Perhaps restrained by an exaggerated sense of its influence on the American electorate, the BBC refused to project a winner until nearly 4 am. But when it did, the sense of relief, and the hope that America’s long national nightmare might really be over, was almost as strong here in Britain as in the United States. For the chattering classes, the US election became a matter of obsessive interest–indeed, for the past week the BBC’s probing examination of swing voters in Virginia and likely turnout in Ohio left little room for the mundane bank failures, tragic knife slayings and looming by-elections. There were occasional complaints from resentful Little Englanders, but most people here seemed to share Guardian columnist Jonathan Freedland’s view that “the US election is our business” too.
So when the votes were finally counted, the universal European wish to usher George W. Bush into the dustbin of history made for widespread jubilation. If the left-leaning Guardian was triumphant, consider the conservative Daily Telegraph, whose editorialist welcomed Obama’s opportunity to “transform America’s view of itself and the world’s view of America, which has rarely been more reviled.” Even the Sun, Rupert Murdoch’s resolutely down-market tabloid, declared that “there’s no doubt Obama’s administration will alter American society for good.”
No British politician summoned the eloquence–or the familiarity with American literature–deployed by French politician Jack Lang, Mitterrand’s former culture minister, who pronounced Obama “the kind of American we love. His is the America of jazz and Fitzgerald and Faulkner and Kerouac and Kennedy.” But the leaders of all three British parties were quick to celebrate a victory that Prime Minister Gordon Brown said would “live in history.” Boris Johnson, the tousle-headed Tory mayor of London, endorsed Obama before the election–a popular as well as populist move for the leader of a multiethnic city.
Running underneath all the media frenzy was an undercurrent of envy. “If only OUR elections could be like this,” moaned the right-wing Daily Mail. On the BBC, anchor David Dimbleby repeatedly wondered at the passionate nature of American political disagreement compared with the far more constrained tone of British debate. Yet the real envy, everywhere echoed but seldom acknowledged, was for the heroic history of the American civil rights movement and the way the quiet persistence of African-Americans made Obama’s victory so much more than a partisan or even an ideological triumph. British politics once had a heroic narrative of its own. But Margaret Thatcher killed the British labor movement, and Tony Blair shoveled dirt on its coffin. And there is no one in British politics who shows any sign of bringing that buried legacy back to life. D.D. GUTTENPLAN and MARIA MARGARONIS
DREAMS FROM HIS FATHERLAND:
For most Kenyans, the news of Obama’s victory came as anything but a surprise–the newspapers and airwaves have been full of Obama stories for months. Obama’s face and fame have been used to sell everything from T-shirts to “Senator” beer. In recent weeks you could listen to “Obama Be Thy Name,” written by a local Afro-fusion musician, on the radio and catch Obama: The Musical at the Kenyan National Theater. One local paper went so far as to run an editorial titled Why We Endorse Barack Obama–enough to make a stranger think the contest was being run here rather than 8,000 miles and eight time zones away.
At the University of Nairobi, where I teach, I was struck by what students said they’d taken away from Obama’s victory speech and McCain’s concession speech–the generosity of spirit and the coming together, which they said was far from the norm here. “In Kenya, if you lose, it’s not the person but the tribe. We are still fighting for our tribe,” said Gillian Koech, as several of her friends nodded. All the students expressed the hope that Obama will set an example for Kenyans, but they said change will come only if their leaders take the lead. “If I had magic powers I would make people forget Kikuyus and Luos,” said Bob Koigi. “Obama’s win is a Kenyan win.”
And a world win, according to some of their older countrymen. “I’m elated and exhilarated, but I think the greatest part is that the image of the US is totally transformed,” said Perez Olindo, a former director of the national parks. Olindo–who, like Obama Sr., went to college in the United States nearly fifty years ago on a pre-independence “airlift”–knew Obama’s father when both served in the Ministry of Natural Resources, Tourism and Wildlife. “He was a thinker, analytical,” recalls Olindo. When Olindo looks at the young Obama, he sees the same deliberative, focused intelligence that made his father such a good economist. “I know that he’s an American and that he will first and foremost promote an American program,” he says of the president-elect. “But by virtue of his background he will have a very keen ear for what people elsewhere are saying.” And, Olindo adds, “he’s already affected the thinking of the world, which is looking more positively at America.” KAREN ROTHMYER