And what were soundly rejected by the voters? Willful falsehood, fear-mongering ideologues, stupidity. What had been a ridiculous, weirdly retro right-wing talk-radio trope last spring—that Obama is a Marxist—became the main talking point during the last month of the McCain campaign. What was a joke in midsummer—the New Yorker cover cartoon depicting the Obamas in the White House as secretly anti-American Muslim terrorists—had by fall practically become the Republican campaign in a nutshell.
But God bless Fox News’s fair and balanced Shepard Smith, who emphatically drew the line in favor of truth. After McCain-Palin mascot Joe “The Plumber” Wurzelbacher, at a McCain rally a week before the election, agreed with a fellow McCainiac that “a vote for Obama is a vote for the death to Israel,” the McCain campaign put out this statement: “Joe has offered some penetrating and clear analysis that cuts to the core of many of the concerns that people have with Barack Obama.” Smith followed up with Wurzelbacher on Fox, pressing him to make an actual argument, or point to any evidence—and when he couldn’t, Smith, appalled, finally said: “I just want to make this 100 percent perfectly clear—Barack Obama has said repeatedly and demonstrated repeatedly that Israel will always be a friend of the United States.”
The party of magical thinking—of creationism and prayer warriors and speaking in tongues, of cutting everyone’s taxes while balancing the budget in four years—was rejected. And the election served as a character test for leading Republicans, forcing intellectually honest ones—Bill Weld, Colin Powell, Chris Buckley—to reject the party-line fantasies and defect. Yes, yes, we pretty well made good last week on the piety that “anyone can grow up to be president”—yet at the same time America decided that we really can’t allow certain intellectually ill-equipped people, no matter how loaded with pizzazz, to sit next in line for the presidency. Meritocratic standards beat populism run amok.
It’s a fine thing that Obama isn’t by nature an ideologue—but then, neither is John McCain, really. He was just playing one on TV. He decided he had to pretend he was a right-wing true believer, that Sarah Palin was qualified, that Obama’s mainstream Democratic proposals amount to socialism. The failure of his particular Faustian bargain is not just proof that clumsy inauthenticity is punished politically but—even better—that crude, knee-jerk ideology is not necessarily the American way.
Now we have no choice but to be both cheerfully pro-American and earnestly optimistic—not our default positions.
It wasn’t surprising Tuesday night that people around New York gathered in crowds to share their awe and pleasure with strangers—that’s the kind of thing a big city is for—but the gatherings were moving spectacles nevertheless. My tough-guy young nephew, having voted for the first time, took the subway up to wander among the jubilant throng on Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard, then came over to our place to watch Obama’s speech and cry. In Union Square, a friend realized that the last time he was part of such a spontaneous emotional gathering there was on 9/11. And I choked up just hearing about the very young crowds in Union Square and elsewhere breaking into “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
But how will New York and all the honorary New Yorkers who elected Obama handle the transition from perpetual political kvetching (2001–2008) to kvelling (one week and counting) to governing? Starting now, New York City is part of America again, the happy-happy-joy-joy obverse of the way it was after 9/11, when we and the rest of the country embraced in our shared American shock and grief.
This time we are not victims, but winners. Victimhood, at least, was a familiar part of New Yorkers’ repertoire. Now we have no choice but to be both cheerfully pro-American and earnestly optimistic, which are not exactly our default positions. Around 2003, most of us became highly invested in loathing a national regime that we know is wired to loathe people like us. A symbiosis was established. We’ve been shouting and pounding on a locked door with mounting fury for three, four, five, six years—and now that it’s suddenly swung wide open, all of us outsiders welcomed right inside, we’re sweaty and breathless and a little unsure exactly what to do next without someone to demonize and blame. New Yorkers enjoyed being prophets without honor in their own land. Righteous political umbrage felt good. An Obama-loving friend admits that now he actually feels slightly let down without his beleagueredness and anti-Republican rage to energize him. A majority of Americans … agrees with us?
The honeymoon will last a while. Although expectations of Obama are high, the bar is frankly low, both in terms of competence and policy and bi-partisanship (after Bush) and personal character (after Bill Clinton). Certain moves are slam dunks: For instance, the center-left half of the Supreme Court can be rejuvenated by our new Constitutional-Law-Professor-in-Chief, given that the non-right-wing justices are all between 69 and 88 years old. But even apart from appointments and legislation and policy decisions, those of us too young to have known JFK’s Camelot are going to have our own giddy Camelot II to enrapture and entertain us. There will be, for a while, the unalloyed pleasure of simply watching such smart, graceful, great-looking people be the president and First Family. (I propose a new cable channel devoted to them, a joint venture of C-span and the Style Network.)