Ribbons Flow Through Us
Traditions, Both of Shame and Pride
November 5, 2008
My daughter and my thirteen-year-old granddaughter knocked on doors and made phone calls in Omaha, working to win just one electoral vote for Barack Obama in Nebraska 's second congressional district. As I write this, it appears that their efforts may have fallen short by less than 600 votes—about two-tenths of a percent. I was on the phone with my daughter when the networks called the 270 electoral vote majority for Obama. I didn't immediately grasp the full significance of that happenstance.
In fact, the significance of Barack Obama's election hasn't really come to me yet. A friend emailed me this morning, writing of new hope. I too have hope—more than I've had in years, actually. Maybe I was this optimistic when Clinton was elected—I don't remember. I hope this works out better.
But my hope is already sobered by a quick assessment of our reality. What we must understand today is that this was only a first and tiny step, though a vital one. It is a great thing that we elected a Black person. What is more important in my view is that we elected a progressive, an extremely bright intellectual, and a conciliator. Those qualities will be essential on the road immediately ahead.
We did not awake this morning in a different world from yesterday's—not even in a different nation. I haven't studied exit polling and demographics yet, but from what I saw on TV last night, the Solid South was significantly more solid—meaning bigoted—than it had been in recent elections. McCain got almost the same level of support from evangelical Christians as did Bush. We are still in the grip of hatred and fear. A red ribbon of bigotry snakes through our nation from South Carolina to Idaho. While Democrats made gains in the Senate and House, those gains were smaller than expected, and Obama's working margins for legislation will be fragile.
Another ribbon flows through us, though. In my case, it passes through my father to me, and through my daughter to my grandchildren. It is a striped ribbon, and while some of it isn't so pretty, much of it is beautiful. Part of it is intellectual. Part of it is political. Part is philosophical, part traditional. My family had ancestors at Runnymede and at the Model Parliament of King Edward I, so the ribbon passes through the seeds of modern democracy. We are descended from at least one Revolutionary War veteran, so the ribbon came through Lexington and Concord and Philadelphia. It came through the prairie of territorial Ohio to the farmlands of northern Missouri where my father, after serving in France in World War I, read the law by night to become a self-made attorney.
I, and my daughter, and my grandchildren are America—the America of which Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence, and Lincoln spoke in the Gettysburg Address. We are democracy—the democracy that Edward I envisioned in his call to Parliament: "What affects all, by all should be approved..."
Barack Obama can't create the tomorrows of this America and this democracy. As always, the future is up to us. And I don't have a clear notion of what we must do next. But I know there is much to be done if we are to keep and maintain this nation we love. So we must teach our children well. We must work with them to keep our republic intact until their generation can take us to a new vision. We must fit their hands to the levers of democracy, and teach them to run its engines. We must pass on to them all that we were given, and the more that we have learned. We cannot fail in that mission.
In his concession speech, John McCain said, "These are difficult times for our country. And I pledge to [Barack Obama] tonight to do all in my power to help him lead us through the many challenges we face. I urge all Americans…who supported me to join me in not just congratulating him, but offering our next president our good will and earnest effort to find ways to come together..." I had hoped to hear such words from Senator McCain. I welcome them. They describe the spirit with which we must meet our mission.
All that said, there is much to celebrate today. At least we know that victories of substance and spirit are still possible in our land.