Thursday, November 06, 2008

Hope trumps fear

When my family and I were in the States last summer, we bought a poster that now hangs in our home. It shows Martin Luther King Jr. at various stages of his public life, accompanied by excerpts from his speeches. We bought it because our son B. learned about Martin Luther King Jr. in eighth grade history class last year and in so doing, communicated a fascination about the man to his younger brother D. Last Spring, I listened to King’s famous “I have a dream” speech for the first time in its entirety, with D., enraptured, sitting next to me.

As I listened to Barack Obama’s victory speech yesterday, I heard many references to the African-American experience, and Obama’s effective use of repetition reminded me of the rhetorical techniques used in the speech given 45 years ago by the “preacher from Atlanta”. But what inspired me most was not that African-Americans must now have a “special pride”, as Senator McCain said in his concession speech. Rather, President-elect Obama made that experience stand for the universal dream of hope for a better future.

John McCain and his campaign tried to use fear to win votes, albeit a less toxic variety than the fear-mongering of the current administration. Fear that Barack Obama will raise taxes, fear that he hangs out with terrorists, fear that he’s a Muslim. (I’m glad that Colin Powell pointed out in his endorsement of Barack Obama that the real answer to the question “Is Barack Obama a Muslim?” is “So what if he were? Is there anything wrong with being a Muslim in America?”) Fortunately, it didn’t work. Hope has trumped fear.

As gracious and magnanimous as he was in his concession speech, I wish John McCain had addressed the question of hope vs. fear. Rather than saying that he would leave the job of analysis to others and leading the Republican party into the political wilderness, I wish he had said that now was the time for soul searching. Rather than taking the blame off his supporters and putting it onto himself, I wish he had recognized that a candidate is – or should be – a reflection of the electorate he represents, and it is the electorate that must now try to understand why it is out of phase with what the majority of the country’s voters want. Sure McCain made mistakes, but so did Obama. Those mistakes were not the only reason for McCain’s loss.

Obviously, this election represents a huge “first”: the first “person of color” to be elected to the presidency of the United States. But it represents some other less obvious firsts, too. Barack Obama is the first sitting member of Congress to be elected President of the United States since JFK. (John McCain would have been, too.) Maybe this indicates some kind of renewed faith in the people who have experience, however minimal, in the workings of the federal government.

Barack Obama is also the first urban, Northern liberal to be elected president since JFK. All other Democratic presidents since JFK have come from rural, Southern backgrounds. Arguably, they won the White House because they carried at least part of the Southern states. In all other presidential elections since 1964, the deep South has voted overwhelmingly against the Democratic party. Now in 2008, Obama has made important inroads into the South. Perhaps the strength of the African-American vote had something to do with that.

Or perhaps it was his charisma. Or his cool, even-keel command. Or that voters, regardless of the color of their skin and his, simply felt Obama’s vision of the future corresponded better to theirs.

Finally, this was the first presidential election in which neither major candidate was the incumbent president or vice-president since Adlai Stevenson faced Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1952. I don't think any comment is needed as to why Dick Cheney was not the Republican candidate this time round.

I wonder how many American voters knew how closely this election campaign was being watched outside the United States, such as here in France. It absolutely dominated the airwaves and the press. You would have thought French people were going to vote, too. When I first moved here nearly 20 years ago, I naively discovered how much more “world news” there was than I had ever seen or read about back home. The United States became just another country among many others, albeit an important one. Yet over time, I realized that in many ways, people here really do look at the United States as a beacon, a country that can lead the way to redemption … or to crisis.

Viewed from afar, the United States has seemed over the past few years, to be turning ever more inward, shutting itself off from other points of view and dealing truculently with other nations. Indeed it seemed our motto had become “Speak loudly and carry a big stick.”

French people I know struggled to understand the appeal of a John McCain candidacy. Barack Obama’s win has polished up the tarnished image of a country where – French people now realize once again – everything is possible. Perhaps this is because “the true strength of our nation comes not from the might of our arms or the scale of our wealth, but from the enduring power of our ideals – democracy, liberty, opportunity and unyielding hope.”

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