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The Truth About the Election

As he demonstrated in his campaign for the presidency, Barack Obama thinks long. Hence, the new President-elect is better prepared to take office than any other newly elected chief executive in the history of the modern presidency. (This includes vice-presidents who succeeded to the office, with the possible exception of George H.W. Bush.) While still in the midst of the grueling contest for the presidency, Obama and his advisers deliberated and planned how he wanted to conduct a possible transition and how he wanted to govern. This is unusual. A preelection transition team was formed in early August, weeks before the final campaign began, and put in the hands of the wise and experienced John Podesta, who had held high positions in the Clinton White House and is now the head of the Center for American Progress, a think tank in Washington he founded in 2003 to generate progressive ideas.

Even earlier, not long after he wrapped up the nomination in June, Obama recruited Phil Schiliro, former top aide to California congressman Henry Waxman, to try to keep the Democratic Congress in synch with the campaign. When during the election race Obama felt that he had to relent on the issue of offshore drilling, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, of California, who is highly sensitive to protecting coastlines, reluctantly switched her position to support him. Well before the election, Schiliro and other Obama campaign staff members were also in frequent touch behind the scenes with Democratic congressional leaders about the future agenda. (Schiliro will serve as head of congressional relations in the Obama White House.)

The day after Obama’s election, he announced an official transition team—led by Podesta, together with Valerie Jarrett, a former city official and businesswoman from Chicago, as well as a longtime Obama friend and adviser, and Pete Rouse, Obama’s Senate chief of staff—and was well along in his thinking about how to go about setting up his presidency. By moving quickly, he established that he was taking charge; several of his predecessors had thrashed about for quite a while in setting up their own teams. Obama learned from their mistakes; his decision to name a chief of staff first, in order to start early in shaping the White House staff and making other critical decisions, was in sharp contrast to Bill Clinton’s waiting until mid-December to name his chief of staff. And Clinton’s choice of Mac McLarty, a kindergarten friend from Hope, Arkansas, a nice man with no Washington experience, wasn’t a success. McLarty was replaced two years later. (In time, Podesta held that job.)

Obama’s naming of Rahm Emanuel, a former Clinton aide and now high-ranking member of Congress, two days after the election reflected Obama’s own very tough qualities. Emanuel’s notorious toughness is what Obama wanted in order to get things done. Obama said privately that Emanuel will “have my back,” i.e., be his protector. Emanuel’s position in Congress—as chairman of the Democratic caucus he is the fourth-ranking Democrat and he managed the Democrats’ highly successful 2006 congressional campaign—shows that he both is effective and can get along with others. Behind the aggressiveness and fluent profanity—he knows when to employ his hard-charging demeanor and when not to—is also a kind and sensitive man; supposedly a rough partisan, he developed friendly relationships with several Republicans on Capitol Hill. People who fret that Emanuel, having served in the Clinton White House and on Capitol Hill, doesn’t represent “change” needn’t worry. Emanuel is very close to Obama, was an adviser during the campaign, understands what he wants to do—and knows that his role is to serve the President.

Obama’s meetings with Hillary Clinton and John McCain about playing important roles in his presidency indicated his imagination and his shrewdness, although sources close to Obama say he did not offer her the job of secretary of state when they met. He had said during the campaign that he wanted various views in his government, and in turning to his own former competitors, Obama was at the same time magnanimous and seeking to keep them close. Both were in a position to cause him difficulty in the Senate—Clinton, in particular, had kept her constituency intact (through HillPAC) and was planning her own Senate agenda, including her own health care program, no matter what Obama proposed. But Clinton lacks the seniority, and therefore a committee position from which to get her proposals taken up by the Senate. (She tried to get a special subcommittee appointed, but Edward M. Kennedy, who has his own health care plan and is chairman of the committee with jurisdiction over the issue, blocked her, offering her later a role concerning health insurance.) McCain had indicated that he wanted to help Obama in the Senate, and by taking him up on it, Obama has both flattered and coopted him.

