When we were growing up, the future was the 21st century, and the future was going to astonish us.
And so it has, eight years in, and not just with whiz-bang gadgets. We were astonished by the attacks of September 11. By the administration’s bungling of the Iraq War. By Hurricane Katrina’s scale of destruction and the administration’s incompetent response. By the realization that global warming is possibly out of control. By the teetering of the global financial system.
Yet none of the 21st century’s OMFG events has been any more astonishing than what happened last week. Not just a Democratic president, but one elected with the third largest majority of any Democrat in the past one hundred years; not just a resoundingly victorious Democrat who lacks (for the first time since most voters were born) a southern accent, but who nevertheless won three southern states; not just a big-city northern Democrat whose name recognition was close to zero 1,500 days ago, but an eloquent Ivy League intellectual; and, of course, not just an unknown smooth-talking pointy-headed neoliberal with an exotic upbringing, but, yes, an African-American.
For those of us born since World War II, never in our adult lifetimes (as the next First Lady undoubtedly meant to say last winter) has any single event made us prouder of our country—and for those of us who live in this city, never have we felt more completely in sync with it. We’re all Dorothy, stunned at having just stepped out—tripped out, one might even say—from a half-wrecked black-and-white reality into a strange and glorious new Technicolor world.
Moreover, for a lot of habitually skeptical, worrywartish New Yorkers, the thrill of victory is especially intense because we’d refused to indulge even a moment of premature celebration. Until late Tuesday night we couldn’t stop vividly, obsessively imagining the final (astonishing) agony of defeat. In fact, our local predisposition to faux-professional insiderism was enabled by this year’s unprecedented amount of public-polling data on the Web, all of which served to make us more nervous rather than less. Call it the anxiety of hope. And so for the last few days we have been experiencing not only the normal pleasures of virtue and our side’s triumphing, but also relief from the self-imposed pain of our variously hardwired Catholic, Jewish, African-American, or Charlie Brownian dread.
In other words, we denied ourselves irrational exuberance until the deed was finally done. And indeed, while his election will first and forever be understood as a fantastic moment in the history of racial progress—and the triumph of unity over division, the promise of change over the power of the status quo, blah-ba-de blah blah blah—it was also a rejection of ad hominem assertion, atavistic demagoguery, make-believe innuendo, and the fervently ideological. Even-keeled cool beat splenetic fear and confusion. Reason won.
Racism is irrational: also morally wrong and unseemly, sure, but what eventually moots and eradicates invidious racial prejudice is not so much a general dawning recognition of its sinfulness but of its irrationality. I was moved, of course, when a friend who works as a custodian at a polling place in a totally white Dutchess County precinct told me about parents who brought their little kids into the voting booths “to pull the lever so they can say they helped to vote for the first black president.” But the unforgettable anecdote from this election—because it is so counterintuitively, unsentimentally American—took place in the western Pennsylvania town of Washington. According to Fivethirtyeight.com, the man of the house yelled out to his wife to tell the campaign canvasser at the door that “we’re voting for the nigger.” The great-great-grandfathers of people like that also called black people niggers, even though they fought and died in the Civil War to end slavery.
Up till now, our country’s big, official civil-rights milestones had consisted of the Emancipation Proclamation, the Fourteenth Amendment, Brown v. Board of Education, and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965. But compared to all of those rungs up the ladder, electing Barack Obama was by far more democratic. It was done not by presidential or judicial edict, nor by some hundreds of worthies voting in their legislative chambers, but by means of a secret ballot in a popular national referendum with a historically huge voter turnout.
Paradoxically, he was elected both because he was black and in spite of being black. A hypothetical 100 percent white Obama certainly wouldn’t have generated the same excitement among his white supporters (let alone the black ones), and probably wouldn’t have won the Democratic nomination. Yet it was precisely because Obama’s blackness came to seem so secondary to his being and his candidacy that he was able to attract a sufficient number of voters to elect him. He’s black! But he also just happens to be black. We need a new phrase for this happy converse of Catch-22.
Plenty of Americans who didn’t vote for Obama and earnestly worry about what kind of president he’ll be are now, despite themselves, feeling a little gooey about the fact of his election. Even in the maximum heat at the end of this campaign, the point when citizens are most reflexively disinclined to go on record saying anything good about the other side, Gallup found that a fifth of McCain voters it polled confessed to having a favorable opinion of Obama. And I guarantee that number will grow and grow over the next ten weeks, at least through Inauguration Day.
