A blog by Barry Edelson

A Victory for the Ages

It matters not that the rapturous expressions on the faces in Grant Park on Tuesday evening suggest that many of Barack Obama's supporters do indeed think he can part the waters and heal the sick. They may be naive and delusional. They may be setting themselves up for a stunning disappointment. But they are in excellent company in believing that something fundamentally good happened in America, and the world, on November 4, 2008.

Though the main shortcoming of the American body politic is a lack of healthy skepticism — not partisan sniping at anything that comes out of your opponent's mouth, but an inborn suspicion of all political pronouncements, including the utterances from your own side — there are transcendent moments nonetheless when cynicism yields, however briefly, to genuine happiness. The election of a black man as President of the United States is undeniably a watershed in American political and social history. And Obama's election night words were, as they so often are, astonishingly pitch-perfect in capturing both the joy and seriousness of the accomplishment.

No doubt there are many hearts of stone that were unmoved by Obama's election night address. It is true that a speech is not a policy, and soaring rhetoric is not a substitute for good governance. There is also no denying that being black doesn't bestow upon a politician any special talents for solving the problems of black citizens, or any others, as the election of many black mayors and governors has demonstrated. However, there are qualities about this man, mostly his thoughtfulness and remarkable stillness, that clearly gave a majority of voters confidence in his ability to lead the country in difficult times. He also possesses an uncanny ability to find words to express not how he feels, but how his listeners feel.

His critics, both Democratic and Republican, have long derided Obama's "mere eloquence", as though the ability of a public official to express himself well were of no consequence to his ability to govern effectively, and as though we have not just endured eight years of a president incapable of organizing his thoughts into anything but the most simplistic formulations. While an inarticulate person may be smart and capable, one would be hard pressed to find a genuine example of a gifted speaker who does not also possess a superior intelligence.

There are transcendent moments when cynicism yields, however briefly, to genuine happiness.

Let us not confuse the ability to speak with the ability to communicate. Sarah Palin was trumpeted in certain conservative quarters for the way she "connected" with voters. Even her detractors would have to admit that she stirred a lot of strong feelings among her supporters. But this connection between the candidate and her admirers had little if anything to do with the clear articulation of a political vision or governing philosophy, a skill she plainly lacks, as much as it did with the degree to which her life and persona were plainly identifiable to her target audience. It is impossible not to think of the late Ann Richards' famous quip about the first President Bush: he was born on third base and thought he had hit a triple. That John McCain was foolish enough to pluck Palin from obscurity says nothing of her abilities or her preparedness for the daunting challenge she was asked to confront; nor does it justify the unfounded confidence of the candidate herself and many equally ill-informed voters.

It would have been edifying if during the campaign doubts about Palin's thin qualifications for higher office had been expressed more in terms of her absence of intellectual curiosity than about her limited resumé in government. The problem was never the the size of the city of which she was mayor or the population of the state of which she is governor. Bill Clinton was governor of Arkansas, for goodness sake. What disqualified her out of hand, and what made her what David Brooks called "a fatal cancer on the Republican Party", was her near total lack of interest during her entire adult lifetime in any of the complex issues and ideas that are critical to an understanding of the nation and its place in the world, and about which one needs to be well versed before one can presume to make considered judgments about grave matters of life and death. She may have been intelligent enough to learn and ambitious enough to try, but, like so many of those high school students whose intellectual indolence turns out to be not just a symptom of youth but an inherent personality trait, her ignorance poured from her lips at every turn of the campaign trail.

When concerns about George W. Bush's lack of foreign policy experience were raised during the 2000 presidential campaign, Bush tried to reassure voters that he would surround himself with excellent advisors. And of course he did, as all presidents do. The fact that many millions of voters were nonetheless undeterred from voting for him, or for John McCain despite his poor choice of a running mate, reveals a lack of understanding of how executive decisions are made. The Bush/Palin argument would seem to go something like this: I don't need to know the details of major issues, because my advisors will present me with all of the available options. I put my faith in my gut reaction (and God's guiding hand) to choose wisely from among them.

Of course, this simplistic scenario overlooks the likely event that a president who lives in a bubble, is poorly informed, and has little inclination to educate himself will be vulnerable to the manipulations of his advisors. Who is to say that the options presented are all of the ones available, or just the ones the people around him wish to advance? Bush's ability to "connect" with voters was also considerable, and sufficient to win elections, but his lack of knowledge and curiosity (as distinct from any innate intellectual ability he may possess), combined with his verbal disability, have been serious detriments to his ability to govern.

No such scenario is likely to unfold in an Obama administration. What makes the relatively inexperienced Obama incalculably more qualified than the relatively inexperienced Palin are not his ability to give a good speech, and certainly not his race, but his deep understanding of the issues and his other-wordly calm in the face of overwhelming challenges. In this election, the majority thankfully set aside the "Which one would I rather have a beer with?" test in favor the more pertinent question, "Which one is smart enough to get us out of this mess?".

Once in a while, the candidate who is most interested in governing turns out also to be the candidate who can explain himself best. Turning the page on our racially divisive history adds an exclamation point to the end of a remarkable campaign. It has inspired many people to feel that great things are again possible. Fulfillment of the dream is not a solution but an opportunity, and it's up to us all now not to waste it. It may all end in tears, but the tears of joy shed on Tuesday night were real and profound and will not be soon forgotten.

November 8, 2008

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