Mrs. Clinton’s and her closest advisers’ turning a suggestion by the President-elect that she might, among other things, head the State Department into an “offer” and reports that she was agonizing over whether to accept it, did not please officials in Chicago, some of whom hoped that issues over disclosure of Bill Clinton’s post-presidential record might block the appointment. But the former president’s camp blocked that by promising to cooperate with requests for information and to accept limits on his activities, including clearance of speaking engagements abroad. Statements by the Hilary camp on November 21 saying that “she’s ready” for the position but then backtracking, saying that some matters were “under discussion,” typified the whole mess, the only snag thus far in an otherwise unusually smooth transition involving impressive choices—an object lesson to Obama (which he had reason to know already) that getting involved with the Clintons is rarely uncomplicated.

Obama understood the point—which eludes some presidential candidates—that running is about governing, that there should be a seamless connection between the two. The best way to judge presidential candidates—aside from whether one basically agrees with their values—is to try to envision them governing. Will they inspire people to follow them? What kind of people do they have around them? How do they run their campaign? The wise candidate, the one who sees long, will run the campaign as a preparation for the presidency. In Obama’s case, from what we have been able to observe up to this point, there will be a straight line from his campaigning to his governing. At their convention, Republicans mocked Obama for having been a community organizer (apparently thinking this was some sort of airy-fairy occupation, not real work); they were defeated by the community organizer—and they will discover that the country is being governed by one. Obama’s understanding that change comes from building a popular mandate from the ground up made his the best-organized campaign, the most methodical in marshaling support, attracting volunteers, and establishing field offices in the various states. It ran rings around both the Clinton and McCain campaigns.

The primary contests became the foundation of the general election, and the innovative techniques the Obama campaign used in both phases will be carried into the presidency. In both periods, the Obama campaign collected names and contact numbers both from the Internet and at big rallies, including even his acceptance speech in Denver, attended by more than 75,000 people. Most of those digitized names were called, e-mailed, and text-messaged, often more than once, by election day. At some of the rallies the members of the audience were asked to call and e-mail their friends and families and ask them to vote. The names and the innovative technology that the Obama campaign employed will be used in the future, giving the new President a large and ready army to call upon when he needs help in getting an issue through Congress. There are now an estimated ten million addresses in the database. Their members of Congress will hear from them. There’s never been anything like this before.

A system is to be set up to provide real interaction between the people and their government; Obama has promised greater “transparency” than ever before. As he promised in his campaign, he is planning a fresh approach to governing.

Starting during the debates, and then quite clearly in his election-night speech, Obama has sought to tamp down expectations of how much he will be able to get done, and how quickly. This is not just a matter of budgetary constraints. Some liberals who were passionately for him may be disappointed by his agenda. A couple of weeks before the election, one of Obama’s closest advisers told me that he would govern “from the center.” Even as he campaigned, Obama spoke of his desire to have broad majorities behind his proposals, as the only way to effect significant and lasting change. In seeking to form broad coalitions, including with some Republicans, in support of his ideas, he will be making trade-offs that won’t please all of his followers. The devoted student of Abraham Lincoln wants to “think anew.”

Obama has spoken a great deal about seeking bipartisanship, but how much this is attainable is yet to be known. The Republican ranks on Capitol Hill will have shrunk as a result of the election, and will be more dominated by the right. Few moderate Republicans in the Senate—Maine Senators Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe among them—remain. In the House, there are only seventeen Republicans from the eastern states between Maryland and Maine, and none from New England. Obama seeks to set a new tone in Washington, but House Republican leaders, and those jockeying for leadership positions, like Eric Cantor (Virginia) and Dan Lungren (California), are playing to their conservative base and are sounding as partisan as ever—if not more so. They appear disinclined to give the new President any cooperation, shortsighted though that may be for their party.

