When I heard it the first time, I was stunned. But now it helps explain the Barack Obama phenomenon.
"The American era is over," said someone last year in Doha, the capital of pro-American Qatar.
"How so?" I argued. "The U.S. is still the only superpower."
"A military power and a great killing machine, yes, but not much else," he said. "We maintain our relations with the U.S. but our thinking is now post-American."
I have heard variations of the theme across the Persian Gulf, the Indian subcontinent and the Far East. This partially explains their eastward tilt: mega-investments in local and regional stock markets, corporations, infrastructure and in educational, cultural and strategic institutions, Dubai to Jakarta.
Their outlook is, of course, coloured by Iraq and Afghanistan. But it is not all ideological. They wonder why the U.S., despite spending $700 billion in those two countries, has been incapable of providing clean water, electricity, security and essentials of life. Why it couldn't do so even for its own citizens post-Katrina. Why its soldiers and army of private contractors are so incompetent.
Many Americans sense this, too, their unease further burdened by mounting domestic woes:
* A huge deficit ($260 billion last year), record debt ($9.3 trillion, with China holding a tenth of the denominated assets), a weak dollar, a housing crisis, a credit crunch, soaring fuel/food costs, massive manufacturing job losses and a bleak future for the young. * Clogged jails (2.3 million prisoners, surpassing China's 1.6 million); busy death chambers (the only debate in the 36 states with capital punishment being whether to use lethal injection or the electric chair). * 45 million Americans with no health insurance and another 158 million with too little coverage or too high a deductible. * The common good lost to vicious partisanship, cultural warfare or undue indebtedness to moneyed interests; a justice department that subverts justice; and an administration that operates above the law, domestic and international. ("It's a no-brainer for me," said Dick Cheney of water boarding, a torture technique that only the Gestapo, the Khmer Rouge and the North Koreans used to approve of.)
Not all American voters are experts on all those issues but, cumulatively, they know that something is fundamentally askew (81 per cent say, "the country is headed in the wrong direction").
So when Obama talks about wholesale change and a new beginning, he stirs their souls.
That he is a black man comfortable in his own skin is an added bonus. He offers a break with a racist past and a disastrous present. When he says on the night of his Iowa win, "they said, this day would never come," his audience - white and black, in front of him or their TVs - is moved to tears. That he is young, handsome and intelligent, speaks eloquently in a soothing baritone and exudes a "presidential" presence only make him that much more irresistible.
Hillary Clinton, as hard-working, astute and well-briefed as she is, comes across as a pedantic product of the very system that needs fixing. She has managed to stay in the race thus far by demagoguery and pandering: The 3 a.m. red phone ad; the ad invoking the 1929 stock market crash, Pearl Harbor, the Cuban missile crisis, 9/11 and Osama bin Laden; the assertions that only she and John McCain are fit to be commander-in-chief, that Obama is not a Muslim "as far as I know," that Al Qaeda would bomb America to test Obama; and the striking of phony poses as a gun-loving hunter, a working mom or a champion of "hard-working white Americans."
And Bill Clinton, "America's first black president," has acted as her attack dog against Obama.
The Clintons' desperate efforts should come to an end Tuesday when Oregon votes for Obama. If not then, shortly thereafter.
And the greatest presidential race in modern history can begin, with the potential to change America.
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