Whether you’re Democrat, Republican or Mugwump, you look at Tuesday night’s remarkable election results and the nationwide reaction and can’t help but wonder at how far our young country has come — and, at the same time, how long it’s taken.
You probably saw those photos of the big Obama rally in St. Louis, Missouri, a couple of weeks ago — 100,000 people attended. If you looked closer, in the background, you could see an old building with a copper dome turned green with age.
That used to be the courthouse. Slaves were auctioned from its steps, and in 1846, 162 years ago, Dred Scott and his wife, two slaves, went there to appeal to the court for their freedom, arguing that they had lived in states and territories in which slavery had been outlawed and so should be let go.
They were, briefly, but soon were returned to slavery. When their appeal reached the United States Supreme Court in 1857, Chief Justice Roger Taney refused to free them. He ruled that slaves did not have the rights of citizens because Dred Scott and his wife were, quote, “beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race, either in social or political relations, and so far inferior that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.”
Seventeen years later, January 1, 1863, Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation and in November of that year, 145 years ago this month, he traveled to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, where the battlefield was still freshly soaked in the blood of North and South, to assure all Americans that “government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
And yet more than a century would pass before we would come anywhere near making his words true. Much more blood would be shed and lives lost toward achieving Lincoln’s aspiration, the one for which he was martyred, too. Montgomery, Birmingham, Selma. In 1964 came the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act the following year.
And still there was violence and still there were words of hate. There’s a certain irony that this year it was in the electorally important state of Pennsylvania and from Lincoln’s own party that so much bitter, often racially-oriented attack came during this campaign. In their hunger to turn their state to the McCain column (unsuccessfully), the Pennsylvania Republican Party in particular pulled out the stops with virulent robocalls, flyers and last-minute TV ads that once again tried to stir ugly emotion and jingoistic reflex by re-conjuring the Rev. Jeremiah Wright.
As gracious in defeat as John McCain was Tuesday night it cannot be denied that his candidacy and the desperation with which the status quo tried to cling to power created an atmosphere of ugly accusation and insinuation unlike any we’ve seen in our lifetimes, and not just in the race for the presidency. Take, for example, the unsuccessful campaign in North Carolina of Senate incumbent Elizabeth Dole who, in the ultimate Hail Mary play accused her Democratic opponent Kay Hagan of Godlessness.
Yes, some Democrats did it, too, and in the past, candidates have accused each other of far worse; of traitorous, seditious acts and heinous, imaginative transgressions of the flesh. But this year’s venom was conceived in knee-jerk ideology and instantly brought to your home or office by the Internet: Cyberspace, 24-hour news and talk radio deliver poison into the body politic’s bloodstream with unparalleled speed and unfiltered ferocity.
This week, the majority of this nation rejected such hate. President-elect Obama ran a campaign in which the color of his skin was not so much an issue but an integral aspect of what has made him the complex and original man he is.
When Harry Truman became president after the unexpected death of FDR, he said he felt like the moon, the stars and all the planets had fallen on him. Barack Obama must feel a little of that, too, but unlike Truman he has chosen this particular trajectory of his own free will and been given a mandate for change. He will reside in a White House and rule this country with men and women who work in a white marble Capitol, both of which were built by slaves long ago but not so faraway.
And so we will hold this moment dear, turn it in the light to savor the beauty of each facet, even though we know there are hard times ahead, difficult decisions and, as Obama said, false steps. Chances are, he and we will be disappointed; sometimes by him, sometimes by each other. From time to time, hearts will break. So it goes.
Yet, as the song goes, the world will be better for this. After 9/11, the French newspaper Le Monde’s headline read, “We Are All Americans.”
In the years that have followed we denied that proffered hand; we drove wedges, built walls, waged war that isolated us not only from other countries but squandered the solidarity and strength that existed within ourselves.
On Tuesday, as a nation we stood in line, waited our turn to cast our ballots, did what we do best. And when the results were announced, we watched a man and his family stand on an outdoor stage in Chicago. He asked for our support, regardless of party or race, and finally, for a moment at least, together we were all Americans once again. It’s a good start.
Michael Winship is senior writer of the weekly public affairs program Bill Moyers Journal, which airs Friday night on PBS. Check local air times or comment at The Moyers Blog at www.pbs.org/moyers.