Today America enters a new era. The country and the world just witnessed something remarkable – something unthinkable not 20 years ago. An African American will be president of a nation that until 1964 didn't even guarantee black citizens they could exercise their right to vote.
When Barack Hussein Obama was born in 1961, many public schools were segregated by race. There was no Civil Rights Act. A black man who traveled the country agitating for change might well find himself facing the business end of a shotgun, or swinging from a rope.
Today an African American is president-elect. That, by itself, is stunning. But the election Tuesday of Obama – 47-year-old son of a Kenyan father and a white mother – almost certainly marks a transformation in this country. His victory over Sen. John McCain of Arizona may well mark a time when, at last, the festering wounds of the 1960s and the Vietnam War finally are left in the past.
The so-called culture war that President Nixon launched – the idea that conservatives were “true” Americans and liberals were a gaggle of snobbish, socialist-leaning eggheads – was used repeatedly to cudgel Democrats and city-dwellers and nonwhite or non-Christian Americans.
This year, the Republican Party tried – again – to divide us into “real Americans” and “Democrats.”
In Greensboro, McCain's running mate Sarah Palin praised the “hard-working, very patriotic, very pro-America areas of this great nation.” Republican U.S. Rep. Robin Hayes told a rally in Concord, “Liberals hate real Americans that work and accomplish and achieve and believe in God.” Hayes lost his seat in Congress Tuesday to Democrat Larry Kissell. And McCain-Palin lost, too.
Obama's victory has – we fervently hope – buried that old division. Patriotism is not the sole possession of the Republican Party. Americans come in all colors, hometowns and political beliefs. Obama won, not with a divisive campaign, but by appealing to the voters' better instincts: For unity, for an end to partisanship, for change.
Of course, it didn't hurt that the sitting president, George W. Bush, is about as unpopular as any president has ever been. Under Bush's watch the country launched the Iraq war based on a lie. He and his administration have flouted the law and the constitution. And the nation's economy sank into recession.
So McCain had a tough mission from the outset. He also faced the prospect of a large and enthusiastic turnout among black voters eager to vote for an African American.
But McCain decided to run hard to the right. He chose as running mate a first-term Alaska governor whose only other elected experience was as a council member and mayor of a town of 10,000. Republicans launched a disgraceful and divisive campaign of lies, aiming to mislead gullible people into thinking Obama is Muslim (he's Christian), a “socialist,” or even a “terrorist.”
McCain, in his concession, asked Americans to put aside partisan differences and work together. He's right, but a bit late to the party.
Obama faces a nation sharply divided, reeling under a sour economy and fighting in two countries. Speaking early this morning, he vowed to be a president for all of America, even people who voted against him. That's a major challenge. He will need all of his considerable intellect, skill at bridging differences and inspirational oratory to bring this country together.