Both economic reality and prudent politics require that Obama not overreach. Bill Clinton, who was elected by a plurality, not a majority, wasted whatever mandate he had in two years, and in 1994 was overrun by the election of an overwhelmingly Republican Congress. Obama, who won 53 percent of the vote (to McCain’s 46)—the highest percentage of the vote by any Democrat since Lyndon Johnson’s landslide in 1964—and thus can claim a mandate, won’t govern as a traditional Democrat.

His campaign was a combination of audacity and caution—and he may be more cautious in general than some Democrats or others will like. He’s spoken of a bold energy-independence program that will also be designed to create new jobs; a job-producing program to improve the nation’s infrastructure; a reform of health care of unknown scope at this point; tax cuts for the middle class; and improvements in education. He’ll probably have to fix the financial bailout, about which the Bush Treasury Department blundered badly, and will try to get help to the automobile industry while pushing it in a new direction. (That the Treasury Department’s first approach was wrongheaded was apparent to some at the outset; but once again the administration rushed Congress into a “crisis” decision.) At the same time, of course, Obama will be trying to end the war in Iraq and dealing with the situation in Afghanistan, and meeting other urgent international challenges.

But he won’t do many of the things that Democrats usually call for: the reform of health care will be less sweeping than what’s been proposed in the past; labor won’t get everything on its agenda; and there won’t be dramatic cuts in defense spending. Some liberal Democrats have signed on to a more limited approach to government, but others are pressing for bolder action.

In his first press conference, three days after the election, Obama firmly stated that he wanted Congress to pass a measure to stimulate the economy, either in the lame-duck session or shortly after the new Congress convenes in January. In the face of Republican opposition, with Obama’s concurrence Democratic leaders have put off consideration of a large stimulus bill until the new Congress—with its swelled Democratic ranks—convenes. Members of Congress feel that they were elected, too, and they have rights to promote their own bills, and seek to influence the new President’s priorities. (Kennedy is urging that the incoming Congress consider a health care program earlier than Obama may want.)

Just how far Obama had already got in putting his stamp on Congress was demonstrated by a statement two days after the election by the very powerful House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who tightly controls the House agenda. Pelosi, more pragmatic than her liberal reputation suggests, said, “The country must be governed from the middle.” She added, “You have to bring people together to reach consensus on solutions that are sustainable and acceptable to the American people.” Senate leader Harry Reid also agrees with Obama’s approach. These leaders are loath to have the Democrats overreach—and risk a backlash.

People might become impatient with President Obama at times. He has shown a proclivity for taking much care over decisions; taking time before he reacts to a proposal; talking to a large number of people before making up his mind. This was how he responded to the Russian invasion of Georgia in August: after a few days he made a measured statement suggesting, accurately and longsightedly—since he’d have to deal with the Russian government as president—that it was not Russia alone that was at fault. (McCain reacted quickly, and with his penchant for self-dramatization, announced, “We are all Georgians now.”) Similarly, Obama dealt with the economic crisis slowly, carefully, and without showboating or suggesting that he could have more influence than he did. (McCain, again, did just the opposite, “suspending” his campaign and returning to Washington without any notion of what he was going to do when he got there. He achieved nothing.)

Responding to a question in his post-election press conference about when he would announce his choices for cabinet officers, Obama said, “I want to move with all deliberate haste, but I want to emphasize ‘deliberate’ as well as ‘haste.’” He said he was “proud” of his selections for vice-president and chief of staff “because we thought it through.” As president, of course, he won’t always have the luxury of time. And people could be pressing him to respond before he’s ready. But this tendency toward caution beats impulsiveness. We’ve just had a president who prided himself on “going with my gut” and it didn’t turn out too well.

