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Bringing change to America

November 05, 2008|TIM RUTTEN

What is perhaps most remarkable about the changed America to which we woke this morning is how the president-elect's race seems, in most ways, the least remarkable thing about him.

In large part, that's a tribute to the fact that Barack Obama declined every opportunity to make his race a campaign centerpiece. It's also a tribute to John McCain, who just as resolutely refused to engage in race-baiting even as his prospects dwindled in the election's final weeks.

Certainly, Obama's candidacy energized African American voters, a critical Democratic constituency, but blacks today make up just 12% of the U.S. population. Young voters and Latinos were also important parts of the Obama coalition and, across the country, members of all three groups told pollsters that they had chosen the Democratic candidate because they were concerned with the sorry state of the economy.

Younger Latinos were particularly crucial to Obama's ability to carry the Catholic vote in swing states such as Colorado, Pennsylvania and Virginia, where influential local bishops all but demanded that their flocks vote Republican because of Obama's pro-choice position on abortion. More than half of all American Catholics under 40 are Latinos.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday, November 07, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 29 Editorial pages Desk 1 inches; 23 words Type of Material: Correction
Candidate: In Tim Rutten's column Wednesday, the name of the 1908 Democratic presidential candidate was misspelled. He was William Jennings Bryan, not Bryant.

In that sense, Obama's election closely resembles that of John F. Kennedy in 1960, when the issues and an appetite for generational change joined with the opportunity to make history by electing the first Catholic president -- even though Kennedy declined to run as "a Catholic candidate." As a result of that invigorating confluence of factors, about 63% of eligible voters turned out to vote in the Kennedy-Nixon race and Tuesday's Obama-McCain contest, somewhat short of the 65.7% who voted in 1908, when William Howard Taft defeated William Jennings Bryant. None of those elections came close to the record 81.3% of eligible voters who cast ballots in 1860, when Abraham Lincoln beat Stephen Douglas.

Still, it is impossible not to marvel over some of the historical symmetries attendant on the election of our first African American president. Like Lincoln, Obama built his political career in Illinois. But, unlike the Emancipator, the 47-year-old junior senator carried Virginia, a state that seceded from the Union rather than accept a chief executive committed to arresting the spread of slavery.

According to the census of 1860, nearly a third of all Virginia residents were slaves. Richmond, the state's capital, would become capital of the Confederacy, and the Army of Northern Virginia under Robert E. Lee would become the rebellion's military bulwark. Tuesday, northern Virginia swung the state to Obama.

America's tormented history of race relations began in Virginia in 1610, when a Dutch privateer in need of refitting bartered 20 African slaves captured from a Spanish ship for food and rigging. Virginia was the first colony to formally enact laws consigning indentured blacks to lifelong slavery based on race.

Tuesday, a coalition of those slaves' descendants, young people of all races, Latinos and educated white voters swept all that stems from that tragic history into the realm of painful memory, when they carried Virginia into Obama's column.

If this election had a decisive turning point, it wasn't the Wall Street meltdown but Obama's response to the controversy that arose over the racially inflammatory and divisive sermons of his then-pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr. One hundred and fifty years after another Illinois lawyer turned presidential candidate, Lincoln, changed the way Americans thought about race with his famous "House Divided" speech, Obama delivered his "More Perfect Union" address in Philadelphia, across the street from Constitutional Hall.

Obama wrote the speech himself, and, at the time, analysts recognized it as the most sophisticated and far-seeing address on race ever delivered by a candidate for national office in our lifetime. It changed the tone of the contest and elevated his campaign to something that was more than the sum of his ethnic heritage.

As he said that day, in the same city where the framers failed to resolve the contradiction between their ideals and their economic interests, "The profound mistake of Rev. Wright's sermons is not that he spoke about racism in our society. It's that he spoke as if our society was static; as if no progress has been made; as if this country ... is still irrevocably bound to a tragic past."

The voters who gave Barack Obama more than 300 electoral votes Tuesday may not have forgotten that tragic past, but -- attentive at last to the better angels of our nature -- they no longer are content to let memory be our destiny.


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