Friday, November 07, 2008

To be, and to do

On Tuesday night, it was enough for him to be. The first African-American (more accurately, Kenyan-American), the first senator since 1960, the first Democrat to carry Virginia since dot, the mandate apparent to all but Republicans, the spark for celebrations planned (Grant Park, Ebenezer Baptist Church) and unplanned (the gates of the White House). Do Americans still gather in Times Square to mark anything but repetitive New Year's Eves? Do strangers dance and hug and cry for anything but victories as improbable as the 1969 Mets? Yes, we can.

Above all, there was relief. There would be no sinister election theft as predicted by people as sober as Mark Crispin Miller. Attempts to keep voters away were scattered, half-hearted and inept, defused by early voting and sheer numbers. No machines were hacked in Ohio, no ballots baffled the old people in Florida. Humorists who registered as Darth Vader or Frank N. Furter apparently didn't show up at the polls to make more trouble for ACORN. As of tonight the votes are still being counted in Missouri, but it couldn't matter less. A Supreme Court full of Scalia clones will not get involved. Ten minutes after the polls closed on the West Coast, millions of sphincters unclenched for the first time since Memorial Day. The man who says our economy is sound will not be president, and the overgrown girl who couldn't name the signatories to NAFTA will not be a heartbeat behind him. And so to bed, as the seventeenth century blogger Pepys would say.

By Thursday, he had begun to do, which meant it was whining as usual. The losers, losing big after months of dancing around the "n" word, began to employ the "b" word, bipartisan. (I remember 2006, Bush sitting stiffly between Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi and promising to be bipartisan, just before he remembered that veto is not an Italian name.) How dare Obama appoint Rahm Emanuel as chief of staff instead of someone conciliatory like Karl Rove? Does he think all those votes give him the right to be some kind of -- what's the word -- decider? Of course John McCain was cruising to his rightful place in history until the economy imploded without warning, and then that woman pushed her way onto the ticket by threatening to deny him Alaska's three electoral votes. Flip a coin? Do-over? Rock/paper/scissors? My face hurts from grinning.

I also learned how cable news fills up twenty-four hours a day, every day, when they don't have any prison documentaries or O.J. Simpson trials. Yesterday two women spent the best part of an hour analyzing the dress Michelle Obama wore on election night (thumbs down), and today different people mused endlessly about her husband's probable appointments. They sounded like Vinnie from Queens calling ESPN radio to explain exactly what the Yankees need to do at the winter meetings, but slightly better educated.

Inevitably the Kennedys were cited as our "royal family," at least for Democrats. Would Robert Kennedy, Jr., get the EPA? Would Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg be ambassador to Britain, a post once held by her grandfather? What role would Ted play in getting the new administration's initiatives through the Senate? And somewhere in there, a thought struck me:

Barack Obama does not remember John F. Kennedy.

Boomers, the "Greatest Generation," even Jazz Babies remember where we were and what we were wearing when the news came from Dallas. Barack Obama was two years old. Maybe he recalls silent, shocked adults staring at the television that Friday morning and for the next three days; probably not. Everything he knows about that pivotal event, that piece of history that still refuses to fit into the jigsaw puzzle, he learned in school, from books and documentaries and maybe the ludicrous Oliver Stone movie. Which means it is no more real to him than VJ Day, and Lindbergh's flight, and whether Booth really died in the burning barn. What's real to some, forever, is a question on a history test to others. I could look out my bedroom window and see smoke rising from the World Trade Center. For a child born that September day, it will be one with the Arizona in Pearl Harbor and the Great Chicago Fire. History.

John McCain was ridiculed for never having used a computer until this year, but all he had to do was learn. He never needed to, or thought it was too difficult, or had people to do his Googling for him. But a man born in 1961 can never learn what it was like to watch those witty, urbane press conferences, feel the excitement of the Peace Corps and "Ich bin ein Berliner," hold our breath to see what the fat bald Russian would do with his missiles. Maybe that's a good thing; the Kennedys themselves and too many Democrats have sagged under the burden of that quasi-mythical "Camelot." Put it away like the New Deal, and the Progressive Era, and the early, hopeful days of Reconstruction. Do better. Make it new. Start fresh.

This month of November, we have made a turn. We also observe the 45th anniversary of Kennedy's death, and the 90th anniversary of the end of World War I, the war that set that mad bloody century in motion. We do not forget, but we move on.

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