ohn Cavadini, the early church scholar who was my mentor at Notre Dame, once told me that my talent as an historian was that I made creative connections, seeing how people or events influenced one another in ways that others didn't pick up on. Monday, my last day in Chicago, it wasn't so hard to make such a connection as I went walking in Grant Park during the afternoon after the last of my job interviews. The preparations were underway for the crowd expected to gather to cheer Barack Obama's projected victory in the next day's presidential election, and it was easy to imagine and foresee the sights we saw on the television last night of the victory celebration, as not just another political cycle coming to its natural conclusion, but as the hailing of a symbolic turn in the ongoing story of the American Experiment. It was astonishingly warm out, as I'd mentioned earlier, an extended weekend from Haloween to the election getting up around 70ºF, but not the October "Indian summer" we grew up with; I'll not be surprised if such record-setting early November bursts of comfortable weather will in Chicago be remembered as "Obama summers" instead, it seemed so timely for such a gathering.
I eyed the preparation of the grounds and staging itself after coming out of the Chicago Hilton and then wandered north through the park, musing on the last Presidents from my home state of Illinois, Ulysses S. Grant, for whom the park as a whole was named, and Abraham Lincoln, who sat immortalized on the north end of the park, in an elevated statue that had him gazing south toward where Tuesday night's gathering would take place. Lincoln and Grant, of course, were figures of the American Civil War, that early first climax of our national disaster of racial slavery. Inevitably, Obama will be seen, like the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, as another point on that journey toward a truly multicultural society. I liked what one commentator said last night – I think on CNN, but I'm not sure: I was flipping up and down the dial of the 24-hour news stations and listening to the commentary – about in the story of civil rights in America, there was in this election a kind of turning point. He pointed to the outpouring of rage by some when Teddy Roosevelt invited Booker T. Washington to dine at the White House on 16 October 1901, or the resistance by some to Jackie Robinson's joining baseball's Major Leagues in 1947, that these events provoked the racial anxiety of some because they were "ahead of the curve." The commentator went on to say, "... but this – this IS the curve
." I grew up in an extended family that was multi-racial, and had the great blessing of seeing that as normal from earliest memory, though for me that was from a step removed, while my mixed-race cousins had to deal with a certain amount of crap in their early school years. Now my family is more beautifully diverse than ever before, and I could only hope that the commentator's words were true: that the arrival of a mixed-race American to the White House is the turning of that curve that so normalizes this reality that it puts the vast bulk of race-based fears behind us in history. Standing before the Lincoln statue and looking south across Grant Park, it was easy to imagine that someday a matching figure of Obama might gaze north back at Lincoln, a reversal of Dickens' line, capturing between them the worst of times and the best of times.
Obama riffed on Dickens' "the best of times" in his speech last night in Grant Park, along with moments of Lincoln's Gettysburg Address and King's "I have been to the mountaintop" sermon, fully aware, I hope, that this is his moment to succeed or fail. The symbolism mentioned above is, in many ways, the easiest part of his election to the presidency. He has a Democratic Congress, and cannot blame partisan opposition so easily for problems in at least the next two years: it just remains to be seen whether his election becomes the shift to a new national unity that he kept invoking throughout his campaign, or whether it settles into a familiar Democratic pattern of the 1968-1973 American New Left that has so dominated Democratic party ideology in the last generation, with the deep irony of having birthed and driven the subsequent neo-Conservative reaction that the New Left so loathed. The Politics of Left-Right Division are easy to maintain, especially in a two-party system, and it is far more ingrained than anything else in our social or political habits. It's easy for people to say, like me, that they want to move past the paradigm; it's hard to see exactly how to do that, and if there's a better paradigm to offer that isn't just the effective conquest of either the "right-thinking" Left or Right perspectives.
I left the Lincoln statue and headed further north, feeling my way around the Art Institute and stopping to look at my hometown giant Lorado Taft's Fountain of the Great Lakes
, now sort of hidden behind trees and neglected. I kinda love the thing, but it made me think about American visions left behind: that like the move to new multi-ethnic and multi-racial consciousnesses in the United States, the regional visions of America have been increasingly left behind in American self-identity. Whether this is from the experience of national news, national advertising, and national entertainment because of our telecommunications, I realized I never really thought about myself as part of "Great Lakes States" group. More as a "Midwesterner" in geography and habits of friendliness, but hardly in such a way that separated me in any fundamental way from making friends from either coast. And this seemed to be part of the same movement as the ethnically-oriented ones: a constant widening of perspectives, driven perhaps more by technology and transportation than by philosophy to begin with, and then a resulting shift in conceptions of identity. I looked at The Great Lakes
as I'd been looking at the Magnificent Mile's skyline from the park, taking in the architecture and pulse of the city. I'd never been downtown over a period of several days like this, I realized: all of my experience of Chicago had been high school and college day trips and later overnights, but never any chance to just get used to a stetch of the city, like I had just started to get used to the stretch between the Hilton and the Palmer House. It was hardly a full vision of the city, but it was a timely one, in seeing the city and the park get to take its deep breath before stepping onto history's stage for one night.