Not long after the final tally was posted, Bush held a post-election press conference in the White House where the veteran reporters that had been there for the first four tumultuous years of his presidency, were peppering him with pre-emptive questions about his next four years. Bush, as per usual, was caught with his folksy guard down, joking with the press corps, evading questions on Cabinet shifts and changes in the approach to the Iraq War. But one inquiry - "Do you feel more free, sir?" - drew unparalleled candor.
Bush replied, "...Let me put it to you this way: I earned capital in the campaign, political capital, and now I intend to spend it. It is my style. That's what happened in the -- after the 2000 election, I earned some capital."
There's not an ounce of humility in that statement, not a hint of magnanimity or bi-partisan appeal. It was just the victor and his spoils.
Of course, no election is ever really a "mandate" but rather a hardscrabble, emotional war of attrition. And it is hardly acceptable for the winner of a modern presidential campaign to claim such a mandate when as many 50 million Americans cast their vote against him.
The truth was that Bush had no mandate from the people. He had now won two extraordinarily close presidential campaigns based on a 50-plus-one strategy of relying on the base vote of his own party and gambling on suppressing as much of the rival party vote as he could. There is no argument that the strategy worked for Bush both times. But what it sowed was a seed of discord and anger within the country toward the Republican way of doing business. As it turned out, what that seed needed in order to sprout was a failed Bush presidency (check) and a transformative political figure (checkmate).
Barack Obama may be 47 years old, but he's only four years into his political lifespan. Ever since that night in July 2004, when he looked down from the podium at the Garden in Boston and told us we were more than red and blue pieces in a game of electoral chess, the path was cut for him to assume the throne of the presidency.
However, his youth, his name and his race were not just cracks in the asphalt or loose rocks in road, they were canyon-sized chasms to jump. Just getting from junior Senator to President of the United States in this day and age is akin to swimming against the current of a mighty river in flood stage. But to get there by defeating the Clinton political machine at the zenith of it's influence and power; to get there in a post-9/11 world with the middle name "Hussein"; to get there as a black man; that's jumping Snake River Canyon on horseback.
But he didn't just "get there" like Bush did in 2000 and 2004. He didn't eek out a tightrope victory. He annihilated John McCain - a white war hero - in places where race, age and political ideology should have mattered. As it turns out, if there ever was a so-called "Bradley Effect", it no longer carries weight. Ohio? - Obama won comfortably. Pennsylvania? - Landslide. Indiana? - First Democrat to win in 44 years. The same can be said in Virginia.
If Bush thought he could claim a mandate after such a narrow victory, who could blame Obama for doing the same? After all, not only did he eclipse 350 electoral votes, his party made substantial gains in both houses of Congress. But Obama in the afterglow of his stunning victory, in front of a jubilant crowd in Chicago's Grant Park, took his first opportunity to break with the ideology of the last eight years.
"While the Democratic Party has won a great victory tonight," Obama said, "We do so with a measure of humility and determination to heal the divides that have held back our progress. As Lincoln said to a nation far more divided than ours: '91We are not enemies, but friends...though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection.'"
In that moment, eight years of divisiveness, of political discord, began to crumble. And America reflected back through history to a time when another skinny politico from Illinois took the reigns of a nation in turmoil and guided it through its darkest moments. Lincoln knew that a nation divided could not begin to repair its wounds. The same is true today.
There will be and are those that claim Barack Obama is an empty suit or a fountain of useless rhetoric. There will be those who claim that he is a radical who will turn the country around a sharp left corner. There will be those who claim he is too young, too green to handle the rigors of the Oval Office. They are the ones who made the same argument before, in 1960.
Now, it is sure that the legacy of John Kennedy outweighs the actual accomplishments of his presidency, however successful it was. It is certain that he was lampooned for being little more than an orator with a weak and unstable core. That proved false of course, as the nation would learn through a steady current of declassified anecdotes surrounding those 13 tense October days in 1962.
But it was Kennedy's words that were often times more important than his actions. That's why hundreds of thousands still gather in Berlin each year to listen to a speech addressed to them in a language that many did not understand - save for four words Eich bein ein Berliner. That's why the phase that begins "Ask Not" was crocheted into thousands of throw pillows in homes throughout the country during the 1960s. Words are part of the hope of Barack Obama, the hope that the younger generation of voters - my generation - can experience the full majesty of a presidency revered and envied the world over.
Perhaps no one summed it up better than fictional Henry Burton in the 1998 movie "Primary Colors". Presumably George Stephanopolis's doppelganger from Joe Klein's Clinton era novel, Burton stumbles around the question - posed to him by Hillary's double, Susan Stanton - of why he would devote the time and energy required for a presidential campaign to an unknown, untested and undisciplined Southern governor like Jack Stanton. After a brief moment of soul searching, he finds his answer:
"It couldn't always have been the way it is now, it must have been very different when my grandfather was alive. [He] was there, [he] had Kennedy. I didn't. I've never heard a President use words like 'destiny' or 'sacrifice' without thinking 'bullshit'. And, ok, maybe it was bullshit with Kennedy, too. But people believed it. And I guess that's what I want. I want to believe it. I want to be a part of something that's history."
History will recognize last night as one of those special moments in our nation's rich tapestry of landmark accomplishments. We finally bridged that great divide of the 19th and 20th centuries and finally vindicated the framers of this Republic who declared more than 230 years ago that all men were created equal. More than sixty million of us have a direct claim on this history today. And if we have really, truly, elected a transformational leader, then the remainder of our nation will claim it soon enough.