The Vanguard has a new home, please update your bookmarks to

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Special Commentary: President Obama and What It Means to Me and This Nation

The headline in the New York Times this morning, says it all really. I use the imagery intentionally because it highlights the divide in this country between the educated left and the Sara Palins in this world, the last vestiges of what Richard Hofstadter over half a century ago called, "Anti-Intellectualism in American Life." If anything, the results of this election show that those vestiges are on the wane, and that Obama was right all along, "we are not as divided as our politics would indicate."

For yesterday, white and black, rich and poor, Democrat and Republican, Red State and Blue State, and even parts of the south, would vote to elect Barack Obama as the first African-American President of the United States.

This election was about change and the future. It was most assuredly about the economy. It was also about our place and standing in this world, though that notion was somewhat forgotten by the media and some of the voters. If Iraq is indeed on its way to victory, its debacles for the first four years of the operation are no less real and made no less of an impact of the last two elections.

However, this election was also very much about race. We did not dare say it during the election. It only came out in symbolism and in bigotry in any kind of direct manner from a marginalized few. But this election was indeed about race. Most living African-Americans never believed that this day would come. Less than fifty years ago, people had to march through beatings to earn the right to vote and the right to sit at the same table as white people and to use the same toilet. Think about that for a second.

I am only 35, I do not remember days like that. Yet I remember as a child a display of Martin Luther King Jr. being burned in my elementary school in the suburbs of St. Louis, Missouri. I just read a book on Watergate. Patrick J. Buchanan, then a Nixon aid, advised Nixon not to attend Martin Luther King Jr.'s funeral in 1968 because he was too radical and it would alienate the south during a time when they were employing the Southern Strategy.

It is a Southern Strategy that is now dead. The Republican majority coalition that has controlled the White House for all but 12 of the last 40 years is gone. Today ushers in possibly a new era. That will depend on the leadership of Barack Obama. But if he runs this country like he ran his nearly two year campaign, I have no doubt that we are headed to greatness.

So many black journalists came forward and spoke about what this moment meant to them last night. They took off their impartial journalist hats and spoke from the heart. For me, the moment of Jesse Jackson in literal and very real tears was striking. As polarizing a figure as he might be, as much as Barack Obama moved away from him and that type of politics, he was still the vanguard of the civil rights movement from 1968 until the perhaps the present. The torch in that respect has been passed and our country and the African-American people will be far better for it, but let us not diminish the contributions of men like Jesse Jackson.

I want to speak of different heroes though.

And let there be no mistake, John McCain is an American hero for many reasons. He ran what I consider to be a repulsive campaign. He demeaned himself and his memory the way he ran it. But he has given much to this country and yesterday he gave far more in his speech. He spoke from the heart about race and what this election means:
"This is an historic election, and I recognize the special significance it has for African-Americans and for the special pride that must be theirs tonight.

I've always believed that America offers opportunities to all who have the industry and will to seize it. Senator Obama believes that, too.

But we both recognize that, though we have come a long way from the old injustices that once stained our nation's reputation and denied some Americans the full blessings of American citizenship, the memory of them still had the power to wound.

A century ago, President Theodore Roosevelt's invitation of Booker T. Washington to dine at the White House was taken as an outrage in many quarters.

America today is a world away from the cruel and frightful bigotry of that time. There is no better evidence of this than the election of an African-American to the presidency of the United States.

Let there be no reason now ... Let there be no reason now for any American to fail to cherish their citizenship in this, the greatest nation on Earth."

There was a moment in this campaign where he seemed not to get it. In fact it was just this weekend. Obama had addressed Iowa and talked about how his Iowa Primary victory really gave him hope and it validated his faith in his country. McCain tried to seize on that statement to suggest that he had never had doubt in his country and did not need anyone to validate his belief in his country.

My thought at that time was that McCain does not get it. That for a white man who comes from a respectable background, there is never a reason to doubt the country. He did not have to come from slavery, he did not have to deal with Jim Crow, he did not have to deal with de facto segregation and prejudice. So perhaps it was a little easier for a white man of some priviledge to never doubt America, than the son of an immigrant, a man raised in a single-parent home of mixed racial heritage who clearly had to struggle and fight his way to prosperity. Perhaps McCain needed to step back and look at history before he tries to cast the patriotism pall over Obama.

But I think I was wrong. I think McCain did get it, he just lost his way in the battle. I hope he meant every word he said last night because it was a singularly great moment and McCain, if he is truly the maverick he claims, has much to still offer this country.

John Lewis unfortunately became the center of controversy for part of the campaign when he compared the type of vitrolioc attacks from crowds and surrogates of McCain to those of George Wallace. Lewis has always been a soft-spoken man who has avoid that sort of controversy. But I think he was right. When you had people talking about Barack Hussein Obama, people accusing Obama of being a terrorist, Sarah Palin talking about "paling around with terrorists," and some of the other comments, it was alarming for a man who has lived through as much as John Lewis.

John Lewis is one of my heroes. He was beaten badly on the bridge from Selma, Alabama to Montgomery. In the mid-1960s this was a battle for desegregation. And Lewis was among those badly beaten by the police under order from George Wallace. One of my favorite books is David Halberstam's "The Children." One of the most powerful moments in the book was toward the end when one of the chief protagonists who had ordered some of the police beatings visited John Lewis in his congressional office and asked for forgiveness. The book speaks about the strength of John Lewis' faith and his belief in Christian love. And how much he actually lived by that creed of literally loving your enemy. It has a power that is simply unavoidable.

That is the world that the United States lived in, even in 1965. And while that was seven years before I was born, it was not so distant from the world that I was born into. I never really believed I would live to see a black president. I also believed if I did it would be a Republican, either someone like Colin Powell or worse yet, someone like Clarence Thomas. Someone that would not rally and inspire the African-American base in this country and give them hope and restore their faith.

Some spoke in grand terms last night that the racial divide will end and that we can get beyond racial reconciliation. I do not believe that. Not yet. There is still much inequality. The devastation wrought by years of persecution has put the black community in a very dire position today even as more blacks go to college than ever before and more live middle class status than ever before.

This election will not end those problems. What this election does give us is hope. My children will grow up in a world that has always had a black president. Think about that. Barack Obama's children will grow up in a world, where they have seen their father, a black man of mixed racial heritage ascend to the most powerful position in the world. It gives people everywhere a reason to hope. It gives people everywhere a reason to believe in America. Not just black people, but all people in all countries.

People have suggested that liberals hate America. That is not true. I believe that conservatives love America like they love their God--acting as though America is perfect and incapable of imperfection and with blind devotion. My country right or wrong. Liberals have a very different love for America. They love their country like they love their children--they are critical because they want the best for this country, scornful when it goes awry, but also hopeful that they will reach for greatness. It is the promise of greatness that drives the criticism.

It is that promise of greatness for which I adhore Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo. It is that promise of greatness why I condemn waterboarding and US efforts at torture. It is that promise of greatness why I adhore wiretapping and evesdropping of not just terrorists but American citizens. It is that promise of greatness that is why I cannot sit back and allow America to unite her enemies and divide her friends anymore.

We speak of the economy and many personally feel it, but this election was about so much more than that.

For the first time in a long time, I believe in America again. Not George Bush's America which is divided along racial and party lines. Not the America that is arrogant in the face of the world. But the America that our founding fathers saw through all of the turmoil and imperfections. "We hold these truths to be self evident that all men are created equal..." Forty-five years after Martin Luther King implored America to "live out the true meaning of its creed," American has done just that and elected an African-American to the Presidency of the United States. And the world watched and believes in America again.

---David M. Greenwald reporting