The Day After: Nothing’s the Matter With Kansas

IN THE 24 hours since the networks declared Barack Obama the 44th president of the United States, one storyline has washed away all others: our joy, individual and collective, in the historic election of our first black president.

Gone, suddenly, were all those campaign-trail arguments and analyses
about which we spent untold hours typing out tortured email messages,
half-baked blog posts, and bickering rejoinders. The swiftness with which this grand symbolic victory over race prejudice displaced once-consuming controversies was bracing because it underscored how ready most Americans were, in the end, to evaluate the candidates and the campaign without an overweening regard for race.

When the big day came, the much-awaited Bradley Effect was a no-show; it
disappeared like the Halloween phantoms of last week. The allegedly racist blue-collar whites who preferred Hillary Clinton to Obama in Ohio and Pennsylvania, it turned out, had all along favored her because of their interests—not their values: She had spoken in a language of practical economic populism, not airy reform. But this week, when these voters stuck with the Democratic Party, as they had in the 1990s, they silently rebuked the prior disparagements of liberal nabobs. For most of them, after all, the issue had consistently been the economy—a reality underscored by the temporal coincidence of Wall Street’s implosion and Obama’s breakaway from McCain in the polls. Of 94 surveys taken since September 26, not one had McCain winning.

Surely, in some pockets, racism persisted and will persist; but like the racist townspeople in Blazing Saddles, who rallied behind Cleavon Little’s dandy black sheriff to fend off the evil governor’s dark designs, they put self-interest ahead of bigotry. I don’t know about Kansas, but nothing seems to be the matter with Pennsylvania—thank you very much, Mr. Frank.

Ironically, Obama benefited as he never could have imagined by ABC News’s discovery back in the spring of the Reverend Wright tapes. He was able to dazzle the commentariat all over again with his Niebuhrian speech on race—and then, when Wright made clear that he was having none of it, Obama was able to stay afloat by cutting loose his surrogate father like the newly crowned King Henry IV regarding Falstaff. (“I know thee not, old man: fall to thy prayers;/How ill white hairs become a fool and jester!…Presume not that I am the thing I was;/For God doth know, so shall the world perceive,/That I have turn’d away my former self.”)By the time the fall rolled around, the old man was old news, and besides, John McCain had pledged not to go there—his aspiration to high-mindedness happily converged with the shrewd calculation that revisiting the Wright mess would only boomerang back to him.

It helped, too, that for the campaign’s crucial October weeks Obama assumed a more workaday idiom, at least until the election was in the bag. On Election Night, he forgivably returned to his favored cadences and sometimes cloying allusiveness (“A man touched down on the moon, a wall came down in Berlin…”). But in the end Obama’s messianism seemed, for once, utterly beside the point, given the euphoric reactions of Americans in plazas and living rooms from coast to coast.

Henry Louis Gates wrote: “Nothing could have prepared any of us for the
eruption (and, yes, that is the word) of spontaneous celebration that
manifested itself in black homes, gathering places and the streets of our communities when Sen. Barack Obama was declared President-elect Obama. . . . My father waited 95 years to see this day happen, and when he called as results came in, I silently thanked God for allowing him to live long enough to cast his vote for the first black man to become president. And even he still can’t quite believe it!”

For months throughout the summer and fall—with the exception of the
short-lived Sarah Palin boom—Obama’s election felt ploddingly inevitable. It took his actual victory this Tuesday at the polls to make it seem so mind-bogglingly unreal.

David Greenberg, a professor of history and media studies at Rutgers University, is the author of three books of political history including Nixon’s Shadow: The History of an Image.

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