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In a speech described by historians as unprecedented and lauded by pundits as "boldly hopeful and eloquent in a confusing sort of way" President-elect Barack Obama held his first post-election press
conference today and demanded a nationwide recount of the 2008 presidential election results. Flanked by his closest advisers and Oprah, Obama left no doubt about his concerns about the fairness of the election process.
"As we've seen all too clearly in recent elections, we simply cannot trust the first count," Obama said. "We must stand by the time-tested principle that every vote counts, but for it to count it must be counted and recounted and held up to the light and questioned and maybe even thrown out. That is why I have instructed my campaign attorneys to file with the FEC requesting a nationwide recount."
As speculation swirled about the motive for Obama's unprecedented move, insiders confided that Obama woke up Wednesday morning and realized exactly what he'd won. One campaign staffer speaking on the condition of anonymity described Obama's response to the Wednesday morning papers as "sort of like that kid who used to hang out with Michael Jackson when he realized his parents had left him alone on a movie set with Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern."
Whatever the cause, Obama distanced himself from prior declarations of victory and invited Republican candidate Senator John McCain to continue posturing as though he might win. "We've had one election decided by the Supreme Court, and that's precedent enough for me," Obama insisted. "We will not rest until we have exhausted every legal recourse to ensure that the man who actually deserves to follow George W. Bush into a faltering economy and three distant wars is declared the true winner."
In addition to mentioning the economic crisis and the demands of war, Obama seemed also to be coming to grips with the massive expectations of a nation both stunned and thrilled by his election. Staffers said the initial euphoria of the victory was quickly tempered by the realization that just over half of the country now expected him to pay their bills and fill their cars with gas, while the other 40-something percent of the nation was bracing for a socialist takeover and the outlawing of heterosexual marriage. One aide mused, "His goal is to end bi-partisanship and serve the whole country, so he's obviously feeling the pressure not to disappoint either side."
That much was evident as he spoke. "Though I campaigned on a platform of hope, I clearly never expected so many people to take me quite so literally," Obama explained. "I mean, this is America, so I can understand the optimism, but I would also like to point out that this is America. Our heritage and destiny as a people is marked by an unflinching drive to pursue our dreams and a cynical streak as big as the deficit. I guess everyone thought I was serious about the puppy too."
In a question and answer period following his prepared statement, Obama was asked if his comments negated the spirit of his campaign slogan, "Yes We Can!"
"Absolutely not," he replied. "Listen, don't think of it as negating. Think of it as an asterisk. Actually, all those banners and bumper stickers were supposed to have an asterisk on them to begin with, but we were running low on campaign funds and printing that extra character was going to cost us another four or five hundred dollars. We assumed the asterisk would be assumed."
When asked about the wisdom of such an assumption and how this news might play with supporters, Obama deflected the question with his deft sense of humor. "I know what you're thinking — 'What happens when we assume,' right? Well I figured I'd already picked Joe Biden, so most of the hard work in that area had already been done. I mean, that's the first thing I said to Joe when he joined us: 'Joe, I have no doubt you will make an ass of you and me before this thing is over, but with the popularity of The Office these days, how could I pass on the chance to have a guy from Scranton on the ticket with me?'"
Campaign officials were apparently able to delay this public response
for two days, urging Obama to accept victory graciously. However, on Thursday, a late night phone call from former President Bill Clinton and his wife, New York Senator Hilary Clinton, apparently solidified Obama's determination to fight. When asked about the call during the press conference, Obama declined to elaborate saying only that the Clintons urged him to "go with his gut" after he shared his concerns with them.
When contacted for a response to these developments, the McCain campaign seemed in disarray, and no actual campaign officials were available for comment. An intern answering the phone simply said, "Everyone who wears a suit in this office flew up to Wasilla to go through Sarah Palin's closet."
However, the intern then noted that there was one "important-looking person…maybe" wandering around the office asking where everyone went. When handed the phone, that person took no questions but immediately began to speak: "Hi, Joe Lieberman here. John is that you? This whole thing is just really effed-up, John. You promised me a cabinet position and now they tell me you've moved back to the home. You know I don't like to substitute curse, John, but what the H, John. What the effin-H?"
I didn't vote for Barack Obama, just so we get that out of the way up front.
I'm also wondering whether Jesse Jackson is crying because of the historical significance of the moment, because it's not him on the stage, or because he didn't get to maim Obama before he had the full protection of the Secret Service (just so we get my one tasteless joke out of the way up front).
