For 10-year old Francisco, a Canadian of Guatemalan origin who lives on Clergy Street, the main thing was Barack Obama's skin colour, which is similar to his own -a sign that people of colour might become great.
For Laura Murray, a Kingstonian in her early forties, the victor brought with him a paradigm change of utmost significance. When, late Tuesday night, Obama told 150,000 well-wishers at Grant Park in Chicago, and the billions who watched on television around the world, that Americans now had the chance "to choose our better history," the "good things" Murray had missed in the 1960s, and that had been all but submerged since the Reagan years, now appeared possible once again.
As a Canadian, Murray also noted a "certain smugness" that has enabled those who've disdained so much that has happened in America during her lifetime to feel superior to the United States. Now there is a more hopeful reason to look southward.
For H. A. "Bus" Still, who celebrated his 82nd birthday last week, Obama's triumph made him remember a trip he and his late wife Clare made to Virginia in 1955.There, Still recalled, signs on drinking fountains, restaurants, swimming pools and bathrooms symbolized a system of segregation that relegated African-Americans to second-class citizenship. Still described himself as "thrilled, elated" with the Obama victory, noting, like Murray and young Francisco, the arrival of a new day in American politics.
That day will not come until January, when Obama will be sworn in as America's 44th president. The most intelligent and articulate president-elect in at least 70 years, he will inherit a country that is in tough shape on nearly all levels. Not since the Civil War and the Great Depression has a president-elect faced the kind of predicament Obama does.
Indeed, those crises -manufactured by the Republican party over the last 28 years -leave one with the sense that anyone might have beaten Republican presidential candidate John McCain. But, of course, it was not as simple as that; politics never is. McCain and his chosen running mate, the bizarre Governor Sarah Palin of Alaska, proved in the long run less formidable adversaries than Obama's chief rival for the Democratic nomination, Hillary Clinton of New York.
Clinton took Obama too lightly -- a fatal mistake. McCain and Palin did not underestimate the Obama-Joe Biden ticket. But both external and internal factors intervened to ensure their defeat.
First and foremost, Obama benefited from the failed domestic and foreign policies of the Bush administration.
Filmmaker Oliver Stone's recent film W presents a picture of Bush as mindless, a man who probably should have stopped rising when he became president of the Texas Rangers baseball team. Bush will leave office a pathetic individual, a simpleton who, during his presidency, was surrounded by carnivores such as Vice-President Dick Cheney, former defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Canada's early gift to Bush's inner circle, David Frum, who gave us the phrase "axis of evil."
This Republican group, an evil cabal in itself, lied to get the U. S. into a war in Iraq, failed to bring al-Qaida and Osama bin Laden to justice, launched an open-ended global war against something called "terrorism" (a weasel word if ever there was one, meaning anything these Republicans didn't like), infringed on free speech and civil liberties, legitimized torture as an instrument of national policy and stood by as real estate interests across America joined Wall Street chief executive officers and stockbrokers in running amok, creating more and more fake wealth until the bubble burst. No wonder Bush's popularity ratings dipped as low as they did, and no wonder Princeton University historian Sean Willentz deemed him the worst president in American history.
So Bush became an albatross around McCain's neck, an old neck whose wattles rattled when McCain spoke and especially when he became angry. After all, here was a guy who was 72 years old -a war hero, yes, who spent six years as a prisoner of war after being shot down in Vietnam, but also a guy who was known as a maverick (his own person) able to cross the aisle in politics to get things done, a man whose experience allegedly stood him in far better stead than his adversary Obama.
But here the word "experience" lost its meaning. It seemed, in fact, to tie McCain to Bush and to failed conservative policy. Whether McCain had snakes in his head from his imprisonment -- and references to the film The Manchurian Candidate were not helpful to his campaign -- whatever skill and knowledge he possessed paled in front of the verbal and visual legerdemain possessed by the newcomer Obama. And not even Palin, who, we were told, could see Russia from her home in Alaska, could stem the tide.
McCain put his foot in his mouth more times during the campaign than my dog Forest does when he gets hungry for dinner. Very much a practitioner of the old politics, he appeared at times confused and tired, while his partner looked amusingly strange.
The Obama victory was hard-earned. The Democrats mastered organization and administration in this campaign as never before. To keep the Republicans honest (an oxymoron at the best of times), a national phalanx of lawyers oversaw activity at the polls. To reach the faithful, the Democrats used tactics learned from experiences in the 1960s with the civil rights movement and from mobilizing farm workers in California.
Marshall Ganz of Harvard University was one of many whose earlier experience in organizing came to good use this time around. And then there was the Internet, with sites such as MoveOn.org to spread the Obama gospel, and You Tube, where supporters of Obama posted every McCain- Palin gaffe within minutes of their occurrence. Then, too, there was text-messaging to rally the troops and to make certain they voted.
It is not surprising, therefore, that a new, young generation came of political age along with Obama Tuesday night. This Internet-savvy cohort will no doubt influence politics in the United States and Canada for years to come. In the U. S., the shift was similar to another shift in the 1930s, as Irish and Italian immigrants, working men and women and African-Americans found a voice in the Democratic party. Franklin Roosevelt captured the support of these and other groups as he fashioned a coalition that lasted into the 1960s.
African-Americans had voted Republican before that time because of the legacy of Abraham Lincoln, the Great Emancipator, even though it was the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, not Lincoln, that freed the slaves.
In the 1960s, the Vietnam War and violence surrounding the Black Power Movement shattered the Democratic Party, with more conservative groups joining the Republicans. Now history has turned once again. Perhaps Obama will be able to straddle the racial divide that is so central to American history.
Two things are certain: Obama brings with him the audacity of immense hope and the charisma to reach most citizens. He will be sorely tested by the economic crisis that grips the country, along with all of the other problems he inherits from the incumbent.
But this morning looks a lot brighter than Tuesday morning did.Geoff Smith taught American history at Queen's University for 37 years. A dual Canadian and American citizen, he voted for Barack Obama. This article appeared in the Whig-Standard November 7, 2008.