Americans above all like to feel good about themselves and their country. (To his dying day, John McCain can feel good about himself for refusing to use Jeremiah Wright as a campaign bogeyman.) Since the sixties, disagreement over just how good to feel about America has been the flash point of our electoral and cultural politics. Assertive pro-Americanism has tended to have an angry and defensive cast, partly in reaction to the flagellating anger among some people—“God damn America,” screamed Reverend Wright—on the left.
In the exhausted wake of the sixties and Vietnam and Watergate, it was the yearning to feel good again about their country that led Americans to elect Ronald Reagan. And even people who were frightened of Reagan before he was president—and never voted for him—wound up feeling heartened by his good cheer and hopefulness, and quietly happy to shake off some of the national self-doubt.
September 11 plus the Iraq War plus the Bush administration’s various other misadventures plus two burst stock-market bubbles plus the present economic crisis do not (yet) equal the cultural and political discombobulation we endured between 1963 and 1974. But what we’ve just been through is as close to a remake as history usually provides in one lifetime. In this moment of national hangover and trepidation, we are tapped out, beleaguered—and desperate to feel good. In addition to reasserting that the business of America is unfettered business, our election of Reagan amounted to a kind of NASCAR-ized Stuart Smalley affirmation: We’re good enough, we’re smart enough, and doggone it—USA, USA, USA! But since then, except for winning the Cold War, we’ve actually done rather little to justify our overweening national self-esteem.
What we have just been through is as close to a remake as history usually provides in one lifetime.
So while Obama’s inspiring and reassuring vision and sensibility and persona are just what most of us have been craving, as Reagan’s were at the time, Obama’s election has the additional virtue of being a good deed in itself—that is, last Tuesday, we spectacularly narrowed the distance between American ideals and American reality. We acted true to the original Puritan vision of America “as a City upon a hill,” as opposed to the self-satisfied, we’re-Number-One-no-matter-what revisionism of the last few decades. John Winthrop’s phrase was a warning to do right so as to avoid the world’s disappointment and condemnation, not an eternal dispensation to do anything we wanted because we’re specially blessed.
Now the self-esteem feedback loop is immediate, and with luck it’ll become self-perpetuating. In 1960, when Americans elected the Roman Catholic John F. Kennedy (who quoted Winthrop correctly in a speech at the time), that act proved to themselves that they had become more tolerant, and the de facto epiphany that naturally followed was the stupidity—the pointlessness, the irrationality—of holding on to their vestigial fears and suspicions. A decade later, anti-Catholic prejudice was a quaint artifact.
Even before he takes office, there is one large, low-hanging fruit that Obama is harvesting already: The rebranding of America in the rest of the world is under way. Intolerant, ignorant, bellicose cowboy-America is suddenly … not. And thanks to overwhelmingly white America, as Tunku Varadarajan wrote on Forbes.com, “a black man will be the most powerful person on earth” and “the most powerful black man in the history of mankind.” Also? His father was actually African. Foreigners are even more astonished than we are.
But the election happily overturned another set of conventional wisdoms that were not specifically racial: Reason and intelligence made a comeback against the heretofore ascendant forces of the idiocracy. For the moment, America is reality-based once again.
After a campaign in which “intellectuals” became a pejorative, we’ve elected as president a former professor and an extraordinarily fluent, subtle writer. Obama’s preacherly ability to give rousing speeches was never his main appeal for me. Rather, it’s the coherence and complexity of his thinking, and his preternaturally cool, Spock-like bias toward the empirical—that is, his regard for facts, even when they lead to ideologically uncomfortable truths.
This is evident in his books, but even more thrillingly in his public comments as a politician. For instance, in a controversial newspaper interview last winter, he gave the Republicans’ modern superhero his proper due. “Ronald Reagan,” Obama said, “changed the trajectory of America in a way that Richard Nixon did not and in a way that Bill Clinton did not. He put us on a fundamentally different path because the country was ready for it.” It is unfortunate that “articulate” has come to be regarded as a kind of quasi-racist code word when used by a white person (such as Joe Biden last year) to describe a well-spoken black person, because Obama really is supremely articulate—not “for an African-American” but for a politician, for a human being. The guy is incredibly smart, and America elected him—even though he lacks the camouflage of the incredibly smart Bill Clinton’s bubba-ism.
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.)
