica, a fine artist and graphics designer, and a part-time drummer with various Westside bands, Barry Cowan more than qualifies as a “mover and shaker” in our community. On Monday night, November 3, the Mirror’s Steve Stajich had a cup of coffee with Cowan, who has been active politically since his “first vote, the McGovern campaign.” Cowan, who has two grown biracial children, had spent the last night before the election making calls for Obama from a headquarters at 54th and Crenshaw.
It’s 10:20 p.m. on November 23 here in California. I have a sense of history tonight. With 9/11, it was perhaps national shared trauma and then a sense of history. This one feels like history… NOW! Hoping it all turns out right, what is your sense of history tonight?
That’s really been dawning on me the last several weeks, and I’ve been allowing myself several moments just to imagine what’s going to happen, if it happens. It just sends chills down my spine that this could happen. I never thought I could see a black president until I was much, much older. It represents a great moment for the country and the world. I think it’s due in large part to the younger generation. I don’t think that we’re in a post-racist society, but I do think that many young people… Things like that just don’t matter to them. They’ve grown up, to a large degree, with people who are different than they are and it’s not that big a deal as it was for previous generations who didn’t have that contact.
You told me earlier today that you’ve worked on every presidential campaign since…. Hoover?
[LAUGHS] I vaguely remember working with my parents on Kennedy-Nixon. I know my parents did something in a campaign headquarters. Same with Johnson and Goldwater in ’64. ’68 I did lots of stuff… ’72 was the year that was my “coming of age” because it was the first year I could vote. And I worked on the McGovern campaign and even did graphics for them way back then. And I’ve worked every presidential year and certainly some statewide things, other elections as well.
What is the connection for you with politics?
I got it from my parents, I’m sure, but… I also came to recognize early on that if people don’t take an active interest in their government, then they’re further removed from the government and the government is further removed from them.
What do you get or hear from your students [at Olympic] concerning this election?
Those who are interested are very solidly in the Obama camp at our school. There are kids who are indifferent; there are kids who think it doesn’t matter. But overwhelmingly I think Obama is perceived as being “cool” by young people, cool in quotation marks.
Obama possibly represents a lot of things, but by your lights… what does his candidacy represent?
I was telling my son earlier — he didn’t know I was going to show up tonight at headquarters — I said, “This is something you can’t miss. Because this may be the biggest deal of my lifetime.” Certainly in part because Obama’s black, but also because he’s a transcendent candidate. I think Colin Powell said “transformational.” But this guy has something that is rare and doesn’t come along that often. It would just be remarkable to have a president who could actually inspire people.
Does any of this cut any deeper with you or your children because your kids are mixed race?
Definitely. I think with my kids, I think if Obama had two black parents that they would be excited about his candidacy. But because he is biracial, for lack of a better word, and they are… that deepens the identification, strengthens the identification of my children with him.
What do you think will happen to right-wingers and the Right-to-Life contingent after a possible tsunami tomorrow of – well, where do you think all that angry, crabby, gnarly energy is going to go?
…they’re going to feel marginalized as we have felt in the last eight years. They are going to be, I would think, in large number very angry and bitter and they’ll stay that way. They will take an oppositional point of view, I would predict. But on the plus side, I think Obama is way more moderate than they give him credit for. Hopefully they can feel he’s more interested in including them and not feeling antagonistic toward them.
Assuming tomorrow goes well, what will be the single biggest hurdle for Obama?
I think it will be a lot like Bill Clinton’s first few years. And in fact Obama’s inheriting a way worse scenario because of the economic crisis. And having to resolve the war, although it seems like he’s resolute on that and will have really good advisors surrounding him. I’ll throw in one thing: I’ve heard it said that if Bush hadn’t been such a terrible president, an Obama candidacy would have never happened. Bush lowered the bar so much he created this overwhelming desire in people for change, people wanted what Obama offers… the hope, inspiration, the concept of change.