Op-Ed: This Morning After

In the last week of this long (all-too-long) election season, I began to grow weary of both candidates. Or rather, all four of them. During the annual meetings of the American Academy of Religion last weekend, held in the very same hotel where Senator Obama became president-elect Obama, we discovered that we could not even escape it on the elevators, where small television screens broadcast the same silly sound bites that made one long for an Independent who was not Bob Barr…

Senator Obama wants to lower your security and raise your taxes.

Senator McCain wants to extend the Bush presidency for four more years.

Heavy sigh.

And so I awoke this morning with a strange feeling that came nowhere near the joy and the pride I had expected to feel after record voter turnout and its epic result. Part of the reason, I now realize, is that I have grown tired of feeling continually burned by an alleged Left.

This has a lot to do with the Clinton legacy. His successes came at a terrible cost to his party; convinced as he was of the truth of his core electoral idea, he convinced the Democratic Party that the only way to win was to run to the middle. And run he did. The trouble was that the Right kept moving further to the right, especially when it became clear that he’d run after them, trying to claim the ever-rightward center. The Clinton legacy was an elaborate skeet-shoot at a moving target, and it signaled the end, not of big government (which is alive and well), but rather of a truly progressive (if not actually radical) Left.

The cynic in me fears that the truest words spoken in this campaign were Senator McCain’s early on—before he nominated Governor Palin, before even the illusion, and thus the allure, of his “maverick” status was lost. He once wagged a cautionary finger at his own party, reminded them that “we came to change Washington, and instead Washington changed us.” The cynic in me fears that this is the truth, that the machine is too vast and too complex, that the moorings have been lost, and that given the overwhelming inertia of a Titanic-sized ship of state, no captain—no matter how inspired his rhetoric—can seize the tiller and bring us safely to shore.

In 1743, Casanova paid his first visit to Rome, and his initial reaction to the elaborate court intrigues and power-grabs at the Vatican elicited a haunting observation that seems eerily contemporary:

The man who is called to make his fortune in this ancient capital of the world needs to be a chameleon, capable of reflecting all the colors in the surrounding atmosphere, and a Proteus capable of assuming every form. He needs to be supple, ingratiating, dissimulating, inscrutable, often base, sometimes sincere, always acting as if he knows less than he does, communicating in but one tone of voice, patient, the perfect master of his own features, as cold as ice when anyone else would be all fire; and if regrettably he is not religious at heart—a common trouble in souls of this sort—then he must have it in mind, and suffer quietly, if he is an honest man, the mortification of knowing himself to be a complete hypocrite. If he abhors this condition, he should quit Rome and seek his fortune elsewhere.

I have puzzled occasionally, though mostly I have been amazed by, the unwavering tranquility of the senator from Illinois. He can seem as cold as ice, even when his rhetoric soars, and always, always, there is the nagging doubt about his religion.

For make no mistake, religion has been at issue in this campaign, and not only when Sarah Palin shares hers. Barack Obama is entirely comfortable with the phrases “God bless you” and “God bless the United States of America” as necessary bookends to political speech. He seems to believe as fiercely in his own way that America is the exceptional “city on a hill,” the place that has made his own stunning persona possible. And he is therefore willing to do whatever is necessary to defend the nation, militarily as well as economically, from those who wish us harm. He is not a representative of the radical Left by any means; he is a pragmatic centrist, in all the ways that matter. What is in his heart is not for us to see.

Or so I worried. And then I listened to his speech again. And I witnessed the effect it had on over one hundred thousand people who had gathered to hear him. He elicited tears. He elicited giddiness. He elicited sheer wonderment. In victory, he elicited the most noble-sounding and gracious words John McCain spoke in the entire campaign. In this, his shining moment, Barack Obama elevated all of us, reminded us of a collective achievement, and almost made me believe again in the power of transformation. For here was no chameleon, no Protean shape-shifter, despite the cynical worries about politics I share with the Italian Count. Here was simply a man who wishes to lead a people, one people, to change the course of a nation.

The last fleeting glimpse I caught of this remarkable man, as he paused momentarily before disappearing with his wife behind the curtain, made me hope very nearly against hope itself. His lovely, gentle smile faded slowly; he glanced at her. She smiled back at him, took his hand. They vanished together, no doubt as amazed at the enormity of the moment and humbled at the weight of responsibility it entails, as were we all. Something of profound significance has happened, even if it is too soon to give it a name, too early to give it fuller voice.

Yet now—I am nearly able to believe this, against the cynical wisdom of the world’s Casanovas—now it begins. A new hope, an awakening dream, a bright new dawn.