Yes, Mr. President-Elect, This is Truly an Amazing Country

by James M. Wall

manila-girl-and-obamaAttracted by a Google listing the morning after the election, visitors to this blog linked to a piece I posted two weeks before the election: A Response to an Obama Victory: What an Amazing Country.  Following Barack Obama’s election as our 44h president, a section of that posting bears repeating:

What would be the international impact of an Obama victory? Nicholas D. Kristof offers one answer in a conversation he shared in a recent New York Times column:

The other day I had a conversation with a Beijing friend and I mentioned that Barack Obama was leading in the presidential race:

She: Obama? But he’s the black man, isn’t he?

Me: Yes, exactly.

She: But surely a black man couldn’t become president of the United States?

Me: It looks as if he’ll be elected.

She: But president? That’s such an important job! In America, I thought blacks were janitors and laborers.

Me: No, blacks have all kinds of jobs.

She: What do white people think about that, about getting a black president? Are they upset? Are they angry?

Me: No, of course not! If Obama is elected, it’ll be because white people voted for him.

[Long pause.]

She: Really? Unbelievable! What an amazing country!

We’re beginning to get a sense of how Barack Obama’s political success could change global perceptions of the United States, redefining the American “brand” to be less about Guantánamo and more about equality. . . . (Emphasis added).

Obama’s speech to the world, his first as president-elect, was a paradigmatic moment in world history.  The pictures from Grant Park in Chicago and from around the world, reveal the wonder and excitement of what Obama’s election means to the world.  

The text of his remarkable 17-minute address will be studied for years to come as a seminal turning point in American history. It also marks a dramatic turning point in American politics.

Greg Sargent sees Obama’s election as the potential end of a style of politics that emerged from the culture wars of the “Sixties”. Sargent is an equal opportunity critic. He finds fault with both the political left and the political right for their use of tactics that polarized our national political dialogue.  

Obama’s victory represents a potential death knell — but only a potential one — for the 1960s cultural politics that defined and dominated our political landscape for the last four decades of the 20th Century.

There’s a tidy symmetry in the fact that Obama defeated, in succession, both the Clinton machine and the Rove-Atwater brand of politics that Republicans have honed for so long.

In so doing, Obama defeated not one, but both of the leading practitioners of that 1960s-rooted cultural politics. More to the point, he did this by quite literally running against politics as both those groups practiced it.

As a proponent of the Rove-Atwater political brand,  Senator John McCain encouraged, tolerated, and participated in, a series of “guilt by association” attacks that sought to stir fear and hatred among voters, the sort of attacks used by Republican Senator Joe McCarthy to smear his opponents as “Communists”. 

The attacks used by McCain aganst Obama’s “associates”,  Jeremiah Wright, Bill Ayers, and Rashid Khalidi, were all aimed at men who have earned advanced university  degrees. Each of them have a strong record of leadership in their respective fields.  

Professor Bill Ayers was one of the ‘associates” of Barack Obama who suffered repeated, and grossly unfair, attacks during the campaign.  Ayers voted Tuesday at the same polling place used by Barack and Michelle Obama. The Chicago Tribune reported Ayers’ observations after he voted:

[Professor Ayers] left about 20 minutes before Obama arrived and declined to say for whom he had voted. He did, however, later tell The Washington Post that Obama’s opponents had turned him into a “cartoon character” and disputed Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin’s accusation that Obama “palled around” with terrorists. 

“Pal around together? What does that mean? Share a milkshake with two straws?” Ayers told the Post. “I think my relationship with Obama was probably like thousands of others in Chicago. And, like millions and millions of others, I wish I knew him better.”

Smearing political opponents by demonizing their “associates” is a campaign tactic that has run past its expiration date. That tactic is not only demeaning to those attacked, but it demeans our democratic process.

The failure of the smear tactics employed by the McCain campaign, and its related groups, is a textbook example of what will not work with a strong opponent. 

Paul Krugman knows the “robo call” crowd was badly beaten by the Obama campaign. He does not, however, expect it to go away:

Republicans will engage in some soul-searching, that they’ll ask themselves whether and how they lost touch with the national mainstream. But my prediction is that this won’t happen any time soon. 

Instead, the Republican rump, the party that’s left after the election, will be the party that attends Sarah Palin’s rallies, where crowds chant “Vote McCain, not Hussein!” It will be the party of Saxby Chambliss, the senator from Georgia, who, observing large-scale early voting by African-Americans, warns his supporters that “the other folks are voting.” It will be the party that harbors menacing fantasies about Barack Obama’s Marxist — or was that Islamic? — roots.

Why will the G.O.P. become more, not less, extreme? For one thing, projections suggest that this election will drive many of the remaining Republican moderates out of Congress, while leaving the hard right in place.

Conservative and respected “brainy” columnists like David Brooks and George Will gave up on McCain in the final weeks of the campaign. They knew he had gone over to the dark side.

McCain became so desperate to win that he ignored the counsel of people like Brooks and Will. He also accepted the advice of campaign handlers to brand his opponent as an “elitist”. He did this to court the support of voters he assumed to be anti-intellectual.

The final vote results demonstrated that he was wrong. Every political movement needs its own educated “elite” to provide constant reformation of its guiding principles. The John McCain who lost to George Bush in the Republican primaries of 2000 knew that.  This new McCain did not.

About wallwritings

From 1972 through 1999, James M. Wall was editor and publisher of the Christian Century magazine, based in Chicago, lllinois. He was a Contributing Editor of the Century from 1999 until July, 2017. He has written this blog, wall, since it was launched April 27, 2008. If you would like to receive Wall Writings alerts when new postings are added to this site, send a note, saying, Please Add Me, to Biography: Journalism was Jim's undergraduate college major at Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia. He has earned two MA degrees, one from Emory, and one from the University of Chicago, both in religion. He is an ordained United Methodist clergy person. He served for two years in the US Air Force, and three additional years in the USAF reserve. While serving on active duty with the Alaskan Command, he reached the rank of first lieutenant. He has worked as a sports writer for both the Atlanta Journal and Constitution, was editor of the United Methodist magazine, Christian Advocate for ten years, and editor and publisher of the Christian Century magazine for 27 years. James M Wall died March 22, 2021 at age 92. His family appreciates all of his readers, even those who may have disagreed with his well-informed writings.
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2 Responses to Yes, Mr. President-Elect, This is Truly an Amazing Country

  1. wallwritings says:

    Obama’s election and its excitement led me to think of earlier “transforming” political events. I am old enough to remember my father’s excitement at the election of Roosevelt in 1932. I remember my generation’s excitement at the election of Kennedy. My children have experienced the same feelings with Obama’s election this week. Each of these moments was a time of hope for change that had generational significance. These were times when the baton was passed to the next generation and older worldview were set aside. Each of these moments was a time of new confidence in national direction and prupose.

    Tom Trotter

  2. David Bebb Jones says:

    I’m interested in your comment on the appointment of Rahm Emanuel as Chief of Staff. This is a very discouraging beginning for all of us committed to a peaceful resolution to Israeli/Palestinian conflict.
    How sad!

    David Bebb Jones

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