Much has been made of Obama’s temperament, his preternatural calm. This has served him well and will serve him—and us—well when he’s president. I spoke about this recently with Abner Mikva, a former congressman from Chicago and federal judge, who has been a mentor to Obama. Mikva told me that Obama’s calm demeanor should not be mistaken for a lack of feelings. Mikva said, “He feels things deeply, but he doesn’t jump up and down, he doesn’t wear his emotions on his sleeve.” Mikva said that Obama realized that the Reverend Jeremiah Wright was causing him serious trouble, “but he doesn’t supercharge the occasion by getting emotional about it; he just searches for the solution to the problem.”

When I asked Mikva about the origin of Obama’s obvious steely resolve and enormous self-confidence, he replied, “I think he’s always had it. He’s very comfortable with who he is; he knows where he wants to go and how to get there. He had the kind of bringing up that turns someone into a mess or a very solid, thoughtful person.” Mikva believes that Obama’s grandmother, a great influence on him, as Obama acknowledged when she died the day before the election, “gave him that steel.” And as it happened, calm was exactly what the country wanted after the Sturm und Drang of the Bush administration.

Obama seemed unshakable throughout the campaign. He quite evidently unnerved both Clinton and McCain, because they couldn’t rattle him. Both McCain and Clinton also evinced a certain indignation at the very idea of being challenged by, to them, an inexperienced lightweight, who was a little too clever and much too smooth. McCain’s open display of disdain for Obama in the debates—“that one,” not looking at him, rolling his eyes—was a sign of his growing anger. McCain viewed Obama as slippery, believing that Obama had broken some understandings with him—on lobbying reform, immigration, and staying within the campaign finance system.

Obama dodged the traps McCain laid for him, including the proposed series of ten joint town hall meetings, at which McCain assumed he’d be superior; though when they got one, or sort of one, in their second debate, he wasn’t superior at all. When I asked a Republican operative about McCain’s display of anger (he’d worked hard to control his legendary temper), he explained, “It’s not that he’s losing, he’s losing to someone he doesn’t have any regard for.”

Obama has indeed displayed a certain ruthlessness in the course of his political career (he is a student of Chicago politics), and a skill for evading issues and situations that might impede his success. This trait, too, will probably show up during Obama’s presidency, potentially disillusioning some of his followers.

Obama’s extraordinary victory, obliterating widely held assumptions that his race would be a serious problem—perhaps an impossible barrier to his election—was the result of a very conscious effort on the part of himself and his campaign to make sure that people saw him, in the words of one very close adviser, as “a mainstream candidate.” The idea, this person said, was to “build the comfort level” with Obama. That meant that he would scrupulously avoid running as the “black candidate”: he wouldn’t engage in grievance politics, he wouldn’t resemble Jesse Jackson, expressing anger at injustices against blacks. Obama himself had noted earlier in his life that he knew that to navigate his way in white society he could not be seen as an “angry black.” In his remarkable memoir, Dreams from My Father, Obama recalled the time when, as a senior in high school who had played around with drugs, he had patted his worried mother’s hand, and smilingly reassured her that he “wouldn’t do anything stupid.” He wrote:

It was usually an effective tactic, another one of those tricks I had learned: People were satisfied so long as you were courteous and smiled and made no sudden moves. They were more than satisfied; they were relieved—such a pleasant surprise to find a well-mannered young black man who didn’t seem angry all the time.

Worried Democrats who urged Obama to attack harder when he was under heavy fire from the McCain campaign early in the fall didn’t understand him or his requirements. Obama counterpunched when he had to, but he preferred to use his skill at slipping in the knife—as when, alluding to McCain, he calmly said, “I just don’t think we can afford that kind of erratic and uncertain leadership.” He did not have the usual black politician’s priorities: he almost never spoke about aiding poor people, and focused throughout on helping the middle class; he appeared before relatively few all-black audiences.

