So it’s not a cure-all or second coming. It’s not as if The Beatles were getting back together (as if they could). But, just in case you’re wondering, Barack Obama winning the Democratic Party’s nomination to run for president of the United States is what making history looks like.
It often seems to be the nature of things to withhold meaning until whatever causes that meaning has done its work and gone. Maybe that’s why most people favor second-rate works of art over the good stuff most of the time. They like something that gives its meaning up without a struggle, that lets them feel like they’re in on the joke and can walk away self-satisfied in knowing that they “get it.” The good stuff, the stuff that makes a difference, the stuff that lasts — well, that’s another matter. It tends to make people scratch their heads. It can take years before we realize how truly important something is.
The same thing is true with history. It usually seems to be made somewhere else, by people we’ll never know. And it’s not until much later that we get it, finally understand that in a certain place, at a particular time, something important happened. A difference was made.
That’s part of what makes the events of last week — of the past year, really — so extraordinary. An African-American named Barack Obama is running for president, and might even get elected. Not even the contemptible familiarity bred by the reality show we’ve made of our primary process can blunt the breathtaking undeniability of this fact.
For many people, especially older ones, this takes some getting used to. You hear a lot of folks saying things like, “I never thought I’d see this in my lifetime.” With reason: One of this country’s favorite subjects for self-flagellation concerns our seeming inability to ever get anything right about race. We talk endlessly about how we never talk about it. It’s been called America’s original sin, the skeleton in our closet.
All of this is true, which is why so many people thought Barack Obama could never actually clinch the nomination. Seven months ago, in the final weeks leading up to the caucuses in Iowa, rumors suggested Obama himself understood that if he didn’t win virtually all-white Iowa his chances of prevailing in the longer race were slim to none. He pulled off an upset there and the rest is, well, history.
A year before that, in January 2007, when Barack Obama filed papers to form a committee to explore whether or not to run for the presidency, many people remarked that he was a talented guy but that it wasn’t his time yet. But history doesn’t watch the same clock as the rest of us. It turned out that time was choosing Obama. That week, I wrote, “It’s no wonder that Obama seems to stir many younger voters. They are inheriting a society shaped by a Baby Boom generation that has largely squandered the civic trust fund left by their Depression-era parents. When pundits and politicos question Obama’s experience, his supporters are undeterred. From their point of view, it’s Obama’s understanding of public process, born of his experiences growing up bi-racial and working as a community organizer, that really counts, not to mention his X factor in what has become a culture driven by celebrity — the charisma necessary to lead.”
If, in the making, history’s momentum is often cloaked, the coming presidential campaign promises to lay everything bare. The historic dimensions of Obama’s candidacy don’t stop with his racial profile. When the inevitable debates take place, the sight of the 40-something Obama standing alongside the 70-something John McCain will speak volumes. The contrast won’t just be personal. It will be about whether this country is ready to cross a threshold into the future, or abide by a set of values designed to apply cosmetic surgery to an increasingly self-destructive status quo.
“It’s not the magnitude of our problems that concerns me the most,” Obama said, throwing his hat in the ring, “it’s the smallness of our politics.” Making our politics big again won’t be easy. It means reinvesting America with a sense of purpose. Renewing the idea that government is by and for the people — and not just its most privileged citizens. This is the good stuff. History, as they used to say at school, in the making.