However, from now until Inauguration Day is the last moment when so many of us in New York will feel so happily synchronized and united. Enjoy it while you can. Just as the trauma after 9/11 had a half-life, and then accelerated as no further attacks occurred, so will the euphoria over President Obama begin to fade on January 21, and accelerate when no unicorns and rainbow bridges and candy-cane trees appear during 2009 or, experts expect, 2010. In his victory speech last Tuesday night, his rhetoric was as well modulated as ever, balancing the goose-bumpy yes-we-cans with a prudent, rational, buzz-killing reminder that he and we must now deal with several gargantuan messes that won’t vanish when the Republicans leave Washington. And even though he may turn out to be, thanks to armed Islamic extremism and economic disarray, the 21st century’s FDR, if we can please avoid another Great Depression and the equivalent of World War II, I’ll be happy if he’s nothing more than a Democratic Ronald Reagan.
We need to manage our reactions and moods as the Obama miracle turns into just … a presidency. On the one hand, we need to look at the way the Hannitys and Limbaughs and Coulters behaved during the six years that Republicans ran Washington, and avoid becoming their irritating mirror images. And on the other hand, when Obama winds up governing more from the center than the left—as he’s promised to do all along—we have to ignore the ideologues and chronic complainers among us who will scream betrayal! when he hasn’t withdrawn from Iraq quickly enough, doesn’t simply free all the terrorists from Guantánamo, supports offshore drilling and nuclear power and non-union-approved experiments in public education. We need to abandon the default impulse to oppositionism, and not let our habit of the last several years congeal and continue as a kind of neurotic imperative to whine. Of course, from the point of view of political cynicism (of which the president-elect has a healthy amount), some left-wing opposition would be useful to the Obama administration, because it will help persuade the center and the sane right that he is not such a wild-eyed lefty after all.
And is he not, in fact? I don’t think so, but all the Obama voters I know, from a Park Slope Noam Chomskyite to a red-state Republican friend of Laura Bush’s, think that Obama is their president-elect. What precisely will Obamaism turn out to be? A lot of New York types have always professed horror that people voted for Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush because they “liked” them, had positive gut feelings about them. Yet in the end we, too, voted for what we take to be Obama’s elegant, clear-eyed, unruffled temperament and personality.
What about the millions of Americans who, unlike most of their rabble-rousers in the media, genuinely fear and loathe Obama? Some of them will chill. Some of them will be pleasantly surprised. And he will continue, I think, to go out of his way to soothe the fearful, as he did in the victory speech, when he quoted Lincoln’s aside to Southerners at the end of his first inaugural address in 1861: “We are not enemies, but friends. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection.”
Of course, the Civil War immediately followed. But I’m hopeful. The civil-rights revolution of the fifties and sixties actually turned people’s real lives upside down, required them to cede power in their daily lives, as did the feminist revolution of the seventies. For those who consider every abortion the killing of a person, Roe v. Wade unleashed a great moral evil. Unlike those earlier, legally enforced lurches toward freedom, the potency of this moment is all in its symbolism. The election of Barack Obama doesn’t require ordinary people to give up any actual perquisites or status, as the progressive moments of the fifties and sixties and seventies did. It shouldn’t be painful.
And we proudly rational Obamamaniacs are, let’s be honest, a little irrational ourselves in ways that resemble the irrationality of a lot of Obama-haters. Our secularist faith in Obama really is a little religious. And people who earn over $200,000 voted 52 to 46 percent in favor of Obama—voted, in other words, to have their taxes raised significantly. Are they not just like the working-class Republican voters who irrationally vote against their own economic interests in order to realize certain symbolic hopes and dreams? A black president is to us what a pro-life president is to them, important and gratifying even if it doesn’t maximize our material well-being. What’s the matter with Kansas, you ask? Well, what’s the matter with New York? We’re all in this together.
On November 4, we visited Harlem Hospital and Lenox Hill Hospital to see which new Americans were coming into the world here in New York.
born 8:47 a.m., 6 lbs. 3 oz.,
Ja-Bri Jai Bennett,
born 6:48 a.m., 8 lbs. 5 oz.,
Sophie Ella Ruddy,
born 5:11 p.m., 7 lbs. 6 oz.,
Yamilek Francisco de-Oleo,
born 7:43 a.m., 7 lbs. 1 oz.,
born 1:16 p.m., 9 lbs. 3 oz.,
born 10 a.m., 6 lbs. 7 oz.,
born 8:50 a.m., 6 lbs. 4 oz.,
Election Night in the City