The tears of joy have dried. The stage in Grant Park has been taken down. The celebrations are history. As the dust settles from Election Day 2008 the biggest message is that the 1960s are now officially over. The Baby Boomers have passed the torch. We are finally moving on.
And not a day too soon.
Born in 1947, I am a card-carrying Boomer and very much a product of the 1960s and the dirty little war and enormous social upheaval that decade brought. I am also aware that having been given the wheel a few elections ago, we have blown it bigtime.
To riff on a familiar campaign phrase, are we better off today than we were in 1968? Of course not.
The gap between rich and poor has become a yawning gulf. Main Street is in crisis and now Wall Street, as well. Nearly one in six Americans have no health insurance and access to decent care is becoming more difficult. There has been an erosion of civil liberties at home and rampant saber rattling abroad. The 9/11 attacks could have been a teaching moment, but instead unleashed deep-seated hatreds.
And the failure of old-style liberalism has been as complete as new-style neoconservatism.
* * * * *In December 2007, Atlantic magazine published "Goodbye to All That: Why Obama Matters" by blogger-political commentator Andrew Sullivan that was stunning then for its audacity and even more so now for its prescience. It is the most important essay on the American body politic to be written in many years.
The crux of Sullivan's argument was that:
"In politics, timing matters. And the most persuasive case for [Barack] Obama has less to do with him than with the moment he is meeting. The moment has been a long time coming, and it is the result of a confluence of events, from one traumatizing war in Southeast Asia to another in the most fractious country in the Middle East. The legacy is a cultural climate that stultifies our politics and corrupts our discourse.Sullivan, who was born in 1963, got some things wrong, but not much.
"Obama’s candidacy in this sense is a potentially transformational one. Unlike any of the other candidates, he could take America -- finally -- past the debilitating, self-perpetuating family quarrel of the Baby Boom generation that has long engulfed all of us. So much has happened in America in the past seven years, let alone the past 40, that we can be forgiven for focusing on the present and the immediate future. But it is only when you take several large steps back into the long past that the full logic of an Obama presidency stares directly -- and uncomfortably -- at you."
He failed to anticipate that John McCain would squander his bipartisan appeal by torching what turned out to be his farewell tour with Rovian fire. He incorrectly believed that the Iraq war would be the dominant campaign issue, like the rest of us unaware that the collapse of the financial sector was only a hiccup or two away. And he quoted Obama praising the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, not knowing that this wack job would come closer to destroying his improbable run than any Republican culture warrior would.
It is easy to read too much into Sullivan's essay. He did not suggest that Obama would surround himself entirely with younger men and women. Nor will he.
In fact, Sullivan wrote that beyond the hope-and-change meme, the Obama of December 2007 had few policy differences from his rivals. And as we have seen in his victory speech and since then as he has begun to assembling his own team, the president-elect is a deeply pragmatic man who will try to sew America's torn social fabric back together one stitch at a time and not with bold strokes. His antiwar bona fides notwithstanding, this will apply to Iraq, as well.
* * * * *Sullivan noted that two Boomer pols -- Hillary Clinton and Rudy Giuliani -- were the putative front runners when he wrote his essay. He was careful to not coronate Obama, while I went out on a short limb in a post that referenced Sullivan titled "Is Barack Obama the New Gene McCarthy?" that compared the failed 1968 liberal Democratic insurrection with this campaign.
I unboldly declared that the young upstart from Illinois would be toast:
"In the end, whether Obama gets the nomination will have less to do with his ability to move beyond those symbolic Boomer battles than the reality that the mainstream media manipulates campaign coverage because of its willingness to be manipulated by the campaigns.I concluded:
"Along with the deeply corrosive influence of big money on politics, the incestuous relationship between the MSM and Old School politicians and the ability of both groups to create the illusion that presidential politics are by and for the people, by golly, are the most screwed up aspects of this quadrennial ritual."
"So will Barack Obama do any better than Eugene McCarthy did? My instincts tell me that the answer is a resounding 'no.' "That Obama is not toast but rather the toast of the world is a renunciation of the deeply cynical Washington culture that I thought would bring him down. Instead, Obama has lifted us up in becoming the first person of color to lead America.
Sure, he got an ample assist from Bush, Cheney, McCain and Palin, whose scapegoat politics were so bereft of meaning in these perilous times. But there were a record number of university-educated and blue-collar while male voters who defected from the GOP to join the young, Latinos, women and, of course, African-Americans in delivering an electoral landslide that put the lie to the notion peddled in the condescending mainstream media that the "real America" is a conservative nation.
* * * * *There is an especially powerful symmetry between Election Day and Veterans Day this year.
Although it was officially declared over 33 years ago, we have kept refighting the Vietnam War. Bill Clinton dodged the draft and protested the war at Oxford. George Bush hid out in an Air National Guard unit, when he showed up at all. John Kerry was not a war hero. John McCain was.
The Iraq war, of course, has been a fulfillment of the neoconservative wet dream that Vietnam be avenged and the cowardly foreign policy that led to our capitulation there and reluctance to fight new wars elsewhere be put out of its misery. The consequence, of course, has been a protracted conflict that has been a sucking chest wound on the American economy, further destabilized the Middle East -- and yet another opportunity to ignore the lessons of Vietnam.
I pray on this Veterans Day eve that my dear departed fellow veteran friends are in a better place. And that the war they died in or died from can finally be ended.
* * * * *Sullivan only alludes to an aspect of Obama that has been little remarked on. His place in the context of the Boomer generation before him and Generation X (or whatever it's called) after him: That he is not one of the privileged ones.
Many Boomers have botoxed themselves into a la-la land of McMansions and Land Rovers, while the younger generation has been appallingly apathetic. It has been awarded go free and go fast cards without breaking a sweat and betrays a lack of caring so complete that it comes as no surprise there have been no campus protests of consequence over the outrages of the Bush Years, let alone the Iraq war, and what has passed for an antiwar movement is fogeyfied. But boy is Facebook cool and boy are STDs on the rise.
Except for the Bush administration's empty post-9/11 rhetoric, Americans were never asked to sacrifice over the last eight years. In fact, there was an enormous tax cut, an unnecessarily war bankrupted the Treasury and a necessary war has been fought on the cheap as Al Qaeda regrouped, while the enmity for America -- not its culture but its imperialist thuggery -- has deepened abroad and most especially on the Arab street.
Watching Malia and Sasha Obama grow up in the White House will be such a refreshing change after the frumpery of the Bushes, and it is heartening to think that America rediscovered itself on Election Day. That is true, but unshackling ourselves of the past was comparatively easy. The hard part begins on January 20.
A final thought from the prescient Sullivan:
"Consider this hypothetical. . . . A young Pakistani Muslim is watching television and sees that this man—Barack Hussein Obama—is the new face of America. In one simple image, America’s soft power has been ratcheted up not a notch, but a logarithm. A brown-skinned man whose father was an African, who grew up in Indonesia and Hawaii, who attended a majority-Muslim school as a boy, is now the alleged enemy. If you wanted the crudest but most effective weapon against the demonization of America that fuels Islamist ideology, Obama’s face gets close. It proves them wrong about what America is in ways no words can."