Blogs > HNN > The Obama-McCain "Return Night" Reconciliation: Lasting Hope or Fleeting Moment?

Nov 23, 2008 2:57 am

The Obama-McCain "Return Night" Reconciliation: Lasting Hope or Fleeting Moment?

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.

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Maarja Krusten - 11/9/2008

Two points

(1) Dr. Troy and Dr. Chamberlain, you may find interesting this article in today's NYT ("Harsh Words About Obama, Never Mind Now"

(2) I've learned a lot from looking in on HNN during the last 4 years and am interested to see what the site will reflect in the future. Some people who write essays or comment on them display public policy preferences or ideological views (if that is how they approach issues). People who write on HNN (I was going to say engage but there actually is little engagement) display styles of discourse and behaviors which, for better or worse, become associated with their their positions.

I don't know how much freedom of speech professors feel they have (what employers permit and what generally is acceptable within academe). My sense from reading HNN is that there must be an awful lot of perceived constraints on members of the academy, much more than I had thought was the case. I'm sorry to see that, the constraints which form the unarticulated metamessages here on HNN suggest that the academic world may be a very difficult environment in which to operate.

Perhaps professors are stuck, boxed in. If not, then consider that modelled behavior means a lot in the virtual world -- as in the real world. It's not enough to talk the talk. You have to look for opportunities here on HNN to model the behaviors you espouse.

Maarja Krusten - 11/7/2008

Speeches are interesting, as is the context and timing of remarks and what candidates feel able to say. A lot for future biographers to examine, certainly.

In October, after there were news reports of shouted epithets during Republican campaign rallies, including one account of a spectator telling an African American cameraman to sit down, boy, John Lewis commented on “hostility in our political discourse.” Lewis noted, "George Wallace never threw a bomb. He never fired a gun, but he created the climate and the conditions that encouraged vicious attacks against innocent Americans who were simply trying to exercise their constitutional rights."

The response from Obama’s campaign was that the Democratic candidate did not believe McCain was comparable to Wallace.

McCain’s response was to say that most of the people who attended his campaign rallies were "good and decent and patriotic Americans." He added, "To somehow intimate that the overwhelming majority of those people, with rare exception, are somehow not good Americans or are motivated by anything but the most patriotic motives is insulting and I won't accept that insult."

Lewis later issued a clarification, stating it was not his intention to compare McCain or Palin to Wallace.

As it happens, I was reading Lewis’s autobiography (Walking With the Wind) when these exchanges occurred last month. I found myself thinking, would it have been possible in the last month of a campaign to turn these exchanges into a dialogue about perceptions and varying American experiences?

It says a lot about our political process that this could not occur during the heat of a general election campaign. But still, I wonder, what if in October McCain would have shared his views of Lewis and the events that shaped his views, stating that in Selma, Alabama, in 1965, “an army of more than five hundred marched across the Edmund Pettus Bridge; an army that brought with them no weapons, which intended no destruction; that sought to conquer no people or land. At the head of the column, dressed in a dark suit, white shirt, tie and tan raincoat, marched a twenty-five year old son of Alabama sharecroppers, John Lewis. They had planned to march from Selma to Montgomery, but they knew they would never reach there. They had been warned they would be met with force, and at the crest of the bridge, they were. Until then, they had marched in silence, with dignity and resolve, men, women, children and old people. All was quiet, even the angry crowd that watched the marchers. But everything was alive with apprehension, with the expectation that something momentous and terrible was imminent.

On the other side of the bridge, row upon row of state troopers in blue uniforms and white helmets, many on horseback, prepared to charge and stop with violence the peaceful army, intent only on conquering injustice. John Lewis took the first blow, a baton thrust to the stomach that shoved him back on the marchers behind him. He took the second blow, too, a hard swung club to his head, leaving a permanent scar where it struck. Blood poured from the wound, darkening his raincoat. He tried to struggle to his feet, and then collapsed unconscious, his skull fractured.

That evening, millions of Americans watched in stunned silence as ABC News broadcast the clash of might against right. They watched brave John Lewis fall. They watched the marchers -- peaceful, purposeful, loving, kneeling in humble resistance -- scattered and overrun by the troopers, who struck them with clubs and whips, chased them as they fled, trampled them beneath their horses' hooves. They watched old men and women fall. They saw dignified people claiming only their constitutional rights; affirming the promise of the Declaration of Independence without anger, malice or the least threat of violence, whipped and clubbed for their patriotism. They watched, and were ashamed of their country. And they knew that the people who had tried to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge weren't a mob; they weren't a threat; they weren't revolutionaries. They were people who believed in America; in the promise of America. And they believed in a better America. They were patriots; the best kind of patriots.

The beaten and dispersed army on Edmund Pettus Bridge had conquered something after all -- the indifference of too many Americans to their courageous struggle for the basic rights of American citizenship.”

What I just quoted above about the events of 1965 actually are McCain’s words. He said them in a speech in Selma this past April. (See;id=18063304 ). But it says a lot about the political process that the October events played out as they did, with no mention of the earlier April comments, at least that I can find. There was no national conversation on if and how the nation has changed and to what extent since George Wallace was governor of Alabama. But for someone who was reading Lewis’s book last month, hearing such a dialague would have been interesting, indeed. . . .

Oscar Chamberlain - 11/6/2008

Of course, there are partisan issues on which both parties will tend to close ranks. Health care may well turn out to be one of them. For the parties not to live up to their positions would be dishonest.

But there are many issues that cross party lines.

I don't want Obama to avoid the former, but when cross-party coalitions on issues are possible they should be embraced. At those times, Obama should acknowledge the contributions of Republicans as well as the Democrats.