Reconciliation does not come easily in a land with the volatile history of the United States of America. It is a country of enormous and impetuous energy, born in revolution and settled by people of mixed races and tongues with clashing dreams and purposes.
And when one has lived through nearly a third of America’s lifespan, he learns the hazard of being seduced by naiveté in the face of one more emotional epiphany in the country’s heaving shifts of politics.
So I know — we know — that the brave and beautiful words intoned by Barack Obama in the culmination of one of the glorious hours in American history will seem airy and distant when the meat grinder of practical politics meets the brave new world.
But they should not be forgotten.
Nor should the tears.
A friend called me Wednesday morning. “I couldn’t help myself,” he said. “I found myself crying watching people cry. Why was that?”
I said I thought it was for the same reason millions were doing the same, why I was.
We’re human. What we were witnessing was not so much the triumph of Barack Obama or the Democratic Party returning to the White House as a cleansing of centuries of hurt and struggle.
Whispers among the thousands
Hundreds of thousands of the people we watched in Grant Park last night were whispering to themselves. Their words were almost identical. “I wish they were here to see this and to feel it.” They meant family now gone, people who had suffered but had brought their children and grandchildren and descendents to this moment without believing it was possible. They had faced the humiliations and the gulags of second-class citizenship. And now this: a man of color voted into the White House of America.
The emotion of the moment was so overwhelming that men and women in the TV newsrooms, professionals, wept, and with them Colin Powell and Jesse Jackson in the crowd and athletes in their locker rooms, millions in front of their TV sets. This was not the emotion of pride but of simple thanksgiving. The words — “I wish they were here tonight” — became a litany that embraced them all and bound them together as surely as the sight of an African-American standing under the lights and in front of the flags as the next president of the United States, telling them:
“America, we have come so far. We have seen so much. But there is so much more to do. So tonight, let us ask ourselves — if our children should live to see the next century — what progress will we have made?”
Assessed a mountain of odds
It was a summons from a man who two years ago had looked at the mountain of odds facing him and decided he might know more about the strength of America than those who boasted about it.
He must have said then, as he did last night to a new generation that must make the decisions of America: “This is our moment. This is our time.”
When you think hard about it, this was an almost unimaginable hour for America, so notorious for its concussive politics. From ocean to ocean, people at home and in the streets and the rally halls were enveloped by the magnetic power of it, the Americas of mixed colors and tongues, aging Americas, the new Americas, generations of Americas — brought together by an idea, in Obama’s words: “to reclaim the American dream and reaffirm that fundamental truth that, out of many, we are one; that while we breathe, we hope. And where we are met with cynicism and doubts and those who tell us that we can’t, we will respond … yes we can.”
And they did.
And billions of people around the world watched. This was an America they had not seen. It was an America that gave the promise of joining them rather than dominating them, listening to them rather than manipulating them.
A new America? Yes
There was as much joy in London, Paris, Rome, Lima, Cairo and Rio de Janeiro as there was in Chicago. A new America? Yes, but not necessarily an America yet united. A united America could not possibly exclude the millions of people who voted for John McCain. On Election Day there is never going to be a united America, or anything close to it. The possibilities of what comes after, at least in principle, were surely heightened by the magnanimous concession speech of John McCain. It was a tribute to the highest values of an old warrior, and surely came closer to the genuine John McCain than the crusty and sometimes aimless candidate of the campaign. It felt good to hear his generosity and his healthy closure to a calamitous season.
And now, back to another reality. Recession, unemployment, peace or war and budgets. Mr. President, welcome back to Washington, and good luck.
Jim Klobuchar, a Star Tribune columnist for 30 years, writes periodically for the Christian Science Monitor and at his website, where this column first appeared. He is the author of 22 books, and also operates an adventure travel club, Jim Klobuchar’s Adventures.
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