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, Time.com 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.)