By Gil Troy, HNN, 11-5-08
On Thursday, in Georgetown, Delaware, the losing and winning candidates from the various contests around that state will assemble for Return Day. In a ritual tracing its roots to 1791, voters and politicians will hear the official electoral returns and make nice, no matter how bitter their campaigns may have been. In addition to parading together down the main street in antique automobiles, the rivals will bury a ceremonial tomahawk, quite literally burying the hatchet. Late Tuesday night and early Wednesday morning, President-elect Barack Obama and Senator John McCain mounted their own version of this reconciliation ritual, offering a magnificent display of the grace, civility, and patriotism that could heal America, even during these painful times.
While rituals help us navigate life’s highs and lows, often elevating our actions, they also risk imprisoning us in rote behaviors. Concession speeches and victory speeches are usually mechanical, more formulaic than transcendent, because everyone knows that the speech-maker is play-acting. Few losers or winners are as gracious as their election night speeches suggest.
Happily, both Barack Obama and John McCain rose to the occasion, ending the drawn-out, often bitter 2008 campaign on a high note. McCain conceded with the grace and non-partisanship for which he had been famous – and which often seemed MIA during his campaign. Hopefully, he will honor his constructive vow to support the president-elect. McCain could be an essential ally in the Senate, and could help a President Obama lead from the center, as he needs to do. In America, we lack the institution of the leader of the opposition. All too often, losing nominees vanish from the scene. Neither Al Gore nor John Kerry offered the kind of national and party leadership they should have following their respective losses, considering how many millions of people supported them. Although he is not the Senate majority leader, John McCain could play Lyndon Johnson to Obama’s Dwight Eisenhower, replicating the best aspects of that cross-the-aisle senator-president relationship that produced bipartisan triumphs in the late 1950s, including launching NASA.
For his part, Obama’s speech was masterful. Although it started a tad grandiose, as he associated his personal triumph with America’s redemption, the rest sparkled. Understanding the daunting challenges ahead, he called, Franklin D. Roosevelt-style, for a spirit of community and self-sacrifice. Acknowledging the more than 48 million voters who voted against him, he reached out to his opponents. And, distancing himself from the Bush Administration, Obama also appealed to the good people around the world listening in – while warning America’s foes not to underestimate him. As an added bonus for historians, his story about Ann Nixon Cooper, the 106-year-old African American woman who voted for him, offered a wonderful trip-tych of twentieth century history, punctuated by the supposedly “timeless” but actually quite contemporary and Obamian credo “Yes We Can.”
Many of us who study the presidency, are suckers for charismatic leaders singing a compelling, optimistic song. The office’s unique mix of king and prime minister makes generating hope part of the skill set for a successful presidency. The hope that a Franklin Roosevelt or a Ronald Reagan brought to the American people boosted the country’s sense of well-being as well as each leader’s popular and historical standing. We need an arm-twister-in-chief to get things done, and a cheerleader in chief to make us feel good about our country and ourselves.
The outpouring of emotion when Obama clinched his victory was thrilling. Little more than a decade ago, when O.J. Simpson was found innocent of two murders, cameras recorded cheering blacks and morose whites, emphasizing a split-screen America. On this Return Night, the cameras showed blacks and whites crying together, laughing together, celebrating together, hoping together, in a tableau of healing.
You would need a heart of stone not to be moved by watching the joy that swept America – but you need a head of straw not to worry about just how Obama will succeed. His calls for unity will only last if he understands that he must govern in the same expansive and moderate spirit his speech stirred.
Hope is like a balloon, able to entrance and elevate but also easily over-inflated or easily destroyed by just the right pin prick. Politics itself is an odd mix of noble aspirations with ruthless ambition, high-minded ideals with thuggish tactics. Placing too much hope on any one mortal invites disappointment. Sixteen years ago, a young, charismatic candidate came, quite literally, from a place called Hope. Within weeks of his election, Bill Clinton had frittered away much of the positive emotion surrounding his candidacy, primarily by backpedaling on the gays in the military issue, which stemmed from an off-the-cuff Andrea Mitchell question he should have dodged. Amid the other great challenges Barack Obama faces is the danger of disappointing the millions who have placed so much faith in him.
Still, all these worries vanished on Election Night, albeit temporarily. In the classy way McCain and Obama buried the hatchet, the goals of Return Day were achieved, the rivals unleashed the spirit of patriotic and bipartisan healing. May it prove contagious – and lasting.