Perfecting the union

NEW YORK — Beyond Iraq, beyond the economy, beyond health care, there was something even more fundamental at stake in this U.S. election won by Barack Obama: the self-respect of the American people.

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For almost eight years, Americans have seen words stripped of meaning, lives sacrificed to confront nonexistent Iraqi weapons, and other existences ravaged by serial incompetence on an epic scale.

Against all this, Obama made a simple bet and stuck to it. If you trusted in the fundamental decency, civility and good sense of the American people, even at the end of a season of fear and loss, you could forge a new politics and win the day.

Four years ago, at the Democratic convention, in the speech that lifted him from obscurity, Obama said: «For alongside our famous individualism, there’s another ingredient in the American saga: a belief that we are connected as one people.»

He never wavered from that theme. «In this country, we rise or fall as one nation, as one people,» he declared in his victory speech to a joyous crowd in Chicago.

In that four-year span, Obama never got angry. Without breaking a sweat, he took down two of the most ruthless political machines on the planet: first the Clintons and then the Republican Party.

An idea has power. John McCain had many things in this campaign, but an idea was not one of them. At a time of economic crisis, he could not order his thoughts about it. Hard-hit Ohio drew its decisive conclusions. It was not alone.

McCain flailed, opting on a whim for a sidekick, Sarah Palin, who personified the very «country-first» intolerance and Bush-like small-mindedness of which many Americans had grown as weary as the world has.

Gracious in defeat, McCain seemed almost relieved, free to return to himself and escape the rabid fringes of Republicanism.

Obama’s idea, put simply, was that America can be better than it has been. It can reach beyond post-9/11 anger and fear to embody once more what the world still craves from the American idea: hope.

America can mean what it says. It can respect its friends and probe its enemies before it tries to shock and awe them. It can listen. It can rediscover the commonwealth beyond the frenzied individualism that took down Wall Street.

I know, these are mere words, they will not right the deficit or disarm an enemy. But words count. That has been a lesson of the Bush years.

You can’t proclaim freedom as you torture. You can’t promote democracy as you disappear people. You can’t stand for the rule of law and strip prisoners of basic rights. You can’t dispense with the transparency and regulation essential to modern capital markets and hope still to be the beacon of free enterprise.

Or rather, you can do all these things but then you find yourself alone.

Obama will reinvest words with meaning. That is the basis of everything. And an American leader able to improvise a grammatical, even a moving, English sentence is no bad thing. Americans, in the inevitable recession ahead, will have a leader who can summon their better natures rather than speak, as Bush has, to their spite.

I voted in Brooklyn. There was a two-hour line. I got talking to the woman behind me. I told her that as a naturalized American I was voting for the first time. When I emerged from the voting booth the woman said: «Congratulations.»

That single word said a lot about citizenship as an idea and a responsibility, rather than a thing of blood or ethnicity or race.

And it occurred to me that Obama’s core conviction about the «American saga» — his belief in the connectedness of all Americans — stemmed from his own unlikely experience of American transformation.

A Kenyan father passing briefly through these shores; a chance encounter with a young Kansan woman; a biracial boy handed off here and there but fortunate at least in the accident of Hawaiian birth.

Obama has spoken without cease about his conviction of American possibility born from this experience. He intuited that, after years of the debasement of so many core American ideas, a case for what the preamble to the U.S. Constitution calls «a more perfect union» would resonate.

He was rarely explicit about race, although he spoke of slavery as America’s «original sin.» He did not need to be. At a time of national soul-searching, what could better symbolize a «more perfect union» and the overcoming of the wounds of that original sin than the election to the White House of an African-American?

And what stronger emblem could be offered to the world of an American renewal startling enough to challenge the assumptions of every state on earth?

The other day I got an email saying simply this: Rosa Parks sat in 1955. Martin Luther King walked in 1963. Barack Obama ran in 2008. That our children might fly.

Tough days lie ahead. But it’s a moment to dream. Americans have earned that right, along with the renewed respect of the world.

(Roger Cohen is an editor-at-large for The International Herald Tribune. Readers are invited to comment at his blog: http://www.iht.com/passages.)

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