Poor John McCain. He must be asking himself, "How am I supposed to follow that?"

That, of course, is Barack Obama's rousing appearance at the NAACP convention in Cincinnati Monday night. When McCain delivers his own speech to the nation's oldest and largest civil rights organization on Wednesday morning, the ovation Obama triggered may still be resounding in the hall.

McCain's speech will be politics.

Obama's was history.

It was history, not so much for what he said, but for who he is and the audience he was addressing.

It was history because he is the first black presidential nominee of a major political party to address the country's most significant black organization.

It was history because he acknowledged his debt to " those who marched for us and fought for us and stood up on our behalf," including the NAACP.

Advertisement

And because he vowed, that, if all goes well, "I will come back here next year on the 100th anniversary of the NAACP, and I will stand before you as the President of the United States of America."

If those had been the only words Obama uttered last night, they would have been enough.

Advertisement

The audience was there to savor history and they got what they came for.

It did not seem to matter that most of Obama's text was thoroughly familiar or that he delivered it in a distracted style that suggested that his mind was somewhere else. He may have been caught up in the moment.

Advertisement

Or he might have been pre-occupied with his upcoming trip to Europe and the Middle East, and the major address he will give in Washington on Tuesday about how he plans to extricate U.S. forces from Iraq.

For the most gifted political orator of our day, even an off-night is a good night.

Advertisement

On the heels of Jesse Jackson's crudely worded threat to emasculate him for "talking down to black people," Obama seemed to rebuke the old civil rights leader by reiterating his tough message about the need for blacks to take more personal responsibility for their children.

"I know some say I've been too tough on folks about this responsibility stuff. But I'm not going to stop talking about it, " Obama thundered, "because I know that Thurgood Marshall did not argue Brown v. Board of Education so that some of us could stop doing our jobs as parents."

Advertisement

He conceded that "just electing me president doesn't mean our work is over." It includes revising the tax code to reverse the flow of jobs to overseas, rebuilding schools and paying teachers more so that every American gets a "world-class education," creating a new health care system so that everyone who wants health insurance can obtain it at a price they can afford. He knows that NAACP chairman Julian Bond is right when he says that Obama's candidacy does not "herald a post-civil rights America any more than his victory in November will mean that race as an issue has been vanquished in America."

But Monday night was not a time for mere details that will soon be swept away in the rough and tumble of a bruising political campaign or to be reminded of unsettling truths.

Advertisement

It was a time for exaltation, of family and unity.

What mattered on Monday night is that, in a sense, Barack Obama came home to black America and black America reaffirmed him as its champion.

Advertisement

The rest, as they say, is history.

Jack White teaches at Virginia Commonwealth University.

is a former columnist for TIME magazine and a regular contributor to The Root.