November 5, 2008 | "Change has come to America." That may well be the understatement of the year.
Given a choice between the audacity of hope and the insistence on nope, America chose Barack Obama to be the next president.
Most of us today are probably shaking our heads in wonder, never having believed we would live to see the day that an African-American man would be elected president. Obama's decisive victory is a towering achievement — for him and for the United States.
One of the advantages of growing older is that you gain perspective on how things are by knowing how things were. As a boy, I was surrounded only by people who look like me. The only black person I ever saw close-up was a heavy-set woman who worked in the slaughter house where we sold our ducks, and she was a fearsome sight to behold, with a cleaver in her hand and splattered in blood. For years misbehavior on my part was kept in check by threats to give me to "that black mama."
My parents took me along to visit my brother at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, where I saw segregation first-hand. In the south, everything was clearly marked for "whites only" or "colored." From today's perspective it's hard to imagine just what horrors were supposed to happen if blacks and white peed in the same urinal, but that's the way it was. So when I saw today a picture of an elderly black woman, waiting to vote, sitting before an historical exhibit of signs from that era, the juxtaposition was particularly poignant.
I remember vividly the violence and bloodshed that accompanied the Civil Rights movement. The path to today was traveled at great sacrifice by so very many.
Obama's achievement is that he managed to define himself as a candidate who happens to be black rather than a black candidate, notwithstanding the efforts of some who tried to make him so. (Are you paying attention, Bill Clinton?) He had a lot of help from factors beyond his control — a crashing economy threatening the well-being of millions of Americans; two seemingly endless and futile wars; the almost unanimous judgment that the Republicans have taken the country "on the wrong track"; an opponent who displayed singular bad judgment on his VP pick and how to run his campaign; his own bi-racial make-up that mirrors the kind of heterogenous country we have become.
But old prejudices often linger subconsciously, die hard, and are easily inflamed by incendiary rhetoric. Yet a majority of Americans moved beyond that in choosing a president, drawn by Obama's potential to help us fix what has gone so wrong with our country. The achievement of our country is that the Civil War may finally be over, and we can begin a second Reconstruction.
The flip side of Obama's election — and the strengthening of Democratic majorities in Congress — is the utter repudiation of a Republican era that practiced the politics of division and fear, that abandoned government's mission as defined in the Constitution:
We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
John McCain, conceding defeat, was exceedingly gracious and called for his supporters to help Obama succeed:
And I pledge to him tonight to do all in my power to help him lead us through the many challenges we face.
I urge all Americans ... I urge all Americans who supported me to join me in not just congratulating him, but offering our next president our good will and earnest effort to find ways to come together to find the necessary compromises to bridge our differences and help restore our prosperity, defend our security in a dangerous world, and leave our children and grandchildren a stronger, better country than we inherited.
Whatever our differences, we are fellow Americans.
If the John McCain who gave the concession speech and the John McCain who ran for president in 2000 had run this time, he might have had a chance to win this election. But he lost his bearings, discarded his principles, and channeled his angry twin, making one outrageous charge after another. A majority of Americans, to their credit, saw through that.
And Obama was equally generous and reached out to those who supported McCain:
And to those Americans whose support I have yet to earn, I may not have won your vote tonight, but I hear your voices. I need your help. And I will be your president, too.
The problems facing the new president are legion, and they are difficult. But America has faced daunting challenges before, and with the right kind of leadership can face these. There is hope.
Last updated on Apr 13, 2018