As a lifelong Cubs fan, I know that it is way too early to concede victory; just a year ago, social issues still seemed relevant to the outcome of this presidential election. Two weeks ago, I still felt flush enough to purchase a nonessential article of clothing—in euros, oh how great is my shame. And it’s been only days since we continued to hope that the bailout—I mean, “rescue package’’—would stop the bleeding. (Word to AIG execs: If I were you, on that second taxpayer-funded spa vacation, I mean “upcoming sales conference,’’ at the Ritz-Carlton on Half Moon Bay, I would lock my door and check it twice; is that the ocean on the rocks you hear, or Grover Norquist at the gate?) By the time you read this, a campaign that only feels like it’s been going on since the Truman administration may well have shifted some more. Yet whatever happens now, there’s no going back on what we’ve learned.

The darkest-before-dawn paradox of this election is that on the eve of what so many of us hope will be a postpartisan period in which we figure out where we agree and start there, it remains mighty mean out there. Cindy McCain recently called it the ugliest campaign ever—hard as that is to believe, given what her family went through at the hands of Bush operatives in 2000. Uglier than when Vietnam vet and triple-amputee Sen. Max Cleland’s patriotism was questioned? Surely that record stands. But down in the polls and down in the muck, the Republican vice-presidential nominee is personally proclaiming that Obama “pals around with terrorists who would do this country harm.’’ I’m sorry, but no tax break is worth ratifying so destructive a distortion. And I don’t think that’s what we’re going to do.

One thing we learned from this campaign is that Chile and Liberia have nothing on us. Because while sexism is alive and well, from left to right we are not only ready for a woman in the White House, but so ready that a candidate with extraordinarily high negatives and heavy baggage almost made it. So ready that a virtual unknown was hailed as the future of her party before she ever opened her mouth.

We’ve also learned that we are ready for a black president, and for a postracial America. I’ve been slow to come to that conclusion—too slow, maybe. But then, one of my earliest memories is of seeing a cross burning while on a family driving trip through the South. (Though I don’t remember this part, my mom says that after they stopped the car, out of curiosity, to hear what the speaker was saying, I piped up, “Why is he saying that about Catholics? We’re Catholics.’’) This year, as I’ve traveled the country interviewing voters in swing states, I’ve been disheartened, it’s true, by the number of nice-looking folks who’d walk up in broad daylight and volunteer that they would never vote for a black guy. Then they’d spell their names for me, and smile for photos. Yet look at the polling and you’ll see that there’s something that scares them more than the idea of a black guy in the White House, and that’s no money in the bank.

So we’re ready, not because we’ve made the moral case, but because more people seem to judge this one man the better man for the job just now; that’s how progress happens. And one of the most moving things for me is that my kids don’t even get what a big deal that would be. I grew up in an all-white town that at one time had a sundown law, and when I was not long out of college, I was back there for a visit, hanging out down by the river and drinking beer with some people I’d grown up with. One guy told a racially not-OK joke that I got huffy about, and he said, “Melinda, you never even met a (#*!&%) who didn’t go to Harvard.’’ (Never mind that I went to Notre Dame, which at that time was not exactly a model of racial diversity.) But, big stink for uppity Melinda, who had come home thinkin’ she was too good to hear the N-word.

But here’s how different life is for my kids: My daughter, who is twelve, came home from mountain-biking camp this year and gave me the complete rundown on all the girls in her tent—where they were from, what they liked and didn’t like, who rode in the creek and who didn’t, who got skinned up or not. She had one of those disposable cameras, so it was a while before I saw the pictures and realized that she had not thought it worth mentioning that her two closest camp buddies were black girls. Though she and my son have rooted for Obama from the first (not unlike the way my family cheered for those Cubbies, probably), that they have no idea all his election would mean strikes me as a victory, too.

Published in the 2008-10-24 issue: View Contents
Melinda Henneberger, a Commonweal columnist, is the former editor-in-chief of
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