Wednesday, November 5, 2008

The Coming of Obama

What a night. The pundits have all said it ad nauseam, but it’s worth repeating: this was an historic election victory, one putting, against all odds, a Black man for the first time into our Whitest of Houses. What follows are simply some observations and feelings garnered from watching the returns starting at 4 PM Pacific Time and on to the late news after Obama’s victory speech to a crowd of more than 500,000 in Chicago’s Grant Park.

Images: Jesse Jackson at Grant Park, tears rolling down his face, his hand to his mouth trying to control his emotions—no doubt a mix of absolute joy and disbelief and perhaps regret that this Black man had done it, done what he himself could not do in his try for the presidency in the 80s. Not far from him, Oprah Winfrey, also in tears at the sight of a man she had championed in his moment of triumph. And throughout the crowd there, and at dozens of other places throughout the country—Times Square and Harlem in New York, Oakland in California, and outside the White House itself—people of all colors shouting and jumping and pumping and weeping at the breadth and depth and sheer exhilaration of the victory of this man and this movement which had inspired so many to do so much to bring home the prize. And the relief: of being at last, free at last, from second-class citizenship to be sure, but also free from the frustration and criminality of a President who had, for this election season, become a pariah, a Bush animal skulking in back rooms and back alleys and literally afraid to show his face to an electorate and members of his own party that now found him so toxic it must have told him, bellowed at him, “Stay away. The shoe is now on the other foot. Where you have slandered and ostracized millions who disagreed with your wars, now you are the leper no one can even bear to be seen with.”

Maya Angelou. Interviewed on one of the major channels, the poet and Nobelist, after expressing her real emotion at the pride for her people in this, said something like: ‘At last, the American people have shown their willingness to elect someone with intelligence.’

Donna Brazile, not long ago Al Gore’s chief strategist and acting as a commentator for one of the networks. And she, more than once, mentioned this wonderful irony: It had been African Americans who built the steps to the White House; and now, an African American was going to actually reside in the White House.

John Lewis, the representative from Georgia, describing the scene inside the Ebenezer Baptist Church where Martin Luther King had begun his civil rights movement—a movement that Lewis himself had played a major part in—now filled with laughing, cheering, joyous, weeping people unable to believe that after all that had happened to them and their leaders, one was now the President-elect of the United States. And at about the same time, Andrew Young, another of King’s lieutenants in the civil rights struggle, near tears describing all that he and King and millions of others had been through to get the Voting Rights Act passed under Lyndon Johnson, and now, less than 50 years later, seeing all that work and struggle coming to fruition in this amazing election.

And all these references came rushing to the fore at the moment the President-elect took the stage in Chicago’s Grant Park, and one realized that here he was, out in the open, with bullet-proof panels of glass to each side, but with the stage open to the front where he spoke; and a knifeblade of fear raced through with the thought that this was still America, and that it was still possible that some crazy racist might try to take a shot at yet another Black man. Because after all, it had only been less than 50 years since the first of those horror scenarios erupted in Dallas, ending the presidency of another reviled young president, John F. Kennedy. And it had been even fewer years since Martin Luther King, on the cusp of becoming the real leader of the anti-war movement against the war in Vietnam, had been shot on a balcony in Memphis. And fewer than that when yet another Kennedy, Robert, had been poised to take the Democratic nomination for president to succeed Lyndon Johnson, and he, too, was shot and killed in the kitchen of a hotel in Los Angeles. And at about the same time, Malcolm X, yet another brilliant black leader beginning to stir masses of people with an even stronger message than King’s, also assassinated on the stage of a ballroom in New York’s Harlem. All these killings. All these wasted lives, radical progressive lives, cut short before they could come to fruition. And here, in Chicago’s Grant Park, was another life, a mythic Black life on an almost miraculous rise to power from near-obscurity, a political life coming to fruition on this near-miraculous election evening in the 21st Century, and the blood pumped fear that the mad, reactionary forces that seem endemic to America could do it again.

Perhaps that was why Obama’s speech seemed subdued. There were no pumping of fists in victory, no shouts of joy that “we did it” or “I did it when no one thought I could,” no hint even of gloating that many who thought it improbable that he could not only beat the Clinton machine, but also the residual resistance in this land to a black man getting too uppity, were wrong. Nothing of the sort. It was somber, that speech. As if mindful not only of the terrible road ahead, of the dangerous rocks and shoals in the way of any president being able to rescue the broken economy, the broken image of America in the world, of a military broken and bogged down by two wars, of a system that has grown rich and fat on cruelty and chicanery and outright theft and massive indifference to the suffering of “others,” not only that: but mindful as well of the risks that he, a Black man, took exposing himself here and continuously on like stages for the next four or eight years to the still festering resentment of those who would like nothing so much as to see him get his “comeuppance.” And he must have been mindful of it, for the networks told us all that though the Obama victory was sweeping, it had hardly dented the solid South. It was there that McCain racked up his only string of victories of the night. In Alabama and Mississippi and Arkansas and Tennessee and Louisiana and South Carolina and Texas and Kentucky and Oklahoma and once-bleeding Kansas, the polls showed conclusively that the white vote went for the Republican candidate by margins of 8 and 9 and 10 to 1. This was the core of the “southern strategy” evolved by Richard Nixon in 1972. Take advantage of that white resentment, the resentment of still unreconstructed southerners outraged at the rights being “given” to blacks, outraged at the northerners who came south to help get them those rights in the 60s, outraged at the “liberals” from New York who had presumed to enter their land and instruct them about rights and equality and about who had the right to sit where and eat and drink what. And vote. And that resentment, harnessed by Nixon and his followers in the Republican Party ever since, gave the minority party just the edge they needed to win four of the last six elections. And Obama knew it. And must have been mindful of it as he gave that subdued speech, emphasizing not victory but unity, not a new deal or any deal at all, but mostly coming together. It was, on some level perhaps, a plea, the same he has been making all along. We intend no major upheaval, no revolution, no attack on values. We mean only to implement a fair way to get the change America needs to get back on track. Whether it worked or not, whether it impressed that still-solid South, remains to be seen. But in Chicago, on this night of transcendent victory over the forces of unreason, that was the tone the winner struck.

And it capped what can only be called a remarkable night; a night and a campaign in which race came to the fore, but in such a way, and in such circumstances, that a huge majority of the country decided that perhaps it was time. Perhaps the time had come to put this most contentious of American conflicts behind us, at least for the moment, and let the more qualified candidate, the clearly more intelligent and compassionate and informed and humane candidate take the helm of a ship of state which eight years of greed and ignorance and criminal hubris have put on the rocks. And though it is clear that the coming of Obama is not the second coming that many hope it is, not by a long shot, it surely is a cause for relief and even joy that at long last, one long national nightmare is over, and a time of renewal, of renewed faith in community and service and the fine art of governance in its best sense may be at hand.

Lawrence DiStasi

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