There may have been a miracle on the Hudson River last week, but what is transpiring on the banks of the Potomac River is not a miracle. In its way, it is better than a miracle. Miracles involve divine intervention that overturns the natural order of Creation. The inauguration of Barack Obama is a human intervention that expands the natural order of Creation. God did not elect Obama; The American people did. And, the tumbling of a barrier erected by bigotry is a natural, albeit sometimes a surprising, development.
A little more than a year ago, I sat at lunch at San Francisco’s Embarcadero arguing with friends who insisted that America would never elect a black man as president. My friends are an inter-racial couple who have more collected years of political experience than me, so I knew that they had experienced America’s racial fault lines in ways I had not and that they had a degree of political savvy I lacked, but I refused to defer to their pessimism or their expertise.
Two years ago, when Obama announced, a veteran DC political reporter told me that there was no way Obama could beat Hillary Clinton for the nomination, that it was good that he was running, and he might be ready in 2016, but that Americans were much more ready for a woman president than they were for a black president.
Well, I don’t mean to gloat, but the American people have vindicated my judgment. And, Obama appears to be vindicating their judgment. It is not just that his temperament seems so ideally suited to the times, a preternatural calm in the midst of this horrific economic storm, or that the man seems unwilling to allow any political opponent to become an enemy in his mind’s eye, although these two attributes certainly distinguish him from his campaign opponents and from his predecessors.
In the little more than two months’ transition time since the election, Obama has gone from being the vehicle for the hopes of the Democrats to becoming the repository of the hopes of the nation. Indeed, that transition began during his election night speech, as he seemed to fill the stage before our eyes. In the weeks since, as Bush has gotten smaller and smaller, Obama has gotten bigger and bigger. This weekend, people were excited at church and on the streets of DC about his upcoming speech. When was the last time you ran into a stranger on the street and they voiced even a whiff of anticipation about a politician’s remarks? The man is remarkable.
But, the American people are remarkable too, and more remarkable than their elites give them credit for. A front page story in Sunday’s Post discussed the ways Washington seeks to curry favor among the friends of an incoming administration. In 1993, everyone wanted to have an FOB ("Friend of Bill") preferably from Arkansas, over for dinner. In 2001 it was the Texans who invaded. The social consequence of the Obama’s ascendency is this: "With a black first family in the White House and a diverse group of appointees and Cabinet nominees, the all-white dinner party feels all wrong. Certain hosts are suddenly grappling with a new reality: They need some black friends." These words horrified me. Washington is a majority-minority city. If you don’t have black friends, you are not paying attention. And, I am happy to say that while I have attended dinner parties where there were no blacks, Latinos or foreigners, I have not thrown such a dinner party as far as I can remember.
The Post’s article was unintentionally on-point about the myopia of America’s "high-level social scene." It is a boring place to be, filled with rich people who are as often as not very dumb or very bigoted or both, or with those who spent too much time in the intellectual ghetto known as the Ivy League with all the biases and self-importance they can manage. Better to hang out at Kramerbooks where all of Washington comes to eat, drink and buy books, or Busboys and Poets, which has a similarly interesting mix of races, income levels, and educational pedigrees.
It turns out, for all their self-importance, it was not America’s segregated "high level social scene" that elected Barack Obama and broke the racial barrier to the White House. It was blue collar workers, Catholics, people without college degrees, people who are sometimes behind in their bills, and who live in Ohio and Indiana, they elected Obama. And Latinos, who only make it to Chevy Chase when they are called upon to sweep the floors or trim the shrubs, put several states into the Obama column. And blacks who turned out in record numbers whether they were rich or poor, liberal or conservative, are responsible for Obama’s margin of victory in still other states. These were the people I saw on the streets of DC this weekend celebrating their victory. "He has lifted up the Lowly" we sing in the Magnificat. And, the lowly have lifted up Obama. That is not a miracle, but it is a very good thing.