Barack Obama has clinched the Democratic nomination for president, and historic does not even begin to capture the sweep of the achievement.
"America, this is our moment. This is our time. Our time to turn the page on the policies of the past," Obama told a roaring crowd of 17,000 in St. Paul, Minn. "Our time to bring new energy and new ideas to the challenges we face. Our time to offer a new direction for the country we love."
I was there in Springfield, Ill. on that day in February 2006 when Obama announced his candidacy for president in the shadow of the Old State Capitol where Lincoln, 148 years earlier, had delivered his "A House Divided" speech. The temperature, with the wind chill, was well below zero, and Obama's chances of winning the nomination were widely judged to be only slightly above zero. Given the high production value and silly theatrics of such occasions, it is always difficult to judge the seriousness or the potential success of these nascent campaigns.
Strangely, the thing that stuck me, apart from the size of the crowd that had defied the weather to be there, was the size of the Obama campaign plane. I walked out of a hangar at the Springfield airport to see a huge aircraft, which would take the Obama campaign on its inaugural flight from Illinois to Iowa, looming at the far edge of the tarmac; something about the enormity of the aircraft struck me as serious; it screamed preparation and commitment.
Now, 16 months later, no one is flying higher, or faster than the junior senator from Illinois, who has made history by becoming the first black man to lead a major U.S. political party into the general presidential election, one of two men who will be the next president of the United States.
Bill and Hillary Clinton's grudging, not-quite exit from the national political stage Tuesday night, will provide an interesting plot point for historians and scholars for many years to come. They will sift through the questions about how a black man with an exotic name and limited national political experience could have knocked off a candidate who represented one of the most formidable political families of our time. There will be answers, I'm sure, but likely none that will quite answer the basic question looping through my brain as the evening unfolded.
"Are you shitting me?"
As historic as this is for many Americans, for a lot of black people, there is a surreal, unreal quality to the whole affair; it is a disbelief wrapped in amazement wrapped in euphoria. One black woman I know in Massachusetts got a call from her mother in California. "She was crying," my friend reported. It's a fair bet, she was not alone.
After his once and future opponents, Hillary Clinton and John McCain, delivered their speeches, Obama, speaking in St. Paul, the scene of the 2008 Republican National convention, claimed the nomination of his party. "Tonight I can stand here and say that I will be the Democratic nominee for president of the United States," he said, with all the understated drama that has marked his rise to prominence.
Obama was effusive in his praise of Clinton and the campaign she ran, and praised Bill Clinton presidency as a moment of great achievement. Change, he said, is "understanding that fiscal responsibility and shared prosperity can go hand-in-hand, as they did when Bill Clinton was president."
Obama, clearly interested in healing the wounds of the long primary battle, made several overtures to Sen. Clinton and her supporters. "Senator Hillary Clinton has made history in this campaign not just because she's a woman who has done what no woman has done before," he said, "but because she's a leader who inspires millions of Americans with her strength, her courage and her commitment to the causes that brought us here tonight.
Moments earlier, Clinton, far less magnanimous in tone, had made it clear that she would not be officially leaving the race last night. "This has been a long campaign, and I will be making no decisions tonight," she said.
Was she angling for the vice-president spot? The question of her right to be Obama's running mate will test the Democratic Party in the coming weeks. Clinton supporters clearly think that she has earned her way onto the ticket.
Obama supporters, many of whom have come to despise Clinton, will be left to wrestle with the fact that the loser in this race has nearly as much power over the eventual outcome as the winner.
So watch for a necessary warming in the Obama-Clinton relationship over the next few days and weeks, because, as Lincoln said 150 years ago: "A house divided against itself cannot stand."
And this nominee will clearly need the whole house.
Terrence Samuel is the deputy editor at The Root.