12/08/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The America That Can Be/The America That Has Been

President-elect Barack Obama's victory speech Tuesday night in Chicago.

It was The America That Can Be vs. The America That Has Been. The future won. Yet there is much in the past that is of enduring value.

I must say that this campaign, for all its excitement, its twists and turns, and its thrilling outcome, was something of a disappointment. In Barack Obama and John McCain, we had the two most compelling figures in the two parties, representatives of an emerging set of values and an enduring tradition.

In Barack Obama, the representative of an exotic multi-racial, multi-cultural future that repels and frightens many Americans even as it attracts more to a possible America.

In John McCain, the representative of a tradition which for most Americans, who increasingly never serve in the military and have no direct experience with it, is exotic in its coming from a storied past.

John McCain's graceful concession speech Tuesday night in Phoenix.

But, with tactics and attacks dominating our frenetic new 24/7 ADD media culture -- except insofar as Team Obama's steady focus carried the day to a sweeping victory -- we didn't get the sort of constructive debate between these traditions showing the value of each.

What we need to do is take the best of these approaches as we move forward.

Nevertheless, we ended up with plenty of clarity.

One of the pundit shibboleths is that America is a center-right country. I never bought that. This is a trope designed to keep politics safely within their conventional confines. Which have lately been an abject failure.

Even far right figures like talk show host/blogger Hugh Hewitt repeat this, pretending that his extremist politics are anywhere within hailing distance of the center.

Bruce Springsteen's musical introduction of the Obama family at a Cleveland rally of 80,000 on Sunday presaged not only Obama's capture of Ohio but the breaking of the old red state coalition.

But America is not center-right, it is center-left.

And America is clearly focused -- with Obama's decisive victory, 53% to 46% in the popular vote, 365 electoral votes to 173 electoral votes -- on the future.

Obama is the candidate not only of the future, but from the future.

He's always felt to me like a figure from 2150, the first major American politician with a global background, a product of Hawaii, America's polyglot paradise in the Pacific. His name like none other in the ranks of leading American politicians, amusingly almost combining the names of two of our greatest boogeymen. The first black president in a country in which a woman or someone of another ethnicity seemed far more likely to become first to seize the prize. A genteel Harvard Law Review head who's also a hardball Chicago politician. "A mutt," as he described his mixed racial background in today's impressive first post-election press conference in the course of discussing what sort of puppy his charming daughters will get as they move into the White House.

Obama leads with the New, starting with his face and name.

His political theme is "Change." His campaign is built on the New. New technology, new techniques, new players. And a new principal, in that Obama himself was an Illinois state legislator just four years ago.

Barack Obama is all about potential, about what can be.

John McCain is more about enduring values, what we have known.

McCain articulated these values best when he spoke at the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis on April 2nd.

McCain's speech to his alma mater -- the alma mater of the four-star Navy admiral who was his father and the four-star Navy admiral who was his grandfather -- came in the midst of the Western senator's so-called "biography" tour. He undertook it because research showed that, while he is quite famous, most voters didn't know that much about him in depth aside from his having run for president in 2000 and 2008, being a Vietnam War hero, and having a reputation as a maverick.

John McCain laid out many of his enduring values in his Annapolis speech on April 2nd.

Ironically, McCain's Annapolis speech didn't get much coverage at the time. Of the cable news nets, only MSNBC, the most liberal of the three, carried any of it live, and then just a snippet. Fox News did not carry the Annapolis speech live at all, choosing instead to carry on with its usual right-wing morning chatfest.

It's unfortunate, because the speech captures much of the humor of the man and, more importantly, a sense of an enduring American tradition.

McCain noted that, while he ignored some of the Academy's conventions in the course of compiling near record numbers of demerits, he was

"careful not to defame its more compelling traditions: The veneration of courage and resilience; the honor code that simply assumed your fidelity to its principles; the homage paid to Americans who had sacrificed greatly for our country; the expectation that you, too, would prove worthy of your country's trust."

Few if any universities have such an emphasis on the history and valor referenced by McCain, much less an honor code which stipulates that midshipmen will not lie, cheat, steal, nor tolerate among them those who do. Most Americans are ignorant of military history, which merely makes up much of our engagement with the wider world, in many ways shaping it into what it is today.

McCain went on to discuss a pervasive cynicism that afflicts America:

"In part, it is attributable to the dislocations economic change causes; to the experience of Americans who have, through no fault of their own, been left behind as others profit as they never have before. In part, it is in reaction to government's mistakes and incompetence, and to the selfishness of some public figures who seek to shine the luster of their public reputations at the expense of the public good. But for others, cynicism about our country, government, social and religious institutions seems not a reaction to occasions when they have been let down by these institutions, but because the ease which wealth and opportunity have given their lives led them to the mistaken conclusion that America, and the liberties its system of government is intended to protect, just aren't important to the quality of their lives.

"I'm a conservative, and I believe it is a very healthy thing for Americans to be skeptical about the purposes and practices of public officials. We shouldn't expect too much from government - nor should it expect too much from us. Self-reliance - not foisting our responsibilities off on others - is the ethic that made America great.

"But when healthy skepticism sours into corrosive cynicism our expectations of our government become reduced to the delivery of services. And to some people the expectations of liberty are reduced to the right to choose among competing brands of designer coffee."

Then McCain discussed patriotism.

"Love of country, my friends, is another way of saying love of your fellow countrymen--a truth I learned a long time ago in a country very different from ours.

"That is the good cause that summons every American to service. If you find faults with our country, make it a better one. If you are disappointed with the mistakes of government, join its ranks and work to correct them. I hope more Americans would consider enlisting in our Armed Forces. I hope more would consider running for public office or working in federal, state and local governments. But there are many public causes where your service can make our country a stronger, better one than we inherited. Wherever there is a hungry child, a great cause exists. Where there is an illiterate adult, a great cause exists. Wherever there are people who are denied the basic rights of Man, a great cause exists. Wherever there is suffering, a great cause exists."

Unfortunately, this is not the John McCain we saw through much of the general election campaign.

I never thought McCain had more than a 40% chance of beating Obama, and I told his campaign leadership that. But the siren call of victory and power can compel campaigns to make moves that they might not otherwise make.

Now we move forward with the avatar of the new, President-elect Barack Hussein Obama, while we hopefully hang on to the best of the old.

Barack Obama speaks before 100,000 people Monday night in Manassas, Virginia, site of the first major land battle of the American Civil War. The Confederacy won that one.

It's been a very long campaign, beginning two years ago with the dramatic Democratic victories in the 2006 congressional elections and the plunge in popularity of the the Bush/Cheney Administration. Now what may be even more interesting has begun.

It was about 22 months ago that I decided I had better check out this fellow Barack Hussein Obama. I'd seen him give a great speech keynoting the 2004 Democratic national convention. I had his latest book which was sitting in a pile. But there's more to running for president than being a great speaker and a fine writer.

So I traveled to several cities to scout Obama at his appearances, meet him, spend time in the vicinity, and study it all. He was pretty tentative at first. I filmed him bombing in a candidate forum in Las Vegas. But the thing was, he kept improving. He had a strong and very smart campaign organization. He had policies in the center-left groove where most of the country lives today. In other words, he had what it took to win the presidency.

Now we'll see if he has what it takes to be the president. I expect him to be very good indeed.