The one time he explicitly addressed the issue of race, in his speech in Philadelphia on March 18 of this year—during the imbroglio over Reverend Wright—he took pains to show that he understood white anxieties about blacks. His campaign ads stressed his mixed-race parentage and his having been raised by white grandparents. A close adviser said, of Obama’s handling of the race issue, “He found the right balance. He’s not running away from it, but he’s not showcasing it.” Over time, Obama indeed became seen as a “mainstream” candidate. The suggestions and rumors that he was ” other,” that he was a Muslim, didn’t stick (though the Obama campaign did worry about the spreading belief that he was a secret Muslim). This was one of the advantages of the “long campaign,” about which so many complain: it’s actually the best way to get to know a candidate—who could end up so fateful to our lives. It can be argued that we should have known some of them better.

Republican attempts to paint Obama as a “radical” or a “socialist,” to subtly and not so subtly frighten people about him, hit a wall because Obama came across as entirely normal—normal and calm. He simply didn’t look like a dangerous person. I think a big factor, not usually on the experts’ lists of what matters in elections, was his family. The Obamas exemplified the idealized American family, almost a throwback: solid, nuclear, with parents who display their exuberant love for each other and their deep attachment to their two appealing daughters. There was none of the political pretend affection that makes us uneasy. Lest some people have a difficult time accepting the idea of a black woman as first lady, the Harvard Law graduate and professionally accomplished Michelle Obama emphasized on women’s television programs and before female audiences that she had the same concerns as most other American mothers trying to balance family and work.

In fact, happily this election demolished a number of widely held if little examined bits of political “wisdom.” The results put an end to the much- discussed “Bradley effect”—the extrapolation from the results of the California gubernatorial race in 1982, when Tom Bradley, the African-American mayor of Los Angeles, lost after being ahead in the polls, in which, the presumption went, whites had lied to pollsters in saying that they would vote for him. Some of the smartest political analysts I know had already dismissed the Bradley effect as a myth.* And there was no evidence of such a phenomenon in this election. In fact, a considerable number of whites said that they voted for Obama because he is black. Late-deciding voters, who were expected to go heavily for McCain because they were presumed to be hiding the fact that they didn’t want to vote for Obama, were almost evenly split between the two candidates.

Along with the Bradley effect, so went the widespread speculation during the primaries that the blue-collar voters in industrial states, in particular Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Indiana, who voted for Hillary Clinton wouldn’t vote for Obama. Obama won all four states, holding the votes of at least 85 percent of their white Democrats. In fact, Obama fared slightly better than John Kerry or Al Gore with white voters overall. Blue-collar workers as such aren’t counted in exit polls, but some analysts define them as those earning $50,000 or less; among white blue-collar workers, Obama lost to McCain by only 4 percentage points. (And he won 83 percent of voters who said they’d preferred Clinton; 16 percent went to McCain.)

The nature of Obama’s triumph will be significant to his governing. His victory was across the board, and was aided by gains among almost all voting groups. He made a large advance among Hispanics (it was said during the primaries that they, too, wouldn’t vote for an African-American), who voted for him 67–31; he won among voters under thirty by thirty-four points (Kerry had won them by nine points and Gore by two). He also gained markedly not only among African-Americans but also among Catholics, midwestern voters, and, notably, suburban voters. He did far better than McCain among highly educated voters.

The only age group that went for McCain over Obama was of people over sixty-five, among whom Obama did better than he was expected to. On election night, the most perceptive of the television analysts this year, Chuck Todd, NBC’s political director, said that Obama owed his victory to no particular segment of the population, that “no one group put him over the top.” Todd added that Obama could have won without a single vote of young people, Hispanics, or blacks.

Running an aggressive campaign strategy—placing staff and volunteers even in heavily Republican states—Obama expanded the Democrats’ electoral map to include states that hadn’t voted for his party in decades, and pushed up his popular vote. He broke into the Old South with his victories in Virginia and North Carolina, and won for the Democrats some western and southwestern states, such as Colorado, Nevada, and New Mexico. The Republicans were reduced to a party of the Deep South and the plains states, as well as parts of Appalachia. Virginia had not voted Democratic since Lyndon Johnson’s election in 1964, and upon the election of our first black president one could not help but think of Johnson, who had pushed through landmark civil rights acts in 1964 and 1965. Upon doing so, Johnson said, “There goes the South.” A generation later, his honorable deed was more than vindicated.

