Posted by: Mark Nielsen | November 5, 2008

Barack Obama, James Polk and Jackie Robinson

It’s 11:26pm CST and President-elect Obama just finished his acceptance speech. It was good. Probably not his best ever, but it was what it needed to be.

I especially liked that finish-with-a-fluorish story about 106-year-old Anne Nixon Cooper, and all the changes she’s seen (from not being allowed to vote –due to race and gender– to voting on an electronic touchscreen today). As the highly respected journalist/politician David Gergen said on CNN immediately afterward, this speech was not about Barack himself, but about us, about America, about our history and potential. It was a rallying cry, yet not so proud or haughty as to seem cocky or off-putting.

Speech or no speech, though, the important stuff is yet to come. Obama’s got to prove he can make those executive decisions that his opponents say he doesn’t have much experience with. He’s got to choose some pretty key Cabinet members. (For example, Rep. Rahm Emanuel, also of Illinois, is an early fave among insiders to get the Chief of Staff nod.) He’s got to make good on his promise to be a president who listens to the Republican citizenry, also.

But election nights are not about policies… they’re about politics and parties (political parties, and victory parties). Our family was invited to two separate friends’ homes to watch the returns. We went to only one, trading stories and only half-listening to the tv, in an odd atmosphere that shared more than a few features with your average Super Bowl bash. Except the commercials weren’t as good.

Most importantly and historically, in my opinion, American voters proved today that we’re getting more savvy about the spin-machines and half-truths that circulate during a tough campaign. On CNN right now, the pundits are talking about how nasty the campaigns were, but I gotta wonder: were they watching the same things I was watching?

In the debates, in the commercials, in the news clips I saw of both candidates, I saw so much more dignity and deferential respect than we’ve seen in the past eight years, and probably longer. Despite their differences, both the senators kept their attack dogs on leashes for the most part, and McCain a few times went out of his way to instruct his supporters that there are some lines one does not cross.

And according to historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, no campaign we’ve seen in the past century can match the negative campaigns and slanderous jingles of the 18th and 19th centuries. So maybe we are making the kind of long-term progress that Obama’s acceptance speech seemed to imply.

Speaking of history, while most people will be talking in the next few weeks about Martin Luther King, or Jesse Jackson (who was in tears at the Chicago speech), or the Clintons, or even JFK, I’ll be looking back a little further: to FDR, Abe Lincoln and James K. Polk (1844-48).

(Polk, for the majority of us who don’t know, was known for his oratorical skill and hard-nosed efficiency… if I’m to believe the lyrics of this goofy little song by They Might Be Giants.)

In times of crisis –and I don’t think it’s very controversial to say we’re in one now– the FDRs and Lincolns that come upon the scene seem to know instinctively, or have some God-given gift, to see the big picture and understand what needs to be done, hard though it may be. They look beyond class, or race, or all the distinctions that separate us. They put the past in the past. I came into this election season believing that Obama can be that kind of leader, and though I was bothered by his occasional vagueness, pandering and typical (aka “crafty”) campaign strategies, I still believe he can be.

Obama said in his speech tonight that “this is our moment”. Our. That’s a far cry from the “me/I/my” attitude that The Decider has given us for eight years. It’s also a far cry from Barack goin’ all Sam Jackson Angry Ebonics Gangsta on the Republicans (or whites in general), like “Take dat, beyotches! Gimme my paper, and my slave reparations!” (Which might make an interesting SNL skit, now that I think of it… so contrary to his character. He’s mostly been the “straight man” in the campaign bits they’ve done thus far. I’d like to see what Bizarro Barack would look and sound like.)

Yes, this is my moment. And yours. So take the man at his word. Hold him to the high standard he’s set for himself. Now that you’ve voted… STAY INVOLVED in the decisions that affect your life, both locally and nationally.

But don’t expect perfection. Don’t forget what baseball legend Jackie Robinson, his boss Branch Rickey, and others used to say about how MUCH better such a man has to be, given how closely he’s being watched, and how many people he’s carrying on his shoulders. Don’t be so quick to make the man into a new messiah, nor to lay blame when he’s up against so much, with so little control over what goes on in the rest of this interconnected world.

If he seems too good to be true, it’s probably because we like putting our heroes on pedestals and glossing over their humanity and their vulnerabilities. If he seems paper thin, it’s probably because a political campaign, and the rush to the center, and the message discipline necessary to win an election, are not as revealing of a person’s true political and personal character as his day-to-day decisionmaking, the calls he makes when the chips are down.

So let’s allow the man to lead, and save most of the discussions of “historic importance” for future generations. It’s okay to be grateful. Or even to be ticked off. But either way, now that you’re here, at this moment, pick up a tool, a pen, a megaphone, and get to work yourself. One man can’t do it all.


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