How Obama broke the dark spell and returned America to itself.
CNN’s Jessica Yellin in Chicago appeared in its New York election headquarters as a hologram last night. Over seven hundred miles away she stood there on Wolf Blitzer’s familiar set like the media equivalent of Princess Leia and told the implacable anchor of the building ecstasy in Grant Park where American history would, in a few short hours be turned inside out.
This has been an election full of magic. White Magic that only the black man from everywhere and nowhere could perform. Even his adored grandmother dying on the eve of the victory had a mythic feeling of completion to it in a candidacy full of signs and symbols. Remember the three-point basketball shot when he played with the soldiers in Kuwait? It’s as if Obama is the prince who lifts the curse in a fairy story, a curse that began eight years ago with an election wrenched away from the rightful winner and begetting as a consequence the wrathful visitation of tragedy and wars and hurricanes and economic collapse.
Perhaps the most moving image in the Chicago crowd last night was the pudgy, tear streaked face of Rev. Jesse Jackson as he held aloft his little American flag.
Last night President-Elect Barack Obama gave America back its idea of itself. Just by winning he restored the nobility of a dream that has inspired the world for 230 years. As he told us all last night: “This victory alone is not the change we seek. It is only the chance for us to make that change.” We were given that chance once in our longing for service and unity after 9/11 but what we got was a call to go shopping and we know where that took us. Even McCain seemed a different man when he conceded. Noble again. A Man of honor. The curse of this campaign has been lifted from him too.
Now can we please not risk any more catastrophes by letting this administration stick around? Just scrap the transition and let President Obama clean house right away like the Brits do at Number 10 Downing Street? In the country of my birth, the Prime Minister kisses the Queen’s hand and he’s in and the loser is on the way out with no time to make off with the silver. President Bush is still rushing through executive orders President Obama and his team (which he has surely decided as coolly as he planned everything else) will have to take months undoing. There are still agonizing weeks to wait before America can begin the painful job of putting herself back together and just by still being in the White House, I am afraid that Bush and the Death Eaters will cause some fresh disaster to fall.
Except that now if it does, we will feel better prepared to face it. Obama has been so calm and disciplined and resilient in his quest for this moment. He had to be. He was black and he has always known that one false step and he was down and out. Knocked off balance by the Reverend Wright tapes, he relied not on old style retaliation but on the power of reason and the power of words. His race speech became one of the most downloaded videos on YouTube.
His subtle guiding intelligence married to that uncanny connection to the fine-tuning of the zeitgeist made his campaign an unstoppable force before which everything fell away. The entertainment world saw it coming. This morning in the BBC Green Room, Richard Schiff, who played Toby Zeigler, the White House Communications Director on The West Wing, told me that in the 2004 series, Democratic candidate Matt Santos was based on Barack Obama. And, of course, Dennis Haysbert, who played the first President Palmer on FOX’s 24 further imagined for American audiences a black leader of the free world. Then the rest of the country caught up. You could almost feel the world spinning faster and faster in the last year, before it came to a stop in Chicago on November 4, 2008. As a new American, I pulled the lever for the first time and felt how lucky it was that it was this election I got to vote in. As I left the booth in the Catholic high school on East 56th street I felt as joyful and emotional as any Iraqi with a purple forefinger.
Perhaps the most moving image in the Chicago crowd last night was the pudgy, tear streaked face of Rev. Jesse Jackson as he held aloft his little American flag. It was all too much for him. The dream had been realized, but not by him. As he told me last August when he felt temporarily sidelined and sad: “Politics is a game of add and multiply…All the barriers went down after 50 years of battle, bloody battles and knock-out war. Obama inherited the benefits of the martyrs.” But sometimes a great leader is the candidate who embodies the dream someone else fought for. Cometh the hour. Cometh the man. Pain and pride were in Jesse’s streaming eyes. He knows we will need more than magic in the desperate struggles ahead.