Already, some Democrats are speculating that the younger voters who supported him overwhelmingly might become the “Obama generation,” akin to the “FDR generation” and the “Reagan generation,” forming a bloc that could help keep the party in power for a long time. But it’s too early for talk of “realignments.” Until not long ago, Karl Rove was still boasting of having created a “permanent Republican majority” (and journalists were writing books about it). The coalition that Ronald Reagan first formed, and Rove built upon and catered to—joining traditional conservatives with the religious right—carried the seeds of its own destruction. Rove’s advice to George W. Bush to govern from the right, in order to keep the conservative base aboard, was a major mistake. The party became too rigid, too insular, and too out of touch with mainstream America.

The Republicans have now suffered significant losses of Senate and House seats two elections in a row—in the latest one they lost, by last count, seven Senate seats and twenty-two House seats. (Some races are yet to be decided.) Combined with their 2006 losses, these are the worst results for the Republican Party since its Depression-era losses of 1930 and 1932. The congressional Republicans are now in their weakest shape since the post-Watergate elections. (So much for George Bush’s and Karl Rove’s political genius.) Republican voters have become overwhelmingly white, rural, and elderly, a difficult base from which to rebuild a majority party. Republicans are now engaged in the same internecine warfare and agitated strategizing that the Democrats used to do after they lost elections in a big way.

The 2008 election may mark the end of Rovian politics, the strategy of dividing the country over cultural issues, such as abortion; of trying to scare voters into fearing for their security if the opposition candidate won. It may also mark the end of the culture wars that had been with us since the Sixties. Obama, the first post-baby-boomer presidential candidate, made those issues irrelevant. For the first time since it happened, the Vietnam War wasn’t a topic. A growing part of the population is too young to remember Vietnam or the conflicts of the Sixties.

Moreover, in part because Obama offered a muscular policy toward Afghanistan, including a willingness to consider bombing in northern Pakistan where al-Qaeda has established an enclave (this became administration policy), and in part because of a growing consensus that the war in Iraq had to end soon (even the Bush administration had moved toward the position, leaving McCain a lone voice), he avoided being painted by the time-worn Republican brush as being “soft” on national security. Because the economy was such a towering issue, affecting so many people directly, and because people have moved on, the old divisive tactics didn’t work. The public is sick of them—as Obama understood, and capitalized on by running as the candidate of change, staying above the fray as much as he could. Sarah Palin’s charges that Obama “palled around with terrorists” seemed to most voters antique and irrelevant. (With the exception of her fervent followers, McCain’s reckless selection of Palin put an end to the wisdom, much favored by pundits, that the choice of the vice-president doesn’t matter in an election.)

It is now settling in as accepted fact that the economic crisis gave Barack Obama his victory. The wisdom has it, and it may go down as “history,” that Obama and McCain were running fairly even in the polls, with McCain slightly ahead in some, when the financial crisis struck on September 15. (This was when Lehman Brothers went under, other financial institutions were in deep trouble, and the market fell 504 points—the first of numerous heart-stopping drops.) The story line continues that the economic collapse did McCain in, and he never recovered.

But even if one accepts the argument that public opinion was strongly affected not just by the financial crisis itself but by the sharply contrasting ways that McCain and Obama handled it, it is by no means evident that McCain could have won had it not been for the crisis. On September 15, McCain, still benefiting from the effect that the choice of Palin had had on the Republican base—his convention “bounce”—was behind in the electoral college count. According to NBC’s electoral college map, the one most professionals relied upon, even then Obama continued to maintain a slight edge. And according to NBC’s Chuck Todd, Obama had many more routes to the needed 270 votes than McCain did.

