On Tuesday we gain a president but lose a narrative.
No matter what happens tomorrow -- and despite the freeway collision of an economic crisis and two wars -- that narrative is possessed by Barack Obama.
His unexpected, mythic journey has turned the past twenty-two months into a national raptness. Both the worshipful and the skeptical have been transformed from voters into an audience of co-creators.
We'll miss that unfolding theater. We don't want to let go. "We tell ourselves stories in order to live," Joan Didion wrote. But we also yearn to be told stories, although that soft whispering is happening less and less these days.
In previous generations, in a more patient and cohering time, as many as seventy-five percent of us went to the movies each week. Today it's about ten percent. Instead, we suck in memes and streams. When we see a movie at home, we see it in clips and starts.
But that absence only makes the narrative heart grow fonder. In this moment when our attention span is fragmenting, when the culture is atomizing, when we believe the country is hurtling in the wrong direction and pain is our national currency, Barack Obama's story ignites this primal hunger for narrative urgency and fullness. His campaign draws you into its magical once-upon-a-time-ness, like him or not.
John McCain doesn't have this sweeping arc to his story. Yes, his imprisonment gives him a heroic glow. But other presidential candidates -- George H.W. Bush, Bob Dole, John Kerry and of course John Kennedy -- all had their own stories of combat heroism.
These episodes are great biography-builders and legend-makers, strategically useful in defining a candidate in a national campaign. But they are essentially backward-looking arguments for forward-needed leadership.
Obama's narrative is very different -- closest to JFK's, but without the call of privilege. It's improbable, almost inexplicable. When he looks backward into his past -- as he did in his memoirs -- it is as a personal heuristic, a tool for self-understanding and self-contexting.
The campaign is his story, his story is the campaign, all played out in real time with classic elements of drama: humble beginnings, reversal, recognition, triumph.
This narrative is given depth and propulsion by virtue of the archetypes it weaves together. It's an epic storyline, both mythological and psychological. It incorporates the personal diaspora of a childhood-in-motion; an absent father; a doting but impetuous mother; loving grandparents who raised this unusual child, an unexpected arrival into their settled lives.
Now consider the pop-culture vibrato, the Superman parallels: A child with a strange name: Kal-El, Barack Obama. A child from a strange place brought up by Kansans: The Kents, the Dunhams. A child who grows up with a belief in his personal mission to fight for justice, except one has superhuman strength, and the other a kind of superhuman cool and calm.
We've watched Obama's campaign as we watch a movie about a historical period, except that period happens to be now, and we became participants in its very creation. The audience, no matter what its values, shaping plot and outcome.
As any complex narrative does, the campaign absorbed and incorporated the shocking changes in the larger world -- war, economic collapse -- and carried us along. A blurb-happy writer would describe it as "a novel that follows the miraculous life of a son of a goat-herder in a battle for the world's most powerful job, played out against a tumultuous backdrop of war and economic chaos."
We don't want to leave this behind. On one hand, that's strange. With the stakes as high as they are -- as we've been relentlessly told -- you would think we'd be anxious to move past the campaign and rush headlong towards January 20th.
But I can't tell you how many people have told me that as excited as they are at finally reaching Election Day, they are also feeling a sense of impending loss.
For them, for us, Wednesday morning will vibrate with the dual sense of the exhilaration and loss we feel after finishing a novel that we've become a part of. Or when, leaving the theater, we squint our eyes at the bright afternoon light, and stumble into an uncertain future.