I voted yesterday in the most important election of my lifetime after the most dramatic primary and general election campaign of my lifetime. And as I left the polling station and walked out into the chilly morning air, it all fell into place: Barack Obama represents what America once was and can stand for again. As well as this: Obama did not transcend race so much as make the case that he is the best man to lead America out of the wilderness.
If that seems simplistic, it is. Because while the hydra-headed monster of racism may have been bowed in 2008, it has not been beaten. In fact, John McCain, Sarah Palin and their surrogates took demagoguery to new heights in a campaign that never found its groove except when it came to fear mongering.
Yes, John McCain’s concession speech seemed to be gracious. Yet I am not a light switch and was unable to suddenly turn off the horror that I felt over the last few months as I watched him shamelessly wield the cudgels of race and class warfare in a manner so loathsome that his one-time maverickness and POW hero status became abstractions. But in the end, the squalid message of his campaign was merely so much noise for voters who are indeed fearful, but not of a man with black skin and a funny name.
Palin, meanwhile, joins the long list of one-election wonders who didn’t even have the chops of the late-night comedienne who used this queen of mean’s own lines to devastating effect.
* * * * *I struck up a conversation with a fortysomething black woman wearing a Bob Marley t-shirt at an Obama-Biden rally the other day. Did she know that the reggae legend had worked at the Chrysler auto assembly plant here in Newark, Delaware before he returned home to Jamaica and hit the big time? She said that she did not.
"Bob would have understood how important this election is," I said.
"Yes," she replied, looking me in the eye. "I cannot begin to tell you how much it means to me and my mother."
I think I do understand. That is because my long departed parents were civil-rights activists who despite being optimistic about most things could not imagine the day that a black man would become president of the United States. They were afraid to hope, and today tears of pride and joy burn in my eyes because something that they dared not dream has come to pass.
* * * * *George Bush's historic unpopularity, fed by two never ending wars and the coup de grâce of an historic economic collapse that completed his abandonment of the middle class, was the wind at Obama's back, and conservatives will be nattering from here to Inauguration Day and beyond that the result would have been different had the president they so slavishly supported not been such a toxic boob.
But to suggest that there should be an asterisk next to Obama's name -- that he somehow did not earn his enormous popular and electoral vote landslide victory -- is no more plausible than putting an asterisk next to the names of Ronald Reagan or Franklin Roosevelt.
While the Republican brand has been running on empty for longer than anyone realized, least of all the party's major domos, I don't believe that Hillary Clinton would necessarily have beaten McCain. A Clinton-McCain race would have been a battle of Washington insiders, and there was the probability that five or six percent of voters -- although not necessarily the same five or six percent -- who never would have supported an African-American would never have supported a woman.
* * * * *People the world over scratch their heads when trying to understand the strange creature known as American presidential politics, and I do too even though this was my ninth campaign as a reporter, editor and most recently a blogger.
Why, they ask every four years, should candidates have to campaign for the better part of two years, raise ungodly sums of money and put their fate in the hands of a bunch of flannel shirts in Iowa and New Hampshire?
The result, it would seem, is that really good people get chased away and the contenders too often include mediocrities. Think people like Michael Dukakis, Pat Buchanan and Rudy Giuliani.
Yet there is an upside to this madness. One-trick ponies tend to get eliminated. (Okay, okay. So George Bush was a no-trick pony). Just being a fresh face is not enough. Being long on organization but nothing else is not enough. Having the vision thing by itself is not enough. And having oodles of money is not enough.
It is a testament to Barack Obama that he had all of those things, including a stupendous $640 million war chest built almost entirely on small contributions, as well as being able to harness a cultural shift that included millions of new voters and master a resource that McCain acknowledged he has never used -- the Internet -- with its cutting-edge bells and whistles such as YouTube.
But Obama had something else as well that was on display in his magnificent victory speech before the masses in Grant Park early today and billions more watching the world over -- a fiery core enveloped by a cool demeanor and the extraordinary ability to stay focused steeled him through myriad controversies and enabled him to hold the upper hand in three debates that effectively sealed the case that he is presidential.
* * * * *I take scant pleasure that the likes of William Kristol, Rich Lowry, Jonah Goldberg and other right-wing pundits who lip locked with the incredible lightness of Palin while drawing smug satisfaction from the serial character attacks on Obama have been so thoroughly discredited. The lot of them are lightweights. And cowards like the man that they have worshiped for the last eight years.
Besides which, there is no time for schadenfreude, let alone condemning the bitter core of the Republican base as was represented by the people in the crowd in Phoenix last night who reacted with boos when McCain congratulated Obama.
And no looking back except to try to better understand the failures that Obama must now confront as he assembles a Cabinet and tries to cobble together a bipartisan coalition.
It is my fervent belief that President-Elect Barack Hussein Obama, while being mindful that his mandate is to heal as well as to lead, must first reaffirm the core values that George Bush, Dick Cheney and their goon squad subborned in the service of an imperial agenda. He first must make sure that the fundamental rights of all Americans are protected before he can lead us out of the wilderness.
Photograph by Ozier Muhammad/The New York Times