In fact, the NBC electoral college map, far more relevant than the daily polls, never had Obama behind McCain in electoral votes from the time it began measuring the electoral vote count in May. But Todd does believe that the continuing economic crisis widened Obama’s margin of victory. Andrew Sullivan, in his blog The Daily Dish, argues that McCain’s fallback had already begun several days before the financial crisis, following Palin’s disastrous first television interviews, with Charles Gibson, on September 11 and 12.

Moreover, the fundamentals of the race favored Obama all along. The objective facts were that he had a far superior campaign organization, with more people on the ground and more money to spend on campaign workers and ads: McCain was saddled with the most unpopular outgoing president, of his own party, since Lyndon Johnson didn’t run again in 1968 because of his unpopularity over Vietnam. Even before the economic meltdown, by one poll 81 percent of Americans believed that the country was on the “wrong track.” (Later numbers were even worse.)

Beyond those facts, Obama simply ran the better campaign. Well before the election contest, McCain had demonstrated the erratic and impulsive characteristics that ended up causing him so much trouble, and his embrace of the right (arguably a mistaken calculation) and fealty to some of the worst Bush policies suggested that he wasn’t the highly popular McCain of 2000, and perhaps not even a man of principle. Both Clinton and McCain misread the mood of the country, which was overwhelmingly for change; the economy was in bad shape before the crisis, and was already a campaign issue—and McCain had confessed his weakness on that subject. (And he’d been badly hurt by then adviser Phil Gramm’s comment that the country was in only a “mental recession” and was “a nation of whiners.”) So the idea that September 15 was a “turning point” is a myth.

Like most of the rest of the country but even more so, Washington, a heavily Democratic city, was euphoric over Obama’s victory. It’s too simple to say that we were celebrating the election of a black president; the country had also elected someone who is smart, moral, and appealing—a serious young man who is also attractive, cool, and has a sense of humor. The election of Obama meant that the fashion of dumbing down the public discourse was over. Being overtly brainy, simply being oneself, was back in style. Not since John F. Kennedy has there been an incoming president who stirred as much excitement. And not since JFK’s time has there been such an eagerness to go into public service.

Résumés are pouring in. My impression is that these people want to go into the government for the right reasons—not for the lucrative careers that might follow. They want to be part of something with large meaning. Many Democrats and also some Republicans feel that so difficult are the times and so significant is Obama’s election that they are willing, even eager, to help him govern. It’s been a while since people thought that government service was an honorable, even exciting thing.

But Washington has been taking in Obama’s victory in its own idiosyncratic way. Hostesses are angling to be the first to entertain the Obamas at their first private dinner in Washington. Elite private schools that fifty years ago would have barred them because of their race are competing for the Obama daughters. The intense jockeying for jobs, and the fevered speculation about who will get them, preoccupy the town. John Kerry’s open lobbying for months for the job of secretary of state has been deemed by many as unseemly; he’s been crowding Obama. Yes, Kerry helped Obama at crucial moments, but the times are too serious, and the stakes for Obama’s success too high, for the concept of “owing” to determine the filling of cabinet positions. A certain candidate for a key cabinet position has called someone close to the Obamas three times each day.

Obama’s thrilling election—something not long ago many wise heads said wasn’t possible—also made more imminent the prospect that the dark night of the worst administration in history was ending. The American people had overwhelmingly rejected the Bush regime’s stupidity, cupidity, its wars, its lies, its torturing and its secrecy, its ineptitude and its power grab that threatened constitutional government. The relief was palpable. Washingtonians were simply smiling as they hadn’t in years. Something new was coming, and it was to be looked forward to. People felt cleansed.

—November 20, 2008

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    For a thorough report on what happened in that election, see Carl Cannon’s firsthand account on the Reader’s Digest Web site, rd.com.

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