I first voted for an African-American for President 40 years ago yesterday. The man was Eldridge Cleaver, then a well-known author (Soul on Ice) not yet having gone to jail or introduced a line of trousers with codpieces. He was a protest candidate, and a vote for him, running against Nixon and Humphrey, was the only way to vote against the Vietnam War.
That's how far we've come. In 1968, an African-American man represented a throwaway protest vote, yesterday an African-American man won the presidency.
In the long view, there's a karmic irony at work here. After slavery, the American upper class used race to blind poor white folks to the causes of their economic woes. Yesterday, economic woes blinded a lot of folks to the race of the candidate who promised change.
President-Elect Obama is clearly a very smart guy and a very good politician. Unlike the last Dem with those credentials, he's also exceedingly disciplined. Those qualities will come up against a couple of very major problems. First, as daft as the Iraq adventure was, propelling us into a tragicomic repetition of Britain's experience in Iraq in the second and third decade of the last century, Obama has possibly been trapped into another daft adventure. Yes, we should have stayed and finished the job of wiping out al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. But now, seven years later, to propose a large infusion of troops into that country may propel us into a tragicomic repetition of Britain's and Russia's follies in Afghanistan. It's not a place where foreign troops normally come out with anything remotely resembling success.
But even though he might have had political cover from the Rand Corporation study that came out this year reporting that war is not the way to deal successfully with terrorism, Obama knew too well that a Democratic candidate bearing that message would be committing political suicide. Winning the office means now having to figure out how to look strong while backing away from another senseless war. And, by the way, Obama will be in charge when all the pent-up tensions in Iraq, held down by our payoffs to Sunni fighters, Sadr's cease-fire and Maliki's posturing on the Status of Forces Agreement, come roaring back to life.
Domestically, the dog that didn't bark throughout this campaign was the issue represented by the twin failures of the bridge in Minneapolis and the levees in New Orleans -- both the result of design failures. Our bridges, highways, dams and levees are crumbling, and, with an economic crisis facing us, we don't appear to have the money (or the political will) to face up to that challenge. No debate moderator thought that was an interesting subject to bring up, and the candidates, honing their message to poll-tested issues, saw no percentage in mentioning it.
Maybe the networks could figure out a gee-whiz virtual-reality hologramish way to depict issues, as well as election results. Every post-election, after all, journalists sit down at mock-serious forums and pledge that never again will they become so obsessed with the horse-race aspect of campaign coverage. That's a spectacle sadder than a street beggar swearing that the money you give him won't go for booze. This campaign, with interest (and ratings) running sky-high, was like a full-employment program for out-of-work political "strategists," and all we heard for the last year was endless bloviating about tactics, ads, "ground game" and "air war" -- TV talking heads pretending they were campaign managers.
I already have a puppy. I'm going to go play hoops.
Follow Harry Shearer on Twitter: www.twitter.com/theharryshearer