The Class of ’09 entered high school in the twilight of Bush’s first inauguration and has waited to graduate college for morning. And so it was that America raised the coddled children of the gay nineties to be its first brood of purebred cynics. It was not so much that obscure war or our frenetic faith in technology that gave identity to the i-generation as it was the eight-year cultural climate that ensured we’d never learn an idealism that wasn’t irony.
Democracy (or the rank distortion of that ideal we wage and cherish) deals in rancor, but the emotions that erupted Tuesday were more than the triumphant glee of the victor’s supporters; everyone was trying to process foreign feelings, ones beyond relief, ones we’ve never been called on to register. Hugs, beaming grins, crying and cocaine snorts are rote for big nights, but somehow the feeling we shared was something like the stroke of midnight at a New Year’s party if time weren’t arbitrary.
That’s what happened to our generation Tuesday night, and we’re lucky we spent it together and free of our elders’ historically tempered delight.
This Nov. 4, 2008 will always be synonymous with all kinds of significance, but tonight I reflect on something small, soon to be submerged by the symbols. The way I saw John McCain’s concession speech received was unworthy of the occasion and the man. It was the promptest, the humblest and the most generous presidential concession we’ve ever seen, and the howling ridicule of his senility and his tribute to his opponent’s late grandmother were unworthy of the moment and the man.
2008 will go down as the year America renounced its creepy composite Bush-Cheney-Rove figurehead. In fact, we missed our chance four years ago, and I hope we won’t look back on McCain and see a clueless curmudgeon in a George Bush Halloween mask. In spite of the unforgivably editorializing media’s refusal to present us with anything more meaningful than an exorbitant cosmic melodrama, let us try to remember 2008 not as the year of Bill Ayers or even of Sarah Palin, but as the most humane and democratic election since the tyranny of the gotcha networks. The obscene racial politics we were all cringing in anticipation of never came, and the personal assaults were a whisper compared to what we’ve lived to expect. Still, it was a persistent whisper, and perhaps that was the betrayal. Let us try to remember McCain not as the heroically hampered Bush III, the Iago America outwitted, but as the honest thane who went half the way to becoming Macbeth, the Party his Lady. We had glimpses of the zany, charming, sober McCain, compassionate and confident in his heroism—at the Al Smith dinner, on SNL, in this or that interview, in the concession— but mostly we wondered where he was the rest of the time. We witnessed a pathetic personal struggle: whether to run as the nominee of a party built to play the electoral college with no ethical standards, or as himself, the straight-talking maverick (that’s how you say Change in 2000), the media’s erstwhile darling, the partyless reformer who made Kerry’s long-list, the candidate of Hope martyred by the GOP for an incoherent loser. Republican candidates are designed to fight effeminacy and flip-flops; McCain was at war on two fronts, with the machine that once crushed him and with the campaign he wished he had run. Every defeated candidate acknowledges a rival’s good campaign; no one else capitulates with “deep admiration” for the other man’s “inspiring” voters against him.
It was always written in the stars that this would be a big year for the Democrats. I wish he’d remembered that and stuck to his guns instead of his party’s. History sometimes calls its best men and women to suicide missions.
At least the last ten minutes of the campaign were worthy of the year. I’m thinking also of Hillary Clinton’s maligned and magnanimous defeat. Today we can afford to salute two great American statesmen whose nobility in surrender and valor in battle underlie a moment we must all be proud to share in.