As Great Moments in History go, Tuesday, June 3, 2008 seemed fairly low-key considering the stakes and implications. For endless long months, from deep winter to the edge of summer, Democratic voters have turned out in record numbers in presidential primary elections to cast their ballots for the first serious female candidate and first serious African American candidate in this nation’s history.
By the end of the primary season on June 3, enough of those voters cast their ballots in favor of Barack Obama to ensure that he will be the nominee of the Democratic Party for the general presidential election. Senator Obama will be the first African American nominee for the presidency; whatever your political preference, all citizens surely must note the historic nature of this moment in American history. Around the world, Obama’s victory resonates as well. Congratulations to Senator Obama on his historic victory!
When Nancy Pelosi became the first woman elected as Speaker of the House, the highest elected office ever attained by a woman in United States history, she was often quoted as saying, “We have made history; now let us make progress.” The genuine realism of that statement seems equally appropriate for Barack Obama’s moment in history.
It’s not enough to make history if the moment dissipates into the usual tawdry political behavior. From that perspective, Hillary Clinton may well prove to be history’s great example of squandering the moment. A true leader and great statesperson knows when to offer heartfelt congratulations to the victor; a true leader can actually come in second and emerge stronger for her graciousness. Too bad that we have not seen that true leadership genius in our first serious female candidate for the presidency. (As of this writing, news wires are saying that she’ll “suspend” her campaign on Friday… a bit late, it seems, to be gracious in defeat.)
Barack Obama now has his moment, but history will only matter if he proves himself to be a great leader tomorrow and the next day and the next. What happened in this primary season will be only a footnote unless he emerges as more than a vigorous, hopeful, energetic candidate who happens to have personal characteristics that endow him with extraordinary “first” qualities and opportunities.
The Obama candidacy is just that — an extraordinary opportunity for this nation to make real progress on a broad range of issues, racial equality being one profoundly important issue but not the only issue. In fact, the real test of Senator Obama’s leadership will be found in his ability to transcend the forces that will try to define him narrowly, that will ascribe to him the burden of singular interest group representation without allowing him to represent all of the people broadly through all of the issues that Americans care about. Senator Obama will make progress only if his candidacy is truly embraced by a broad spectrum of Americans who define themselves not by party or race but by commitment to building a better society.
And, what about John McCain? His moment in history seems obscured in the dust of the Democratic drama, but his moment deserves more than a footnote as well. Senator McCain suffered through years of devastating imprisonment in North Vietnam. He emerged from that experience determined to lend his time and talent to the needs of his nation. His voice is different from many other voices in his party, but what remains to be seen is whether the pressure cooker of a long campaign with many competing interests will whittle down his edges to make him more like every other candidate, which would dilute the reasons why he emerged as the nominee to begin with. Senator McCain could also reveal an ability to make progress if he remains independent of the homogenizing forces that American voters on both sides of the aisle have rejected in this primary season. (I like his proposal for “no moderator” town-hall meetings with Senator Obama… but will be surprised if it really happens that way…)
We all can hope that the best man will win. Many will mourn the thought that the previous sentence does not say “woman or man.” Someday it will. But now it’s time to get on with the business of electing the person who will ensure that this nation makes more progress more quickly.