I suppose like many others last night, at precisely 11 p.m. when the polls closed in California, Oregon and Washington, and Keith Olbermann called the election, I started to cry. Steady, solid, weeping that kept coming in waves.
Then I glanced at the screen where the MSNBC director was flipping from one celebration to another and saw many others crying: Blacks, whites, Asians, Hispanics, young, old, men, women, all over the country. A series of individual shots that, together, redefined the United States of America last night.
There was a student at Spellman College in Atlanta who collapsed in tears and was being comforted by her friends.
Then Oprah was leaning on the shoulder of the man in front of her as she cried uncontrollably, Jesse Jackson standing directly behind her with two rivers flowing freely down his face.
A quick shot of a nursing home day room where elderly white men and woman, some in wheelchairs, one man wearing an American Legion cap, some cheering and some wiping their eyes with tissues.
Cut to a sports bar in Georgia where white and black faces kissed each other, and hugged.
And always back to Grant Park in Chicago. The roar of the poor, the tired, the huddled masses yearning to be free lifting their voices and their smiles and their hands in relief and jubilation and ecstacy and exhaustion.
I thought of my mother, who died in 1996. She had my sister and me sit in front of the television when Dr. Martin Luther King gave his “I Have A Dream” speech in front of the Lincoln Memorial before an endless sea of people who only had hope for a different tomorrow. Their – our – tomorrow finally came at 11 p.m. Eastern time last night. I remembered how she wanted to go to that rally but Dad talked her out of it because it might become “dangerous.” It turned out, the only dangerous thing was Dr. King’s ideas.
John McCain came on screen in Pheonix to concede, giving his best speech of the campaign and silencing the yahoo’s in the crowd who booed when he mentioned Barack Obama. Then back to the studio where someone was reading a White House trasncript of Bush’s congratulatory call to Obama where he told the President-elect to “go out and enjoy yourself.” Only George W. Bush would be handing the presidency of a country he came close to ruining to someone by saying that Obama should “enjoy himself.” It was akin to what he urged people to do after 9/11: Go out and shop.
Finally, there was Obama himself. He gave a better, more encompassing vicory speech than most inaugural addresses over the past 30 years.
Someone, it might have been Chris Mathews, said he looked “exhausted.” He may have been that after 20 months of campaigning but, to me, he looked somber. Written all over Obama’s face was the reality of the burden he suddenly bore, not just for himself and the country but the entire world. Even after his speech, when Joe Biden and his family and the throng of relatives and well-wishers crowded around him, he couldn’t shake the look of a man who suddenly realises how alone he is.
I remember what Jack Kennedy said the first morning he was president and walked into the Oval Office. Surrounded by long-time aides and advisors, he sat in the chair behind the Lincoln desk that he requested be brought out from the Smithsonian Institute, looked up and asked, “Now what the hell do we do?”
Last night, Obama’s face showed that he knew full well “what the hell do we do.” But he’s not alone. He has tens of millions of people around the country, and around the world, there to help. Our work has just begun.
Articles by Charley James