As I entered Grant Park on Tuesday night to cover the Obama victory party, I happened to glance up at the statues on either side of the broad walkway that serves as a gateway to this treasured Chicago landmark. They are identical bronze representations of a man on a rearing horse. At that moment, a flash of memory struck me like a slap across the face.
There is a famous photo snapped during the 1968 riots at the Democratic National Convention that shows a young man on top of one of these statues waving the black North Vietnamese flag. I then realized that the probable election victory of Obama meant that the argument over Vietnam that served as a cultural, political, and social divide in America for 40 years was either at an end or at the beginning of the end.
This thought was buttressed by what I witnessed as I made my way through the gigantic crowd. At least seven out of ten Obama supporters who were reveling in his coming victory were under the age of 30 — and that’s a conservative estimate. None of these people were even alive when Vietnam, Watergate, assassinations, and riots cleaved us in two, ripping the fabric of our national polity asunder and opening a chasm between the two sides that may — just may — have begun to close with Obama’s victory last night.
That remains to be seen. But there is little doubt that the potential for some kind of healing has presented itself with the election of Barack Obama as president. He is not of that time either. And while some of his politics may reflect a hard liberalism, it is not a lockstep love affair with the new left ideals to which many Democrats in Congress adhere. It is tempered with some surprising thoughts on personal responsibility and the notion that individuals are empowered to make a difference in this country. We will see how wedded he is to these positions when confronted with the Pelosi-Reid idea of how to “transform” America.
His young supporters know little of the Vietnam era and care about it less. And like it or not, and for whatever reason, they see the United States in a different way than their parents. They have the passion (and ignorance) of youth animating their vision of America. It remains to be seen what happens to their faith when Obama’s efforts at reform turn out not quite as earth shattering as they might be hoping.
But moving through the crowd in the moments before the networks called the race for Obama, I talked to a young couple who brought their children to the celebration — including an infant. The huge bearded father had recently gotten out of the army after three tours in Iraq and one in Afghanistan. He was proud of his service but was attracted to Obama’s call to bring the troops home from Iraq. He also was disgusted with the corruption and incompetence of the Republicans and didn’t see John McCain as anything but a continuation of policies that he believed were bad for the country.
When I asked him what policies of Obama’s he supported besides the pullout from Iraq, he couldn’t name a single thing. All he knew was that an Obama presidency would take the country in a different direction. His wife knew about Obama’s health insurance proposal and supported the idea of having “more affordable” coverage for her children. Other than that, both expressed happiness at the historic nature of Obama’s coming presidency.
There is a very good chance that both the Iraq veteran and his wife would have eagerly supported a Republican for president just ten years ago. These are not flaming liberal revolutionaries. They are a typical middle class family uneasy about the future and taking a leap of faith that Obama — despite being unspecific about what kind of “change” he is offering — is the person to entrust America’s future. We shall see if that faith is warranted.
But perhaps Obama’s greatest challenge will not be overseas or the economy at home: it will be meeting the stratospheric expectations of his base supporters — especially African Americans.
I suppose I got caught up in the emotion of the night due almost exclusively to the genuine and copious tears of black Americans. The ones I spoke to and interviewed were nearly speechless with joy. With a start, I realized something that had escaped me all these long months of writing and thinking about this race. For many African-Americans, this election was a spiritual event, something that transcended the corporeal and brought to mind ancestral yearnings and desires for freedom.
For perhaps many blacks, Obama is the word made flesh — the redemption of the promise in the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal.” The small sample of blacks I interviewed all spoke of the shattering of barriers, the hope that an Obama presidency would translate into a more just society, and the belief that for them personally, their lives would never be the same.
It struck me then and now that the world has turned upside down. When I was a boy, a black man could not get a sandwich at a lunch counter in much of the country. Now a black man has been elected president of the United States, receiving more votes from whites than his predecessor of 2004.
This astonishing transformation has occurred well within the lifetimes of most of the Vietnam generation. It has happened not as an outgrowth of the chasm that separates members of that generation but in spite of it. It makes one wonder what other stupefying accomplishments could have been realized if we weren’t at each other’s throats for 40 years.
Can Obama “heal” America as Michelle Catalano asked in her PJM column on Wednesday? No one knows the answer to that question. No one knows if this man of little experience in government can bring about the kind of change his supporters seem to want. Does he really have “audacity”? He’s certainly going to need it. Is there substance to his ideas or is he just a mushy-headed idealist? Will he be able to resist the gimlet eyed, partisan extremists in his own party and prevent them from hijacking his agenda?
For the millions of Obama supporters who either didn’t ask or didn’t care what the answers would be to those questions, there appears to be an almost childlike faith in his abilities. And always, hope that what his election victory represents is a turning of the page in our American storybook and that the dawn of a new age will unite us as a nation, allowing us to face the serious challenges confronting our country at home and abroad.