November 8, 2008
The Canberra Times

Friendly truce as Americans embrace feel-good president

Americans are a weird mob. The world champions of the cult of individualism have become united.

What’s more, they’ve pinched our children’s favourite theme song to do it. Bob the Builder’s chant, ”Can we fix it? Yes we can!” was meant to be about trucks and houses, not nations and people’s hearts.

But in typical style, the Americans toned down the beat, softened the melody, added some violin, and presto! Bob’s theme struck a chord.

From the moment Barack the Builder strode on to the victory stage, Americans have flung themselves full-bodied into an orgy of connectedness.

They’re all hugging, crying and waving. ”We were hugging complete strangers,” my American buddy Carrie wrote to me in a breathless email titled, ”ALL I HAVE TO SAY IS: YES WE CAN AND YES WE DID!!!”

Right. Got it. I heard you already. Mind you, on this occasion, I forgive Carrie’s exuberant punctuation. (This is my American pal who missed Australia so much when she moved home to Hollywood, that she used to telephone Qantas and ask to be put on hold, just to listen to the slow drawl of an Aussie accent, repeatedly.)

Charming eccentricities aside, Carrie’s current state of euphoria seems to have infected all her countrymen.

To pour through the outpourings in cyberspace, the blogs, and the comments on comments, you’d think Americans had just been handed the key to heaven by God himself. Maybe they have. But is it really safe to start loving them again? After all, we’d become quite used to hating them.

They’re large, loud, opinionated, culturally bombastic, and they gave George W. Bush a second chance. One term was enough to shock the rest of the world, but American voters gave him two.

In those eight years Dubya has given the rest of us ample reasons to doubt America’s collective sanity.

As President and man of the media, George Bush made an artform of weasel words.

He almost managed to turn hollow sound bites into a national language. He was a bloke who played on people’s fears and invoked God as his inspiration; who hid certain truths and cunningly fashioned new ones. A man who had no trouble lying about weapons of mass destruction; the practice of torture; the treatment of prisoners or his interest in Iraqi oil. George Bush is a bloke who had the audacity to claim victory in a war he had no right to start, and now leaves with about half a million dead in his wake.

Yet, his people – the Americans – continued to applaud him. Is it any wonder the rest of us grew to doubt them?

It must be awful to be despised outside your own country.

Australians travelling abroad know too well that dreadful moment when we’re mistaken for Americans, and the relief when it’s made clear that were not.

The New York Times writer Gail Collins is blunt about American shame when she wrote on Thursday, ”There are billions of people around the planet who loathed our country.” But Collins believes that’s all changed now, and those who once hated America are now in awe of its capacity to rise above historic fears and prejudices, and that, once again, the United States has a president the world will want to follow.

Certainly, the immediate international reactions to Barack Obama’s outstanding victory speech, and John Mc Cain’s gracious concession, show all the signs that Collins is right. Americans have turned, and the rest of the world will now, hopefully, turn back in friendship.

Much has been said about Obama’s brilliant mastery of communication, and about McCain’s outstanding integrity and dignity.

In fact, plenty more could be said about the perfect tone, sentiment and goodwill McCain added to the historic moment we witnessed this week. In the end, the enduring theme that has deeply touched us all is that of change. Minds can change. Hearts can change. People can change. And so can a nation. At last, it seems even the most troubling aspects of our world might be open to change, and maybe even put right.

Obama didn’t present the American people with a fail-safe roadmap to recovery, or a shopping list of electoral inducements. Instead, he seemed to entice the world’s most demanding voters with the most intangible of offerings; hope. Hope to heal, change and to again become proud.

Funnily enough, a few days before Americans went to the polls, a federal government minister’s chief-of-staff told me with a degree of certainty, ”Obama is a fraud.”

Then with a tone of mock disbelief added, ”You can’t sell hope.” Well mate, apparently, you can. Obama did. Right now, armed with an unshakable trust in the power of hope, it looks as if the President-elect might be unstoppable.

As American columnist Roger Cohen opined this week, Obama has managed to take out two of the most ruthless political machines on the planet; the Clintons and the Republican Party. All ”without breaking a sweat”.

So formidable is Obama’s power – to pitch an idea, plant the seeds of hope, and nurture its growth – his ascendancy has ushered in a new era for all of us.

Perhaps that’s why eyes were misty as Australians gathered around television screens to watch in awe, as a young black American man and his family waved to the world. In our hearts, I think we were waving back.

Virginia Haussegger is a Canberra journalist and director of the 50/50 by 2030 Foundation at the University of Canberra.

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