Forty years ago, in the final days of a year that had seen the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy, the Tet Offensive and the My Lai Massacre in Vietnam, violent civil rights protests throughout the United States, riots between police and anti-war protestors at the Democratic National Convention and the election of Richard Nixon, astronaut Frank Borman received a telegram of congratulations. Borman had served as commander of Apollo 8; with crewmates Jim Lovell and Bill Anders, he had left the orbit of the Earth and flown to the Moon. They were the first humans to travel to another celestial body, the first to see the dark side of the Moon, the first to witness and photograph their home planet rising over the horizon of another world.
The telegram read “Thank you, Apollo 8. You saved 1968.”
This year has not been 1968. Still, there was a contentious and, in its final weeks, bitterly partisan general election, the passing of the five year mark in the war in Iraq, and a calamitous collapse in the housing market that touched off a global economic crisis. One could be forgiven for asking, “What will save 2008?”
Last night came the answer. Barack Hussein Obama II will be the forty-fourth President of the United States.
One hundred-fifty years after a civil war fought largely over the issue of African slavery, eighty years after the Ku Klux Klan paraded proudly, in full regalia, down Pennsylvania Avenue in the nation’s capital, fifty years after the Supreme Court forced public schools to cease racial segregation, forty years after the murder of the most eloquent and revered of the advocates for black civil rights, and well within the lifetimes of millions of Americans who can remember a time when the color of one’s skin determined where they could eat, drink, use the bathroom, go to school, work, whom they could marry, and whether or not they could vote, the people of the United States elected an African American man to lead their national government. We have come a distance.
And it wasn’t even close. It was not quite a landslide, but it was no late night squeaker, either. Barack Obama won 27 states, plus the District of Columbia, for a total of 349 electoral votes (as I write this, that is — the race is still too close to call in Missouri and North Carolina, so Barack could wind up with a total of 29 states and 375 electoral votes, if both states fall his way), the biggest electoral tally since the re-election of Bill Clinton in 1996. He won 52% of the popular vote, the largest majority since the election of George H. W. Bush twenty years ago. He topped John McCain by over seven million votes. More people voted for Barack Obama yesterday than for George W. Bush either of his two elections. More people voted to elect Barack Obama yesterday than voted to re-elect Ronald Reagan in 1984. (To be fair, McCain’s approximately 55,000,000 popular votes is more than Reagan ever got, too.) He won among a broad spectrum of demographic groups, and he won in every region of the country — in the northeast, in the west, in the midwest, and in what was once the heart of the Confederacy.
John McCain conceded the election with grace and humility, and a degree of class which many of his supporters failed to appreciate. When he congratulated Obama on the victory, expressed his admiration, and pledged his help and support, he was met by a bitter chorus of boos. “Please,” he scolded them. By the end, the boos had turned to cheers, though grudging and half-hearted. McCain is a good man, one of the most admirable nominees in the history of his party. The final two months of his campaign did not do him justice. He erred by giving his White House bid over to the narrow conservative ideology of Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and Ann Coulter. He erred gravely by selecting as his running mate the vapid and crude Governor of Alaska and sending her out to pander to the lowest, most extreme elements of the Republican party. “Playing to the base” was never a more apt expression.
But even given all that, listening to him last night as he took his elegant final bow, I felt great respect for McCain, and even gratitude. I wish his entire campaign had been as commendable as his wind-up. Hearing his concession speech, I got the impression of a great man who had missed his moment. I’m glad we didn’t elect John McCain President of the United States yesterday, but I wish we had elected him eight years ago. I think he could have been a great one.
To our new president. He is a young man as presidents go, born in the latter half of the twentieth century. His heritage and life story embody American ideals like no occupant of the White House before him. He was born in 1961, in the newest of the United States, to a white mother from Kansas and a black father from Kenya. He spent his childhood in Indonesia, and in Hawaii, was raised by his mother and by his maternal grandparents, and attended Muslim, Catholic, and nonsectarian Christian schools. As a young man he attended some of the most prestigious universities in the United States, earning a bachelor’s degree from Columbia University, and a law degree from Harvard Law School. After college, he returned to Illinois, the adopted home of Abraham Lincoln, to teach and practice law. While teaching constitutional law at the University of Chicago, he worked as a community organizer, registering poor blacks to vote on the South Side of Chicago, and working to increase their access to higher education. In 1996, those same people elected him to represent them in the Illinois State Legislature.
He wrote his book, Dreams From My Father, before he ever sought public office. He won a Grammy for reading it himself on the audio book. In 2004, after delivering a keynote address at the Democratic National Convention that will be remembered long after anything ever said by then-nominee John Kerry has been forgotten, he was elected resoundingly to the United States Senate.
Just over two years later, he announced his candidacy for President of the United States. He turned what was his most cited shortcoming, his lack of experience in national government, into the tent-pole of an extraordinary grass-roots campaign. He was not another old, white Democrat leaving the floor of the House of Representatives or the Senate to tour the country and feebly promise change. He was new. He had not existed for decades in the privileged sphere of Washington, D.C. politics. He was not a long-standing member of the oscillating oligarchy that has controlled the United States government for as long as anyone alive can remember. And, as he pointed out once or twice on the campaign trail, he did not look like the presidents whose faces adorn our dollar bills.
He’s an elegant man, and possesses a preternatural eloquence as an orator. His campaign focused on unity, and was not confined to a few strategically chosen battleground states, but swept from one end of the country to the other. The campaign surrounding John McCain spent its last weeks attempting to slander Obama, questioning his associations, his judgment, his patriotism; taking the misconception that he had once been (or still was) a Muslim and perverting it into a slur that was passed on to voters by a small but vocal army of demagogues that included fringe right-wing bloggers and the Republican vice presidential nominee.
Yet, despite the doubts, despite the innuendos and the insinuations and at times the outright lies, despite the shrill harangues from the likes of Mark Levin and the dishonest attempts at character assassination from the likes of Jerome Corsi, despite people I know personally claiming they could never vote for anyone with “that name,” despite all these things being embraced by a desperate (and now, I would guess, regretful) John McCain, Barack Obama carried a majority of states, a majority of the popular vote, and two-thirds of the electoral college. Is it too much to hope that maybe we aren’t as divided as we thought we were?
That’s my piece. I’m off now to meet my mother and eat Chinese food. It rained a bit yesterday, but that’s over now. There are still clouds in the distance, but for now the Sun is out, and it feels more like May than November. If the weather holds, it will be a beautiful day.