Tonight is a big deal. You can acknowledge it or not. You can love it or hate it. You can hope or fear. You just can't change history, and tonight is history. It's not merely history for black Americans. I just listened to Cory Booker, the mayor of Newark and a black man, talk about the conversation he had tonight with his mother who participated in the civil rights movement. She told him that this is not a victory for black America; this is a victory for a greater conception of America. And even though I strongly disagree with some of Obama's positions and generally distrust Big Politics of all flavors, I believe Mrs. Booker is right.
Look, I don't care if you're wildly liberal, deeply conservative, or utterly indifferent to politics and elections. We live in a culture and a country with a long, twisted history when it comes to human rights. We have both blazed trails into new frontiers of human liberty and virtue and scraped the dark corners of the horrid barrel of cruelty and greed. In many ways we still live in that tension, though perhaps the subtlety of much current injustice blinds us to our sins in the way our ancestors were blinded to theirs. (For some reason we often need the vision of our offspring to see our narcissistic errors for what they really are.) We are human, and our humanity carries both an endowed dignity and a certain proclivity for selfishness and, frankly, evil.
Though that human duality plays out in many different ways, there is no escaping this reality: for the greater part of American history, black (or partially black) folks were decidedly on the losing end of it. We are just over four decades removed from the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts – four out of over twenty three decades. Much progress has been made in those 44 years, but it is not rational to assume that we're "over" the racial issues that accumulated over the previous 188 years of our nation's history (not counting the pre-Declaration years, during which slavery was already being woven into the fabric of a burgeoning social and economic revolution).
In that context the election of a black president is undeniably historic, and Mrs. Booker is right – it is historic for all of us. It represents yet another step of maturity out of the indignities of our collective legacy; indignities that not only robbed generations of black Americans of basic freedoms, but also stripped many white Americans of their humanity through hatred, ignorance, or apathy. If the essence of humanity is bearing the image of the Creator—an assumption not all will share, but one many of us cannot escape—and if God is love, then we are clearly least human when we fail to love.
None of this makes white people bad or black people inherently good. I am not making an argument for entitlement or a case for white guilt. The painful history of the country is neither a blank check for black
Americans nor a never-ending IOU around the necks of white Americans. I am also not naive, and I understand that folks of all colors unscrupulously continue to use race to help themselves and undermine others. This is not news and it does no good to rehash it as though it is. Our focus, instead, should be moving forward in love and forgiveness no matter what misguided things others are doing. We do no one, including ourselves, any favors by sinking into this cycle of hostility and distrust by continuing to point out this speck in one another's eye.
So I suggest we put to rest all of the complaining about black people endorsing or voting for Barack Obama simply because he's black. For one thing that knife cuts both ways, and we all know it. More importantly, you do not win an election in this country—and certainly not by such a significant margin—because black people voted for you based on your skin color. And that, in part, is why this moment is so historic. Barack Obama, a man of color, was decidedly elected president by the majority of voting Americans, period.
Does that resolve our racial problems? Of course not. Are there aspects of his election that actually highlight some of the lingering racial divide and distrust among us? Certainly.
And it's still historic. And it still marks a moment of progress—imperfect, incomplete, tainted progress—for this mass of people living in the wake of 232 years of distinctly American history.
I know many of my friends and family, particularly those who are Christians, will struggle with many other concerns about Obama being elected. I don't ignore those, nor do I exalt racial progress over the other serious moral concerns at stake in the United States and the world. As I mentioned, I did not vote for Obama. (I didn't vote for McCain either, but that's a discussion for another time. Suffice it to say neither of them embody a life ethic I can support in good conscience with Jesus and his Kingdom as my party and platform.)
My only request to my fellow Jesus-followers in this moment, no matter how deflated or how excited you feel about the outcome of an election, is that you act like Jesus, who neither wrung his hands over the morality of Caesar nor called Pilate a murderer, though there was sufficient human cause for both responses. He saw the big picture of God's plan for the world, and he didn't fret about who carried the title of Caesar. He didn't spew angry words at a government sanctioning cruel killings – even when they were sanctioning his tortuous death on a cross.
Instead, he showed the world what God looks like: speaking truth, but doing so with love – modeling humility, never using the fact that he was "right" as a tool of mockery or condemnation – loving those who hated him, and insisting his followers do the same – serving those who the religious establishment thought the least of – giving his own life as a sacrifice for undeserving wrecks (like me and like you).
So I'm not asking much of myself for of my fellow Jesus people. Just this: If you follow that guy, act like it.