Victory Laps

Columnists unleash poetics in the service of the historic moment

If there was ever an extended moment to go wild as an opinion columnist, like a child with crayons and a white wall, last week was it—and columnists at major newspapers indulged in the opportunity to produce some aspirationally poetic, weighty lines. Just shy of a week after Barack Obama’s victory, some columnists, reaching their turn in the op-ed queue, are still reveling in the rhetoric of an emotional victory.

For the most part, that’s a good thing. Bob Herbert, for one, wrote in his first New York Times column since Obama’s win that “voters went to the polls and placed a bet on a better future,” and that that fact is “worth a smile, a toast, a sigh, a tear.” The Boston Globe’s Derrick Jackson wrote: “America once exploited the discipline of black people to create the nation’s wealth. Now it has picked the most disciplined black man of our time to protect it.” From the NYT’s Frank Rich, we heard that the day after the election, “America’s tears of catharsis gave way to unadulterated joy.” And Ta-Nehisi Coates, though not a regular opinion columnist for The Washington Post, discussed the fatalistic expectation of racism gracefully and personably in that paper’s pages: “The favored rallying cry of black people is that we are not a monolith. How fascinating that some of us could only belatedly extend the same courtesy to white Americans.”

Indeed, an event like Obama’s victory, which trades just as much on the crafting of historical record (for our children, etc.) as it does on cogent and insightful analysis for the readers of today, is to some extent tailor-made for opinion columnists and their ilk. With their broad and very visible platforms, they are arguably among the best equipped to act as cultural observers and documentarians at a moment like this. It can also give rise to some great lines—the ones that great events demand, but that are hard to cook up on overnight notice.

But as some columnists continue to finger the marvel of Tuesday’s win, it’s worth wondering when we can reasonably expect a transition from the heady post-election broad-stroke words to the more grounded observations that come with passing time (cue: perspective). There’s a tinge of willing conflation in some of these columns, between the noting of the historic nature of Obama’s win, and engagement in a more unabashed celebration of Obama As Winner. While the two strains of analysis are closely intertwined, it would also behoove us to recognize that they’re not automatically one and the same.

Gregory Rodriguez in yesterday’s Los Angeles Times, for instance, asked the question, “Why are Americans so obsessed with hope?” and then proceeds to answer it:

Our national cult of hope, therefore, is a balm to soothe our social and culture instability. We fetishize hope because it helps us as we grasp at a favorable future. We wrap ourselves in it like no other people in the world because we tell ourselves failure isn’t an option. We have no choice but to cheer when a president-elect tells us we can put our hands “on the arc of history and bend it once more toward the hope of a better day. And we’re right to cheer. If America ever did fail to come up with future prospects, plans, dreams and hopes, it would, in all the most important ways, surely cease to exist.

The fetishization of hope, especially as it popped up over the course of this long campaign, legitimately deserves a place in this discussion, and Rodriguez addresses it in order to get at why Obama’s use of such an ephemeral word was ultimately so effective. But Rodriguez’s utilization of Obama’s language—of hope, dreams and change—to parse the significance of his win, is, even with the best of intentions, a bit like defining a word by using the word itself.

Meanwhile, in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal, Juan Williams wrote about what Obama’s win means for racial politics. Stating that we’ve begun “an era in which it is assumed that talented, tough people of any background will find a way to their rightful seat of power in mainstream political life,” Williams focused his column on what could be considered the President Obama Effect:

With Mr. Obama as the head of government, discussion of racial problems now comes in the form of pragmatic discourse for how to best give all Americans opportunity, for example, how to improve schools.

While Williams’s point as elucidated above—the practical outcome of hope achieved—is well taken, his sentence construction—“With Mr. Obama…now comes”—gestured towards a state of mind in which a symbolic victory guarantees a practical one. The column is more nuanced than this, but small details like this one, which assume change instead of tracking its path, can contribute to a less than responsible composite of ideas surrounding the president-elect.

Some other grand statements: in the Miami Herald, Carl Hiaasen stated, “When [Obama] won, the world’s view of our country instantly changed, and so did the way we view ourselves.” It echoed the Globe’s Jackson, who more lyrically wrote that “a sliding nation appears poised to bury the ghosts of its past by seeing in Obama the discipline we all need now.”

The points these columnists make, at the nexus of emotion and analysis, remind us how much leverage (in both style and content) these columnists have. Depicting Obama’s victory with such broad strokes—of instant change, of an erasure of past ghosts, of a now-fully-pragmatic discussion of racial problems, of a necessary and national culture of hope—is, on an immediate level, emotionally sound and poetically just. But those broad depictions risk advancing a picture that is as two-dimensional as it is rosy.

In his NYT column this past Sunday, Nicholas Kristof also used some pretty broad strokes to communicate his excitement—about having an intellectual president. Kristof wrote: “Barack Obama’s election is a milestone in more than his pigmentation. The second most remarkable thing about his election is that American voters have just picked a president who is an open, out-of-the-closet, practicing intellectual.” He cited the Ignorant Palin On Africa trivia tidbit as a counterpoint, rejoiced that “times may be changing” (“How else do we explain the election in 2008 of an Ivy League-educated law professor who has favorite philosophers and poets?”), and hoped that Obama’s “fertile mind”—one that “exults in complexity”—“will set a new tone for our country.” It’s not that his column lacks substance, per se. But it’s substance in the service of the victory, and that’s only icing on the cake that opinion columnists like Kristof (and others) could provide right now. Here’s hoping that with a week past and their Historic Moment itch satiated, they’ll use their freedom now to flesh out the results of this election beyond the stretch of the jubilant victory lap.

Postscript: Of course, barring all this, there’s the Maureen Dowd approach. Dowd has taken this cut-this-column-out-to-show-your-kids kind of opportunity to write a column joking that “it’s fun, after so many years of unyielding barriers, to feel sentimental” and asking, “Is it time now for whites to stop polling blacks on their feelings?” It’s as though she asked the question, If I’m not going to be perspicacious, mightn’t I just be offensive? And, for some inexplicable reason, her answer to it was: Why not?

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Jane Kim is a writer in New York.