We were supposed to see a fur coat in this election. It was supposed to come out at an inopportune moment, the way Frank Lucas' (Denzel Washington) garish chinchilla did at the Ali-Frazier fight in American Gangster. It tipped everyone off that the customarily low-profile and buttoned-down Lucas was the guy they thought he was all along.
Barack Obama was supposed to fold under questioning. He was supposed to—at some inopportune moment—betray a rough interior beneath his urbane polish. He was supposed to be "the black candidate" like the Rev. Jesse Jackson or the anti-black black candidate like Alan Keyes. He was supposed to show up wearing a fur coat. But the Iowa caucuses changed all that. And it took a whole year, until Election Day, for the Bob Johnsons, Lady Lynn Forester de Rothschilds and John McCains to catch on.
To his credit, McCain acknowledged this much in his concession speech. Although he was slow to arrive to the party called the 21st century, he finally got it right, saying of Obama, "In a contest as long and difficult as this campaign has been, his success alone commands my respect for his ability and perseverance."
For years to come, commentators will be dissecting mistakes by the McCain campaign, among them failure to settle on a core message, the selection of Sarah Palin as a running mate and the abandonment of the Y2K McCain maverickosity. And they will praise the technical precision of the Obama campaign. But there's another reason Obama won: It appears to never have occurred to anyone in McCain's campaign that after years of campaigning and dozens of debates, the "skinny kid with a funny name" wouldn't crack.
Americans of all stripes—including, and perhaps especially, blacks—have been conditioned, over time, to expect little from African-American leaders. We have become used to seeing prominent African Americans who were either captivating or smart or pragmatic, but seldom all three at once. Obama changed that.
In the past few weeks, McCain seized on a winning message: his belief that he has the better outlook on taxes and spending in a time of economic stress. That, coupled with a war hero's résumé, could have been enough to win the presidency. The problem for McCain and Republicans is that they discovered this message too late, only after they pulled out all the stops trying to disparage Obama as an empty suit. He was unqualified, a celebrity, a socialist. For the first time in history, "eloquent" became a slur.
In the end, Obama's coalition of consistently Democratic blacks, hopeful Democratic whites, persuadable Latinos, progressive Asians, happy-to-be-heard-from Native Americans, pragmatic gays and lesbians, and Abraham Lincoln/Lincoln Chafee Republicans was stronger than McCain's coalition of those who were, for an assortment of reasons, resistant to, and perhaps even fearful of, change.
Given the laundry list of crises awaiting him, there is no predicting whether Obama will be a great president or even a reasonably successful one. But what is already irrefutable is that the model of leadership for African Americans has permanently changed.
Obama raised by far the most money in this campaign or any other. He was never knocked off of his core message by day-to-day events. He extended a hand to all sectors of society, not just helpful voting blocs, and he never let his detractors see him sweat. He demonstrated that his cool, deliberate exterior was not an act, but a reflection of a cool, deliberate interior.
Obama placed the issue of race as far in the background of his candidacy as he could without having his 'hood pass revoked. But he never tried to make himself, in the now almost unbearably trite parlance, "post-racial." Rather, he made himself race-impartial. In his victory speech, he conveyed the resonating subtext of his candidacy all along: "I may not have won your vote tonight, but I hear your voices, I need your help, and I will be your president too."
Ironically, perhaps, it was McCain who had more latitude to take stock of and pay homage to the historic significance of Election Day for African Americans, invoking Booker T. Washington's visit to Theodore Roosevelt's White House, telling his supporters, "though we have come a long way from the old injustices that once stained our nation's reputation and denied some Americans the full blessings of American citizenship, the memory of them still had the power to wound."
It may be tempting to think of Nov. 5 as the new Juneteenth, but that wouldn't be in keeping with the new Obama paradigm. A shift has occurred, and it's not simply that the leaders of the civil rights movement have now segued to a new emeritus status in American politics. It's not simply that the hip-hop generation came of age politically in 2008. It is that an African American offered his leadership in a political campaign with the highest possible stakes for Americans and the world, and emerged as president of the United States. American history. Not just African-American history. And no fur coat.
David Swerdlick is a regular contributor to The Root.
David Swerdlick is an associate editor at The Root. Follow him on Twitter.