In the Arena

Sunday Before the Day

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The polls are holding, not tightening, it seems. McCain appeared on Saturday Night Live in a skit that appeared to be a concession to the inevitable. And the mood of many of my esteemed colleagues appears to be sober: Whomever wins will have a near impossible job as President. True enough, I suppose. There’s a lot of climbing to get out of the Bush hole.

David Ignatius has a column about how dreadful John F. Kennedy’s first year in office was. It’s a good and sobering reminder about what happens when a young and relatively inexperienced man becomes President, but the remarkable thing about Kennedy’s first year is that despite the Bay of Pigs disaster, despite the Vienna summit with Khruschev that probably was the first step toward the Cuban missile crisis, Kennedy’s popularity didn’t dip–indeed, he had the highest sustained popularity ratings of any President (until Bill Clinton, believe it or not).

Why? Because Kennedy changed the American zeitgeist. He was a rebirth of American youth and vigor–or, as he pronounced, vigah–after a very hard midcentury slog. His arrival announced the coming of age of a new America: where most people owned their own homes, where a much larger number of people went to college, where the prejudices of the past regarding race and sex–and eventually sexual orientation–had no future. He embodied the return of prosperity, optimism and idealism (a bit too idealistic and optimistic, in fact–in Vietnam). He changed the way the world looked at America, and changed the way we looked at ourselves. He inspired my generation to join the Peace Corps, march for civil rights, get involved in politics. The nation became more adventurous, bolder, sexier, more prosperous and more powerful. 

It seems to me that if Barack Obama wins, there will be similar changes–similar in impact, if not in content. Obama’s arrival may mean the beginning of yet another new America. I began to think about this after seeing two fine films this weekend, neither a mainstream box office hit–but both containing inklings of the zeitgeist to come. The first was Jonathan Demme’s Rachel Getting Married, which has a familiar story–tension at a wedding caused by a sister, home from drug rehab. That story is told well, acted brilliantly by Anne Hathaway…but the quietly wonderful thing about the film is that this is an interracial marriage, which seems to phase none of the participants (many of whom are terrific musicians) in the slightest. Race is never mentioned, and yet it is celebrated in the wild diversity of the music played. We’re not nearly colorblind as a society yet, of course…but we’re getting there and, if there is an Age of Obama, it’s possible that one of its primary features will be the burst of energy and creativity that comes with barriers demolished, opposites attracting. The great American multiverse could become a powerful attraction, once again, in a world riven by the vicious, miniscule ethnic fissures.

The other film was Mike Leigh’s Happy-Go-Lucky , in which nothing of import happens to a delightful, uncynical London schoolteacher named Poppy, fabulously played by Sally Hawkins. When he reviewed the film for the New Yorker, David Denby wondered if an entire movie could be carried by a happy protagonist–the answer in this case is a thunderous, yes. But it’s a question that could well be posed to those of us in the political media, mainstream and not: What would happen if the cynicism that afflicted us–crippled us, really–since Watergate suddenly dissipated? I’m not saying that we should ever stop being critical or skeptical, but what if our first impulse weren’t the debilitating assumption of bad intentions on the part of our public figures? What if we left open the possibility of nobility, the possibility of success? 

I’ve often said that cynicism is what passes for insight among the mediocre. Cynicism is certainly incompatible with a nation that believes in its future, believes that it can act creatively for the common good. No doubt, it will be extremely difficult for Barack Obama to succeed as President, if he is elected. He may not have the strength or wisdom necessary for the job; his priorities may the wrong ones. But the very fact of his election, should it occur, will signal that the United States of America that we live in is not the United States that a great many people–including many of my colleagues–imagined we lived in. It will be a place where race can be transcended, a world where film directors are inspired to take the boldest of leaps and imagine a world where cynicism isn’t our social default position. And it has the potential to be any number of other things we haven’t begun to imagine yet…because it will be someplace new.