Fourth of July in November

On the Beat

WE MADE HISTORY: He burst onto the political scene like an Independence Day rocket, winning the presidency in a wave of youthful optimism, inspiring a nation where many at first had doubts.

But there was something about that handsome face, his eloquent way of making us realize that we could be better, and the fact that the world was waiting for the sunrise of our leadership. John F. Kennedy lit a torch of idealism. “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country,” Kennedy so memorably told the nation after his 1960 election.

On the Beat

Today there are so many parallels between these two elections, more than four decades apart, when a nation rose above its prejudices. Then, were we ready for a Catholic president? Now, were we ready for a president of color? And what about his religion, and his middle name?

But then, as now, Americans elected a man who inspired them with a vision of one nation, indivisible, living our lives according to our consciences but not divided by religion or race. I had always wondered what would come first: a woman president or a black president? This year we had a choice.

Except for the bigots, race played so little a part of Barack Obama’s victory. We focused instead on his positions as he amazingly overcame Hillary Clinton’s sure-thing candidacy. Now we stand, not fully realizing it yet, shoulder to shoulder with history.

In my young life, there were no black major-league baseball players. Nor were blacks allowed in the National Football League. Ending that shame had to wait until after World War II. It took a violent civil rights battle before blacks were allowed to vote, go to “white” schools, or eat at “white” lunch counters in many parts of the country.

Billie Holiday sang of “Strange Fruit,” black bodies hanging from trees where they had been lynched. Even Louis Armstrong, the greatest musician this nation ever produced, felt the ugly hand of racism. It was a long time before you saw dark faces giving the news on network TV.

But this is a new world. Oprah is beloved. People who snarled at frightened children trying to enter integrated schools now cheer black athletes at schools where they would have had no chance of playing in the bad old days.

And now we have a man called Barack Hussein Obama, a man with a name that sounds strange to some. Partisan whisperers called him a Muslim while knowing it to be untrue. And if he was, so what? McCarthyite McCain people, desperate at the end, tried to paint him as a socialist, without having any idea what a socialist is, and as a guy who palled around with terrorists.

Obama kept his cool through all of this, a very good sign. Now what? Not to take the Kennedy comparison too far, but Kennedy soon got his fingers burnt in the heat of the Cold War. He had flaws, like another inspirational president to come, Bill Clinton. No president should have to come into office facing the almost-impossible burdens confronting Obama: George W. Bush’s wrong-headed war in Iraq, the flames of Afghanistan, and the worldwide financial crisis, the very meltdown that won Obama votes from the undecided.

There is a saying: From those to whom much is given, much is expected. Perhaps too much is expected from any U.S. presidency; in order to win the most powerful job in the world, one must arouse cheering fans at one’s pep rally-like speeches.

Presidents basically are CEOs, but we hang on their words as though from the guru on the mount. They are our rock stars. If they’re “our” guy, we rebel against anyone uttering a world against them. They are wise beyond wisdom. We are starry-eyed. But when they falter and show their human failings, we lapse into bitter recrimination. We insist on perfection.

But in reality, they’re essentially chief executives whose job it is to manage a nation and do what he-or she-can do for the rest of the world. They live in the most hallowed of halls, adored by multitudes and probably hated by other multitudes. They must not be overwhelmed by the adulation and hatred but must do the right thing and use a president’s mighty but tempting power with care.

We have seen too much of the arrogant abuse of power by a president too cocksure of his hunches, too unwilling to listen to wiser heads, too ready to cook the political books, too contemptuous of the Constitution, and too stubborn to end a war he should never have dragged us into. We deserve far better.

Tuesday we wrote a blazing chapter in the history books and should be very, very proud of our country.

(Do you suppose John and Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. are sitting around somewhere, looking down and shaking hands?)


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