This past Tuesday was a day to remember, wasn't it? Election Day, Thursday, Nov. 6, 2008. I could empathize with the black mothers who brought their little kids to Manhattan, or to downtown Chicago, so their offspring could be there when history was made, when the black candidate, Barack Obama, became the first of his race to become president of the United States, our fabled "Land of Opportunity," at last and utterly redeeming herself.
As every immigrant has had to learn, you have to earn your full entree into America. Throughout our history, each succeeding wave (even the Native Americans, sadly) has had to wait for his/her first day in the sun: the Irish, the Italians, and now, finally, the blacks.
Ginny and I were watching NBC's election coverage. I trust their reporters a lot more than I do the arch-conservative-yahoos Bill O'Reilly and his cronies on the Fox network. Those audio bullies interrupt, stampede, and badger their "guests," those poor slobs who must have to stifle a sneer or a snarl, whenever O'Reilly and Co. claim to be "balanced and unbiased" in their reporting. Their interviews with the Democrats always sound to me, because I was alive and in front of the TV in that shameful era, just like the bullying harangues of "Tailgunner Joe" McCarthy during the early 1950s era of craven submissiveness.
This election eve, viewers were just emerging yawning from one of those top-of-the-hour clusters of McDonalds commercials, which seem to consume so much more time than they used to, when, suddenly, there was my boy Tom Brokaw announcing, with a distinct catch in his rich baritone voice, "There'll be more kids in the White House than there've been in a long time!" What a perfectly cool way to announce that Obama had won the election! My eyes filled with tears.
It yanked me way back to the election of 1960, my first, when, thanks to brother Bobby's political shrewdness and Daddy Joe's cold, hard cash and underworld pull, John F. Kennedy's slim win over the apparently unshaven Bowery bum Dick Nixon and over the last, lingering gasps of America's anti-Catholic bias. That election also marked the introduction of really young kids to the White House, a kind of renewal, a new American start. Little kids running around in the White House! The unposed and captivating black-and-white photos of JFK bending down to chat with John-John hiding under his dad's desk in the Oval Office, caught by the White House photographer who died just this last week. These frail images have still got the power to remind us that there was a brief honeymoon period, before Lee Harvey Oswald arrived on the scene, to banish innocence from all our lives forever. There hadn't, I think, been such little creatures in the White House since Teddy Roosevelt's wee-wild daughter Alice (whom JFK met briefly when he first came to office) had shaken up the place to a fare-thee-well. But that was roughly a century ago.
Despite his connection with the crooked Keating of the banking scandals, I'd long admired Senator John McCain, for his personal courage and integrity -- for the guts that, by comparison, seemed to cast JFK's escapade in PT-104 into the deepest shadow. Still, I was deeply shocked when he chose Sarah Palin to be his vice-president. It seemed the act of pique a child might display when his parents told him he couldn't have a second ice-cream cone. In the long testing period between his announcement and the election, the picture of Palin seemed to quickly take shape, like a photo developing in a darkroom tray. She began to appear to me willful, vain, barely literate, ambitious to the verge of hubris, vengeful, ignorant, dangerously egged-on and immensely flattered by the new and adoring crowds she attracted -- in short, one hell of a liability as a politician wandering the halls of power. A loose cannon to beat all loose cannons. I could only imagine any of the Founding Fathers observing Sarah -- and having second (or third) thoughts about the whole idea of establishing a democracy in America.
Washington being what it is and politicians being what they are, now the election is over, Palin's critics are now coming out of the woodwork, themselves turning vicious, closing in for the kill. They say, for instance, that Sarah's clothing expenses are now exceeding even the $150,000 that the Republicans gave her to appropriately clothe her whole family a couple of months ago. "Strike while the iron's hot" might well be Ms Palin's motto, engraved on a plaque to replace Truman's "The buck stops here."
You know what stands out for me as the signal moment of Election Night 2008?
Yes, true, it was a moment for the history books, a moment when I felt a renewed love for my country because it'd finally paid off a long-standing debt. But, above all, for the rest of my life I'll remember the authentic graciousness of John McCain's concession speech.
All his life he's been a fighter, and for the past couple of years he's fought not only for his country, as had not only his father but his grandfather, but now for the ultimate American political prize. As a presidential aspirant, he's been managed by teams of shrewd political handlers, hired to shape a candidate's natural personality and world-view to fit the form best calculated to win him the election. (If you're interested in this aspect of presidential politics, check out the 1960 book by Joseph McGuiness called The Selling of the President.) In the final weeks of the campaign, wife Ginny said she thought McCain was turning nasty and combative. But he lost the election, and he changed, that was certainly clear -- or, maybe, he returned to normal. That's the way I read his post-election appearance.
As I watched him standing before an adoring, loyal audience, I was struck by how differently from Palin he behaved. To me, he sounded almost relieved that this battle was over. I was watching him toss in the sponge without the least hint of bitterness, but, rather, with a sigh of authentic relief. Before my eyes I was watching a man shifting gratefully from a battle mode of speaking, casting aspersions on every Democrat in sight, to a more relaxed, natural tone of voice.
When the still fiercely loyal crowd before him began booing and shouting, McCain immediately called for quiet. He didn't, like 97 percent of politicians in the same circumstance, smile and hold still, thereby milking the crowd for more self-gratifying demonstration. You could tell, he wanted no more antagonism, no more combativeness, which would be counter-productive. That wouldn't help the country. And that behavior, I thought, not a metal pin you wear on your jacket, is the mark of a patriot.