Tuesday, November 4, 2008

A moment beyond hyperbole

"The world will little note nor long remember what we say here, but it can never
forget what they did here."

When Lincoln spoke those words at Gettysburg, he could not have known that they would turn out to be untrue; the world did, in fact, take note and has long remembered what he said there.

Last night Obama referenced the great last line of that speech; "government of the people, by the people, and for the people has not perished from the Earth." He knows, as we do, that the world would take note of what he said, and that it will be long remembered.

It is impossible to overstate the significance of the moment; it is almost impossible to be too sentimental. Democracy is at once a noble ideal, and a demand that those who live within it recognize the necessity of practical politics. Obama perfected the combination like few ever have. His speeches are filled with soaring rhetoric and fine details; he encourages people to dream big, and then gives them lists of phone numbers to call.

This is the dawning of a new day, but at the same time it is a day like any other. We have been laying the groundwork for days, weeks, months, years, decades, centuries.

I have heard that Obama won because of the economic meltdown; that the stock market crashing was the decisive factor. That is like arguing that USC is on a roll in college football this year because they have had weak opponents. It's true that they have faced teams well below their own level. But that does not diminish the fact that USC is playing on a level above their opponents because of years of preparation on the part of everyone involved in football at USC.

Chance favors the prepared mind. If McCain made a fool of himself by "suspending" his campaign, Obama looked good in comparison because Obama is good in comparison. He reacted calmly and rationally to the financial crisis because that is how he reacts to crises. And that is a great quality to have in a president.

Obama laid the groundwork for his campaign in the same way that the Founding Fathers laid the groundwork for his candidacy. He ran the best campaign of modern times, if not in the history of politics, because he could. Not only because he himself could; but because he could do so in America.

The world took note of what Lincoln said at Gettysburg because of its eloquence and because of the importance of the occasion. I have long been of the opinion that the Gettysburg Address is the political equivalent of nuclear fusion. The Civil War split the nation apart, an act similar to nuclear fission. But Lincoln harnessed the passion unleashed by that act of division - defined by the carnage and sacrifice on the battlefield at Gettysburg - and used the energy of that violence to fuse into a coherent whole the justifications for why America should be one country. Men gave their lives that that country might live - it is our duty to acknowledge their sacrifice, and we do so by believing in what they believed in. It is not the violence that justifies the existence of the country, it is the sacrifice that binds us to each other and therefore creates the greater whole, to which we are all thereby bound.

Obama has harnessed the energy of Lincoln's fusion because he is a product of it, literally, metaphorically, politically. He is, like Lincoln, a relatively inexperienced legislator from Illinois. He is, in a sense, carrying on the work that Lincoln could not; healing the wounds of the Civil War.

The world - the entire world - has already taken notice, and will long remember, what happened last night, not on a single field of battle, but across an entire nation.

We pay for the chance to elect great leaders with the risk that we will occasionally elect terrible ones. For every Washington of Lincoln, we get a Herbert Hoover or George W. Bush.

This election is the antithesis of Gettysburg in many respects: a time of hope, instead of despair, a peaceful transition of power, instead of a bloody civil war. The whole world is watching, and listening, instead of just a few assembled on a battlefield.

The whole world is watching because we have invited them in, and because they are as desperate to believe in us as we are to desperate to believe in ourselves.

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