How We Talked About It

Commentators report the symbolism of Obama’s victory

In his concession speech last night, John McCain emphasized the significance of his opponent’s presidential victory by invoking a different black man’s trip to the White House:

A century ago, President Theodore Roosevelt’s invitation of Booker T. Washington to visit—to dine at the White House was taken as an outrage in many quarters. America today is a world away from the cruel and prideful bigotry of that time. There is no better evidence of this than the election of an African American to the presidency of the United States. Let there be no reason now for any American to fail to cherish their citizenship in this, the greatest nation on Earth.”

He added, “Senator Obama has achieved a great thing for himself and for his country.” It was a gracious speech. Yet it framed Obama’s victory not as a referendum on the times—what Keith Olbermann (surprisingly poetically) called the small print of this election—but as a racial victory.

The New York Times echoed McCain’s words, leading with the early headline: “Obama: Racial Barrier Falls In Heavy Turnout.” It was a carefully chosen, statement-making title, compared to The Washington Post’s “Obama sweeps to victory in history-making campaign” or the Los Angeles Times’s “Obama wins: First African American in Highest U.S. Office.” The NYT headline says it all, and says it significantly, by trumpeting not the fact of the victory (as the LAT does) but what the fact means: the election was a milestone for racial equality, in some ways the apotheosis of Hillary Clinton’s statement about eighteen million cracks in the glass ceiling.

Which was the more fitting headline? Late last night, I was prepared to say that the LAT had the more sober (and welcome) headline at a moment when it seemed easy to succumb to the drama of history unfolding. The NYT choice still seems a bit presumptuous, but I laud the paper’s willingness to go the extra step and characterize the victory as what it should mean—even if its black-and-white assessment of a fallen barrier leaves little room for the innumerable shades of gray that remain.

“What a country,” Bill Bennett remarked on CNN last night. The reactions from commentators who watched as exit polls put Obama firmly past 270 electoral votes—at times reporting history in groping terms—showed less the ideological slant of the individuals or networks, and more the split underscored by the two headlines above: those that dwelt on the historic fact-at-hand of a black man reaching the White House, and those that, sometimes awkwardly, tried to characterize that achievement in one way or another.

In the first camp was Congressman John Lewis: “This is a day of thanksgiving, a night of celebration,” he said on MSNBC. Minutes later, a powerful image appeared: Jesse Jackson, tears streaming down his face as he stood in the crowd at Chicago’s Grant Park. Many CNN analysts sought to describe the night in comparably simple, overarching terms. James Carville said, “It’s just hard to overestimate the significance of this event,” while the network’s other commentators—from Alex Castellanos to Jeffrey Toobin—bandied about the word “transformational.” Gloria Borger freely admitted: “I think only the least gracious among us – no matter what your political philosophy – would say that this isn’t a watershed moment for America.”

Similarly, this morning has an essay by T.D. Jakes, who notes the small steps to Washington by minorities in the “scarce representation of a few Senators,” but adds: “The African slaves who provided most of the labor that built the White House never imagined that a black man would ever own embossed stationery that read ‘1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.’” It’s a statement of how far we’ve come, but it’s also a statement of what everyone freely acknowledges changed last night. Thomas Friedman, meanwhile, euphorically writes in today’s NYT that “we awake this morning to a different country” and, sweeping with the broad strokes of what must stem from an electoral hangover, that “the Civil War could never truly be said to have ended until America’s white majority actually elected an African-American as president.” “This moment was necessary,” he writes with what is no doubt heartfelt, if unoriginal, conviction.

(The flip side of this coin—proclamations of a milestone achieved—is illustrated in a comment that Megan McArdle, Twittering for The Atlantic last night, noted came from a Virginia woman interviewed by the BBC who was (McArdle’s Twittered paraphrase) “glad the battle btwn black & white, slave & slave owner [is] finally over.” We’d almost prefer not to verify this comment.)

But there were others that tried to avoid open-shut rhetoric on race, what, in a recent Washington Post column, Roger Cohen insisted on calling a “post-racial America” that Obama “is generationally primed to lead.” These efforts were more like the NYT’s “race barrier falls” headline: a characterization of last night’s results, to varying effect.

For instance, on FOX last night, Nina Easton made the somewhat incredible assertion that it behooved everyone to remember that Obama was, after all, half-white, which came across in bad taste, but which in later days—at the very least in race theory and sociology courses—will indubitably be discussed. Eugene Robinson, on MSNBC, made the astute comment (h/t Atlantic) that having a black First Family “will do things to the gray matter inside our heads that I’m not sure we can fully comprehend,” which was a speculative nod towards those that are agnostic about racial symbolism—we don’t know until we see. At Commentary, John Podhoretz wrote: “Obama’s ascension to the White House, if it does nothing else, may at last bring down the curtain on race hucksters like Sharpton, whose power has always been rooted in the political alienation of inner-city blacks.” It was a more nuanced—if more sharply worded—take on Cohen’s glossy post-racialism argument, and powerful to read while watching Rev. Jackson’s tears on the TV screen.

David Kurtz, reporting from Grant Park for Talking Points Memo TV, took a worthy, if jumbled and emotional, stab at unpacking the night’s symbolism:

I don’t in any way want to downplay the historic nature of the experience tonight…[Standing with mostly African Americans, laymen and media] their pride and emotion, it was hard for them to describe to me… it was for them a moment of great pride not just in a black man being elected and not just in all that the African American community has endured up to this point, but as one gentleman told me, it was the way that he won, and the kind of coalition that he put together…a rainbow in the truest sense. And so it’s not an easy analysis of simply the first black president elected or simply the first Democrat in eight years.

Kurtz also noted that on the field and in Obama’s speech there was less of a sense of “slaying the dragon” and more of a sense of shouldering a responsibility. The field report was a commendable attempt to flesh out—without chucking the prevailing air of triumphalism all around him—the ways in which the victory mattered.

MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann, meanwhile, invoked Walter Cronkite, who stumbled monosyllabically as he reported Neil Armstrong’s moon-landing in 1969. Discussing Obama’s victory, Olbermann said, in what was a surprisingly apt summation:

Politically, that’s what it is. This is ‘man on the moon’…in terms of how we interrelate, and also in a smaller subset of this political story—this perfect storm forming for several years in this country, coming to a fulmination [culmination?] in this election. These two things—one in giant letters to be written, and one in slightly smaller letters, but still very important ones, coming together in one night. It’s two separate tracks of history almost, obviously interconnected, but either one of them by themselves would be huge, monumental, earth-shattering history.

Colored though it was by his broadcast’s partisan slant, Olbermann’s firm distinction between the dual racial and ideological symbolisms of Obama’s victory made for smart commentary on a night when many commentators turned to safe iterations of the moment’s historic nature.

Colin Powell’s interview with CNN this morning was in some ways the bridge between the two modes of analysis; between the “First African-American in Highest U.S. Office” and the “Racial Barrier Falls” headlines; between announcing history made and imbuing that announcement with some greater meaning (however roughly, crudely, or simply). Powell’s comments, predictable in many ways, nonetheless fluctuated between quiet jubilation and resistance to the Big Day For Race In America narrative. After admitting that he and his family cried upon hearing the news, Powell said: “President-elect Obama didn’t put himself forward as an African American president. He put himself forward as an American who happened to be black… That ought to come after the title.”

“You have to take enormous pride in the fact that we were able to do this,” he continued. And then, from someone who understands the significance of symbolism, he offered a reminder that barriers are as real as they are symbolic: “Right now it’s economics. The American people voted in this election to have something done about our economic situation.”

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Jane Kim is a writer in New York.