What Historic Really Means
To appreciate the tide of history that broke over America tonight, you had to start by listening to John McCain. In his generous concession speech, he acceded to the force of that tide. For once, he didn’t dispute the phenomenon that Barack Obama represents, or gainsay it, or argue with it. He tried to go with the flow, and more, to urge his supporters to ride the wave too, rather than attempt vainly to stop it.
When McCain called on his supporters to work with the new president, it was an act of generosity -- not just in the “good loser” sense, but in the seam of patriotism that is McCain’s life and calling. In its humility and recognition that American history had turned a page, it was McCain’s best speech in months.
When it was Obama’s turn, his rhetoric didn’t quite rise to the moment, and that was appropriate, too. Words really couldn’t capture the enormity of what had happened, and Obama seemed to recognize that. His acceptance speech was low-key and gracious, and he didn’t pull out all the stops on the organ. There was the recital of “yes we can,” but the president-elect spoke the words in a soft voice of wonderment, rather than a roar of affirmation. When he proclaimed that “a new dawn for America” was at hand, the phrase sounded almost flat. The words were true enough, but they were so much less intense than the images we were seeing on the television screen.
The best part of Obama’s speech was the way he reached out to Republicans -- to the people who hadn’t voted for him and doubted the promise of unity and change he had offered. “I need your help, and I will be your president, too,” he said. That wasn’t just good politics, it was the promise of real leadership. When it came to specifics, Obama was vague -- “We will get there,” he said. Okay, but where? That will come later.
The word “historic” is surely the most overused in politics, but tonight we saw what it really means. MSNBC had the good sense to just watch the crowds for a few long minutes after it called the victory for Obama at 11:00, and those are the images I’ll remember as long as I live: The jubilant young African-American men and women at Spelman College, literally dancing for joy, weeping in wonderment, in some cases falling to the floor, blown over by the force of that historic tide. Or the diverse crowd at Grant Park in Chicago, jumping and hugging each other in jubilation.
I remember similar images from television footage the night the Berlin Wall came down: Young people dancing in the streets, embracing and singing as they tore apart that hideous barrier, brick by brick. Obama had it right when he said the real agent of change tonight was “you” -- the millions of people who had formed the human tide that elected the first African-American president; who, as Obama said, put their hands on the arc of history and bent it in a new direction. An unforgettable evening; words truly didn’t do it justice.
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