Last night, as the results came in for the electoral votes, as the possibilities grew slimmer for McCain, as it became clear that Obama would not simply win but win convincingly, it all began, seemingly worldwide. The texts came in, the phone calls. The election day thread on ILE exploded. Washington DC partied, Chicago went nuts. The photos and clips and audio rocketed across the networks, across the Net. The rhetoricians went into overdrive.
I relaxed in my apartment — no sound of wild celebrations in my neighborhood that I could hear — and my primary feeling was contentedness.
A conditional contentedness, of course — one confirmed by the Prop 8 results out here, and which led me to feel a touch snippish earlier today towards expressions of unfettered glee. But the point was that in a whirlwind of something undeniable — that something major had happened, that the expectations of something as simple as a person’s identity, their name and background, for the Presidency were now radically changed forever — I merely felt content. Settled.
So I had to wonder why that was.
Partially it was because of the knotted feeling I’d felt throughout much of October, which I perhaps hinted at here, but no further. This goes into very deep waters, but I’d seen enough in the intersections of political tensions and economic shock to sense that emotions were starting to shift to something and somewhere I did not recognize. It was only an observational, surface shift from my perspective, but it was enough to keep me up for a few nights at a stretch. I honestly didn’t feel reassured until Colin Powell’s level-headed smackdown via the Obama endorsement — if only because it was a sign that somebody with a voice in the national arena felt self-assured enough to speak crisp, clear sense on the route that the McCain campaign in particular was willing to lead itself and others down, thanks to the fires they foolishly stoked. I don’t believe at all that Powell somehow changed the election, say, but he signposted an alternate path for its discourse, and in providing cover for others on the right in line with his thoughts allowed them to speak out more clearly on the point.
Complete reassurance was not available until the election itself, of course, and thus my being able to shed those waves of tension was a relief, though the seeds sown will linger now for far too long among the willfully ignorant and the gullible, grasping at the straws of supposed questions on birth certificates and the like, cranks who mistakes their mutual reassurances for clear proof of Obama’s falsity and their own supposedly pure and crusading natures. But having locked themselves in their mental prisons, they can only be pitied if they choose not to come out. If they don’t, their tensions will unnecessarily keep them up at night for now on, and they can have their paranoid dreams — and indeed, their bitter ones.
But this looks at my contentedness merely through the realm of amelioration, a restoring of an equilibrium. Why then no celebratory uplift on my part beyond that, even as I heard — and agreed with — all the surprise and amazement and joy?
It took me a while to pin it down but I think it came back to two incidents, one foggy, the other crystal clear. The crystal clear one came first — it occurred with Obama’s announcement of his candidacy. I remember reading about it while skimming through news sites while at the library, reading the report and seeing photos of Obama and his family with the crowd of onlookers, smiles on their faces.
What exactly I thought to myself I don’t know, not in terms of wording or anything. But I remember this much — the potential impact on voters at large of his background, or his name, or anything like that wasn’t at conscious issue with me (I stress conscious — self-analysis can only go so far). It was simply an idle wondering if it was too soon for him given only a couple of years on the full national scene to establish a clear political profile, nothing more. Perhaps naively, perhaps too idealistically — perhaps too unconsciously, or maybe self-consciously — I had already assumed a certain baseline, that whatever his particular gifts as a speaker or thinker, ultimately he would also be in the end just another candidate and be seen as just another candidate. Just another American.
But surely that was the point.
The foggy incident must have happened sometime in the primary season. Probably wasn’t even just one incident. But at a certain point it started to click with me that he was firing on all fours and kept going, that there was a sense that he had a good organization around him, that he knew what he was doing as did his team, and that he knew how to play the game of politics with the best of them.
At that point, the penny must have dropped with me, since my essential conclusion was “Oh right, he can carry it the rest of the way, then. No problem. He has the ability to do it.” It was the response to my earlier wondering about his possibilities, now firmly answered. All he had to do from there was to take it forward.
We know the rest. And we’ll know more as we learn even more about the campaigns.
Now, don’t take any of this for me thinking that he definitely had it fully in the bag when I made that second conclusion — I merely concluded he could. And I saw it from my own, limited, cynical/hopeful, individual perspective, imperfect, flawed, shaped by circumstances and personality and upbringing.
