What follows are some meandering thoughts on Tuesday night’s events. I don’t promise that they’re particularly interesting or insightful, but they do represent how I feel about that historic evening. Oh, and way less then the 18,000 words I wrote four years ago!
The front page of Wednesday’s Indianapolis Star blared a one-word headline: HISTORY. I thought, couldn’t they have at least interviewed me if they were going to write about me?
That’s right, the vote I cast a week ago, unlikely as it may seem, was the first time my vote has counted toward a presidential candidate’s electoral college total. Each time before, I had either voted for the losing candidate, or voted for the winner, but in a state he lost. Thus, my ’92 and ’96 votes for Clinton in Kansas, my ’00 vote for Gore in Missouri, and my ’04 vote for Kerry in Indiana were meaningless.
But this time, thanks to a massive ground effort, Barack Obama picked off Indiana, a 44-year red state, on his way to the White House. I genuinely feel like my vote made a difference. It was a sure thing that he would roll up big numbers in the state’s handful of Democratic counties. Even with big totals there, though, it would still be difficult to win Indiana. That’s where I, and people like me, came into play. It would be easy for me to stay home on Election Day (or early Election Day, as it were). The odds of a Democrat winning Indiana are slim. The county I live in is basically a one-party county. Roughly half of the offices on the ballot here featured Republicans running unopposed. Few of the handful of Democrats running had a legitimate shot to win their race. So the easy thing to do is to stay home and hope the rest of the country picks up the slack. But enough of us showed up across the state to cut McCain’s margin in the red counties way down from those Bush ran up four years ago. The result was, as the final votes were tallied, an amazing upset.
My vote counted. Yes I Can.
It goes without saying that I was in a better mood when I woke up Wednesday than I was the mornings after the last two presidential elections. That’s saying something, because Tuesday night / Wednesday morning I was suffering from a massive sinus headache most of the night, we had a fussy baby and two big sisters who are still confused about the time change. But, as I was feeding L. at 4:00 AM, I got a text saying Indiana had gone blue, and the need for sleep dissipated.
Yes, I’m thrilled Barack won. I’m delighted at the margin of victory, the tilt of states from red to blue, and all of that.
But, I am humbled by the meaning of his victory. I’m not talking about party or policy or philosophy. I’m talking about a black man being elected to live in the White House. 20 years ago, I was sitting in my bedroom, reading the Autobiography of Malcolm X, listening to Public Enemy, and wondering why, 20 years after the civil rights movement, so many people I lived around and went to school with continued to see the world through a prism that automatically discounted people who had darker skin than us. As Jesse Jackson was mocked for running for the Democratic presidential nomination, the unspoken rule was that blacks need not apply to the nation’s highest office, no matter how much progress they were otherwise making.
That didn’t seem to change in the 90s, despite African American culture taking a place square in the mainstream of pop culture, as Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods, and Oprah became essential icons. As we moved to the 21st century, it seemed more likely we’d see a Hispanic president than an African American one. There were a handful of black senators and governors and cabinet members, but none seemed to have the national profile needed to make a run for the White House.
Yet here we are.
I was thrilled when Clinton won in 1992. That was my first election as a voter and my guy won. I thought the world was perfect. I was happy when he won in ’96, but it was more a feeling of relief. Despite being a Kansan and a Jayhawk, I didn’t want Bob Dole anywhere near the White House. I was devastated in both 2000 and ’04, partially because I underestimated the effects that the Karl Rove school of campaigning could have on a race. “Aren’t we better than this?” I thought each time.
But Tuesday night? I felt emotions I’ve never felt before on Election Day. Like a lot of people, I expected the win. When Ohio was called, I did some quick calculations, adding in west coast states that were sure to go blue, and saw the election was over no matter what happened in Virginia, Florida, Indiana, and Missouri. And still, when the clock struck 11:00 Eastern and David Gregory said they could now make the announcement that MSNBC was projecting that Barack Obama would be the next president, there was a flood of emotions I never expected. I wasn’t bawling like Jesse Jackson, but I have no trouble admitting there were some tears flowing.
Which might seem weird, for a white guy who grew up in the suburbs in a home first of modest means and later of more comfortable means, and who has only a couple African American friends. But since I became politically aware and adopted a system of beliefs, racial politics and civil rights have been at the core of my ideology. One of my core beliefs is that government exists to eliminate the barriers raised through history that prevent every person in this country from having an equal opportunity to succeed or fail.
To borrow a phrase that’s been used way too much the last two days, this was the mountaintop, although one I never expected to be scaled. While we will always have racial divides to bridge – people being people, there will always be some who point to the differences between us as an explanation for the troubles we face – as each year passes things get a little closer to the ideal. Barack Obama’s election is a massive step towards finally reaching that ideal. For at least the next four years, parents, teachers, and mentors can point to the White House and say “Anything is possible.”* It may be only a symbolic moment, but it feels much greater than that.
I kept expecting Kevin Garnett to come out on stage Tuesday and scream “Anything is possible!” as he did after the Celtics won the NBA title last June.
I do wonder if I could truly separate party and policy from accomplishment. Would I have had the same emotions had Colin Powell run, and won, in 2000 as a Republican? Probably not, although I believe I would have still been proud of the country and recognized it as a moment of massive change. But the same emotions? I doubt it.
And now the hard part. Despite being an early supporter, largely because of his stance on the war in Iraq, I did have some concerns about Barack’s readiness for office. Those concerns were addressed and satisfied over the course of the campaign, and I believe he is well prepared and suited to be a fine president. But capacity and readiness for office don’t necessarily make a great president, as events may conspire to wreck a presidency. He will enter office with a reservoir of good will and about 20 minutes of slack. Iraq is George Bush’s war. The economic meltdown is the responsibility of Bush and his economic team. But the first time something bad happens in Iraq or Afghanistan, or the first time the stock market plunges 500 points, Bush will be forgotten and the responsibility will rest with Barack. It’s a daunting time to take on that responsibility. I believe he’s up to the task. He better be, for all our sakes.
Best of all, no more political ads for awhile. Change we can all believe in!