Politics & Policy

Race in the City

Celebrating Obama in D.C.

Washington D.C. – At 1 A.M., there’s still a crush of bodies on the rain-slicked street in front of the White House. The mood is obviously celebratory — only five percent of District residents voted for McCain — and an odd scent hangs in the air. It’s weird mixture of wet leaves from nearby Lafayette Park and boozy breath rising from the crowd.

Much of this raucous crowd looks to be college kids, which isn’t so much a testament to Obama’s youth support as to who has jobs to be at in the morning. It’s hard to hear much of anything above the general roar of the crowd and the honking of horns on nearby 15th Street. So I take notice when a college student behind me bellows right into my ear.

“Does anybody know the words to ‘We Shall Overcome’?” he says. “We should sing it.”

#ad#It seems about the only thing this kid has overcome is his sobriety. Further into the crowd, there’s an honest-to-God drum circle. Someone’s smoking marijuana; there’s so many people between the circle and the nearest Treasury Department policeman that yes-they-can do so with impunity.

But for the first time in years, I’m standing in a crowd of Democrats who don’t appear to be entirely angry. Another person nearby in the crowd points at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. and tries to start a chant of “f*** you Bush,” but the crowd doesn’t have the heart for it and goes back to “Obama! Obama!” The Bush haters have more success with “na na na na hey hey hey goodbye,” but even then the crowd’s taunt seems more playful than one might have predicted given the previous eight years of unbridled invective directed at Bush.

Even as I’m scribbling in my notebook, press pass hanging around my neck, more than a few people try and get me to join the celebration — a thumbs up here, an abortive high-five attempt there.  

If I had to guess, I’d say a major reason the crowd stays positive is that aside from the college students, a significant percentage of the crowd is black. It’s often lost on observers that born-and-bred D.C.ers are largely black, and clearly the black people in the crowd tonight are more invested in celebrating Obama’s success than in scoring partisan points. Whatever you think of Obama’s policies or campaign, as a symbol to black Americans burdened with the legacy of slavery, his victory is a reason to celebrate. Let’s put it this way: They probably know the words to “We Shall Overcome.”

I check the time. The picture on the background of my cell phone is of my daughter. She’s running across a grassy field and smiling. It occurs to me that I took the picture on a recent family excursion to Virginia’s Manassas National Battlefield Park. It’s pretty startling to realize that our new first lady’s family was in bondage when the first shots rang out on that lovely patch of horse country, beginning the Civil War.

Now, I don’t like Obama — at all. He strikes me as especially ill-suited to lead the nation at a critical juncture. In a time of economic crisis, he’s advocating a series of ruinous fiscal policies that have brought prosperity to no one ever. Even if you think his judgment about the folly of the Iraq war was correct, his politically calculating desire to flee the country was dishonorable, to say nothing of what someone who is truly liberal (in the best sense of that word) should think about what we owe the people of that country. His role as a cog in the Chicago political machine shows him to be demonstrably corrupt, and any man who would let Jeremiah Wright baptize his kids and would share an office with William Ayers deserves some measure of scorn. I also find it tragically ironic that someone who is now the ne plus ultra of civil-rights victories has an appalling disregard for the sanctity of human life.

Still, Obama assumes office in three months. My complaints won’t change that. Right now Barack Obama’s election means something, however symbolic it is, about how we’ve gone from we shall overcome to we have overcome. If that is what people want to celebrate tonight, I’m not about to begrudge them.

For me, the tiny, backlit photograph of my daughter on the Civil War battlefield just about sums it up. It’s hard not to look at the 14-month-old traipsing care-free across that hallowed ground and think, “We’ve come a long way, baby.”

 – Mark Hemingway is an NRO staff reporter. 

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