So his success didn’t surprise me. The celebratory intensity of the reaction to it almost did, though. Had I already internalized the idea of him winning so completely? Was I right to do so? Was I looking through things through rose-colored glasses the whole time? Do I always do so? Was I too easily accepting of something so seismic — did I miss a feeling of awe and the sense of great events? People are already talking about how they will always remember where they were when they heard he’d won.
Perhaps in the end it is just personality. Perhaps I was so content because I was so tired and exhausted, and I was just happy to have an answer. Perhaps something else.
But in happy contrast to that, this:
One of the people texting me last night is a friend, an African-American woman with a son in middle school, whose father was white. When she wrote, she talked about how she cried when she saw the numbers, how amazed she was. I texted back a smile and said, “Now you can tell your boy he can grow up to be president too. And he can!”
She responded with a laugh, “I’ve always told him and now he sees it.”
It isn’t sentimentality to note that. Anything but.
Two further things to quote — first, a post from ILE from someone who had worked on the campaign:
guyz i was downtown in grant park for the speech and it was amaaaaazing
i think the thing that tripped me up the most was how really subdued and calmly happy everyone was – i mean, people were really excited but it was this really serene scene walking with thousands and thousands of other people back from grant park. coming over the hill right before reaching michigan ave and passing by all the bootleg obama t-shirt sellers (there were TONS) you could see how far the mass of people walking west through the streets stretched out, it was really really powerful and crazy – ive never seen chicago (ESPECIALLY a city as historically racially charged as chicago) so CONGENIAL.
ahhhhhhh i am so happyyyyyyyyyyyyy
i think one of the other great things about this campaign is how it encouraged people to feel like they owned a piece of it – because of the money i sent and the time i invested, woke up early the last two days to canvass in indiana and prior to that was phone banking in ohio …. the stories i have meeting people … it makes me really PROUD to have been a part of it
Second, friend Alfred’s own reflections on the election, on the opposite coast but with no less bittersweet a kick as we had out here in California. A selection:
Now it’s time for full disclosure: I did not vote for a president of the United States…if yesterday I couldn’t mark the ballot in his favor, I put the blame entirely on his party of chickenshits, of which he is now its leader. When a right wing asshole on AM radio laments the “loony left Reid/Pelosi wing’ of the Democratic Party that will push Obama around as it did President Bush, I want to buy them reading glasses and a Russian bouncer to make sure they read the legislation. Whether it was war authorization or the support of illegal wiretapping, the Democrats in Congress, led by Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi, kowtowed to President Bush. When the country, fed up with six years of chicanery and law breaking, gave them the mandate to change in 2006, implicit in their vote was the order to get more liberal, not less.
So what does the junior senator from Illinois, poised to claim an even bigger mandate for change than his legislative branch colleagues, do when it’s time to vote on a craven “compromise” on illegal wiretapping and telecom immunity? He says “aye.”
At the time I was told to “grow up,” to “understand that Obama is a politician,” that politics “is all about compromise”; but if you didn’t think in June that the next president of the United States was being chosen in part to correct the illegalities and clean the incalculable mess that eight years of George W. Bush have bequeathed to generations, then you had no business lecturing anyone. The truth is, Obama caved. Then he chose as his running mate the senior senator from Delaware, the Honorable Joseph “MBNA” Biden, a public servant who can always rely on huge contributions from credit card companies but, goddamn, can he smile like a motherfucker. Maybe Biden did help him win Pennsylvania; maybe Biden will show him “how Washington works” (as if he needed the advice from Biden). We’ll see.
But I still teared up last night, especially after I saw the reaction shot of Jesse Jackson listening to Obama’s victory speech. I kept mouthing, “President-Elect Barack Hussein Obama” to my friends. It’s still somewhat unreal. I like Obama a lot, and wish him all the luck in the world (so does the world). If his deeds match his rhetoric and the hopes of his followers, then I’ll be proud to vote for him in 2012.
It is noteworthy to watch so many on the right assume that they think those who voted for Obama did so assuming he would fix everything with a wave of the hand, when so many on the left speak clearly about how they assume nothing of the sort. It is noteworthy too that in his acceptance speech Obama stressed challenges and not only the possibilities of mistakes but the inevitability of them. I’ll take that level-headedness and awareness, thanks, and here’s to it being put in place to the full.
Perfection I do not expect. A striving for it is something else. He seems more than up to it and I’m quite happy to see him there, in a job which divides the eras of American sociohistorical times by the names of its leaders.
The American experiment continues.