Tuesday, January 20, 2009


Dear Future,

Today, Barack Obama will be inaugurated. That'll happen about two and a half hours from when I'm beginning this. I'm setting down my impressions and feelings, and trying to record some of how I felt during the campaign, just because events look so different on their backside, and this, of everything that's happened in my life, feels the most like a historic turning point. (No, I don't count September 11: step outside and ask passersby how many can tell you anything at all about the Haymarket massacre.)

From early in the campaign, I was confident Obama was going to win. A colleague of mine grew up in Mississippi, and then spent many years of her adult life in Tennessee, so she'd seen over and over again how violently bigotry can erupt and turn people toward irrationality. Many times she came to me and said, "You still think he'll win?" I quoted back to her from To Kill a Mockingbird: "It's not time to worry yet. I'll let you know when it's time to worry." That story ended with what looked like a defeat, but showed just a twinkle of progress, and sounded a faint prediction of future success. I hope this story doesn't end that way.

It definitely could, though. Expectations are so high. That worries me. The higher they are, the more completely they shatter when they drop. This won't be a storybook presidency. The Obama team has their clumsy days. We've seen several already. He's filling pretty small shoes, so he'll look good just by his distance from the baseline, but given everything he's up against, I doubt it's enough to sustain the insanely inflated hopes of his most zealous fans.

Most of my students would have absolutely zero idea why the election of John F. Kennedy was such a victory over bigotry. If they know anything about him, they know he was young, thought good-looking, had a pretty wife, was shot, and it's cool to speculate about the possibility that his assassins successfully covered up their crime and got away clean. ("They" didn't. Oswald did it, acting alone. Zero doubt.) But it would startle most of them to learn that for much of its history, the Ku Klux Klan has had three chief targets: blacks, Jews, and Catholics. It would upset them to read front page editorials from major newspapers from the teens and twenties of the last century, saying Catholics couldn't be trusted, saying the flow of Catholic immigrants should be choked off in favor of more desirable races. They would reel at some of the arguments deployed against Al Smith in his run for the presidency, and at the delicate negotiation John F. Kennedy had to carry out to become the nation's first Catholic president.

And only. Almost two full generations later, there hasn't been a second.

Great Britain has had its first female prime minister, as have Israel and Germany. First and only. There hasn't been a second. Breakthroughs are not normalcy. Countries can be one-hit wonders just as easily as actors can win an Oscar and then vanish. What we need is a distinguished career, a string of victories. After that happens, I'll be more ready to say we've reached an era of post-racial politics.

I took the above picture on September 7, 2007. A while back, the elder George Bush mistook September 7 for Pearl Harbor Day. Now it's looking as though what was a decent-sized rally, in a decent-sized room with a few thousand people, was a Pearl Harbor Day from the Doyle's-eye view of history: a sneak attack and a sudden reversal. It's a slightly shaky analogy, given that Pearl Harbor unleashed an extinguishing strength, whereas Obama followed the momentum of his uprising all the way to victory at the ballot box. But strength is still arrayed against him, and its recent setbacks aren't terminal; it hasn't given up or fallen asleep.

The mistake, from either Obama's backers or his opponents, would be to make any claim today about race problems in this country being at an end. But as I've told students a zillion times, problems aren't licenses to panic. Problems aren't the green light to hunker down and prepare for battle. Problems are openings for solutions, and solutions can turn out to be opportunities to grow together in trust and loyalty. One of my favorite new colleagues, our new math professor, assigns problems every day, and the students don't panic or prepare for battle (ideally): they simply work the problems, identify the solutions, and move on with their newfound knowledge to tackle bigger and better problems.

My colleague from Mississippi and Tennessee is downright feisty about reminding people that this isn't an ending. At least once I've heard her say, "Everyone wants to make Obama out as Moses, like this is our nation's arrival in the Promised Land!" But when Moses appeared and was elevated to leadership, that wasn't the end of the journey. All the hardest parts still lay ahead. That's where I think we are today, and I hope we don't test God's patience nearly as much as the Israelites did.

When the United States gets its second African-American president, or possibly the third or fourth, and there have been a few female presidents, Latino presidents, and no one any longer pays much attention to the candidate's race or gender, then I'll concede that we've left the problem behind. The first time a toddler manages to get it in the potty, that's not the end of potty training: it may be an encouraging step forward, but until there are dry nights and accident-free days, the transition is still underway. I don't expect the end of this will happen in my lifetime, but to be honest, I'm not sure I expected this encouraging step forward to happen in my lifetime.

And as I've been writing, I've tried to settle on an example of a criterion we applied to our earliest presidents, but that we've left behind and no longer apply. For a moment I thought I had one: family! In generations past, if you weren't from one of the powerful families, you had no hope of making it into the top circles of influence. It was the whole "first families of Virginia" phenomenon, and it's downright striking how many of our presidents have been distant cousins. I wanted to say we'd left that behind, but then I remembered exactly who's exiting office today. There went that argument.

But so far, so good: Obama's showing signs that he's going to muddle through with better-than-average effectiveness. He's unashamed to listen, even to his opponents. He's been steering away from excess and toward pragmatism. I think we're going to need a gigantic dose of patience, and I don't think right now we're primed to be patient -- patience and fever-pitch excitement coexist pretty uncomfortably, as any small child demonstrates on Christmas Eve -- but I'm not terribly worried about the future. So to you, in the future, I can send a report of realistic, counter-inflationary guarded equanimity. I don't believe the hype, but neither do I believe the gloom and doom. And I don't believe the lies either, and I'm encouraged that a critical mass of the electorate didn't, or today we'd be inaugurating someone else.

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