I voted for John McCain, but I watched with tears streaming as Barack Obama walked out on that Chicago stage Tuesday night.
Tears as Rep. John Lewis of Georgia, a Freedom Rider beaten by white Alabama mobs in 1961, gave interview after interview with a dazed joy on his face. Tears as the multitudes in Grant Park hugged and cried and cheered. But what really did me in was the glimpse of Jesse Jackson, standing stock still in the middle of the reveling crowd, shoulders heaving with sobs.
And no, I do not believe he was weeping over a baton passed – though it has passed, and he knows it. That’s a personal lament he may well indulge later.
But Tuesday night, we saw in Jesse Jackson’s sobs the overwhelming import of what America has done, barely two generations after Jim Crow, and Selma, and Bloody Sunday, and the death on that balcony in Memphis.
“Surreal” was the word one African-American commentator on PBS kept repeating as the camera panned the delirious crowd. Barack Obama will take the oath of office just a few blocks from where slaves were once auctioned for profit. He’ll sleep in a house slave labor helped build. Yes, surreal. Surreal is a very good word.
Here are three others: only in America. A cliché, yes, but clichés are clichés because they start out so true. America truly is a country of unlimited possibilities. As John McCain said Tuesday night, “Nothing is inevitable here. Americans never quit. We never surrender. We never hide from history, we make history.”
And in that speech, too, we see why this country remains such a marvel and curiosity to the rest of the world.
Our elections, at least those in recent memory, have been ugly things. We do not speak kindly of our political enemies in this country.
The unhinged hatred can be breathtaking to read. Google “George Bush” or “Sarah Palin” and see what I mean.
Yet every time, when the election’s over, the vanquished bow and walk off the stage.
Al Gore did it in 2000, the most viciously fought election in my lifetime, telling the world, “This is America … What unites us is greater than what divides us.”
As did John McCain on Tuesday night, with these words: “Tonight, more than any night, I hold in my heart nothing but love for this country and all its citizens, whether they supported me or Senator Obama. I wish Godspeed to the man who was my former opponent and will be my president.”
Hear that? “My president.” But if you want to know why the world calls America “the grand experiment,” you’ll find it in the Associated Press report of the telephone call George W. Bush made to President-elect Obama late Tuesday night.
Promising a smooth and gracious transition, the most vilified man of this election season said, “What an awesome night for you. You are about to go on one of the great journeys of life. Congratulations, and go enjoy yourself.”
Please, stop and understand, for just a moment, how amazing that is.
And I must say here, at risk of an inbox full of outraged emails, that I am convinced history will judge George Walker Bush far more kindly than his enemies, foreign and domestic, could ever dream possible.
As I said at the beginning of this column, I didn’t vote for Barack Obama.
I’m concerned about where his economic and social policies will take us, and how he will handle the tests our new vice president predicted our enemies will surely send his way.
But I took him at his word Tuesday night when he said, “To those Americans whose support I have yet to earn: I may not have won your vote tonight, but I hear your voices. I need your help. And I will be your president, too.”
So it has always been in the United States of America. So may it ever be.