Forty years ago today, the Rev. William Sloane Coffin Jr. ’49 DIV ’56 stood in Battell Chapel to address students about the upcoming presidential election. An unpopular and ill-conceived war raged overseas. Strife and division reigned at home.
“We try to play God in the world,” Coffin told students. “We must accept the guilt and shame of our Vietnam blunder before we can be humanized and act internationally with wisdom.”
The longtime University chaplain was speaking about another war in another era, but his message still resonates today.
We continue to pour billions of dollars each month into an ill-conceived war. The global community’s trust and respect for our country has suffered. We do not see that our nation and the world are any safer today than they were eight years ago. And this year’s financial collapse, topped off by the crash of formerly reliable banks and the stock market in just the past two months, makes the picture at home no more encouraging.
On the eve of that election, Coffin wasn’t pleased enough with any candidate to endorse; all he could say with certainty was that America needed to right itself.
Four decades later, as we head to the polls once again to choose a president — though for many of us, this will be the first time — we have a clear choice to make. We can continue the hubris, greed and intolerance of the last eight years. Or, as Coffin urged, we can choose humility, and the new direction that comes with it.
Barack Obama can lead us there.
* * *
“Change” became a tired cliché nearly a year ago, back when candidates like Hillary Clinton LAW ’73 and Mitt Romney piggybacked on the enthusiasm Obama had generated and also attempted to carry its banner. But, as our predecessors wrote in this space in February when they endorsed him in the Democratic primary, Obama’s promise of change has been unique, and his record has always made it plausible.
Both candidates are good men and great public servants. In John McCain, America can choose a man who has served this country as much as anyone can. His military service, his years spent as a prisoner of war and his distinguished career in Congress have won him the admiration and appreciation of his comrades, colleagues and constituents. He has won friends in both parties, and he has earned the favor of those in our profession who have covered him.
In Obama, we can choose an inspiring scholar and leader. In only two decades of adult life, he has worked as a community organizer, a constitutional law professor and a legislator at both the state and national level. He has been the president of the Harvard Law Review, the keynote speaker at the Democratic National Convention and the author of two best-selling books. He has shown political courage, personal fortitude and impressive intellect.
The greatest changes to expect from an Obama presidency will come simply from electing a candidate who does not see progressivism as a perversion. On almost every political issue the two parties debate today, it is clear how a Democratic president would break from the policies of the current Republican administration.
On numerous social issues, changes — and progress toward a fairer future — are long overdue. That in the 21st century we still debate whether to expand health care, protect a woman’s right to choose or grant equal rights for gays and lesbians is itself disconcerting. We look forward to the day when these are no longer debatable issues in our elections, or in our country. Obama can move us toward that day.
Similarly, we must now look to a Democrat to fix the financial mess allowed by the Republican mantra of deregulation. We trust a new president from the other party to introduce new policies, inspired by a different economic ideology, to revitalize our economy.
We must also have new leadership at the Pentagon and over military and foreign affairs. On the issue of national security, one party wants to stop fighting a costly war while the other seeks an indefinite occupation.
Given the consequences of eight years of Republican rule, we are naturally inclined to vote a Democrat into the White House this time around. But we are thrilled with the choice the Democrats have given us. We can endorse Barack Obama with enthusiasm and excitement.
Even if he is a Cantab.
* * *
In a different election, we could have supported John McCain. Not too many years ago, McCain ran for the Republican presidential nomination on the platform of a true maverick. He had bucked his party time and time again, he had refused to pander to the extreme wing of his party’s base and he had spoken honestly to the country, even when it was not easy to do so.
Then something changed.
Perhaps McCain believed he could win the presidency by sliding far to the right. And perhaps he believed he could win by exploiting the worst fears and divisions in American society. For whatever reason, McCain has become a politician in the worst sense of the word. Now we do not trust him with the presidency.
Since June, when Obama clinched his party’s nomination, McCain and his eventual running mate, Sarah Palin, have called Obama a celebrity, a socialist, a friend of terrorists and even, in so many words, a traitor. From the ridiculous to the offensive, these attacks have been unfounded.
But the campaign only reached so low when their initial approach — a truthful one — failed. At first they attacked Obama for being an inspiring speechmaker and an elitist.
As if those were bad things.
The president of the United States of America should inspire us. He or she should be elite.
Obama is a politician unlike any other we have seen in our lifetimes. His ability to inspire should not be underappreciated, and it should certainly not be considered a weakness. It rises out of genuine intellect and composure. And it will be necessary to mobilize a country that can no longer ask a president to solve problems alone. Obama offers something no other politician today does: the ability to inspire citizens across the country to work with him to address our greatest challenges.
Obama is not the perfect candidate. It is not lost on us that he has served less than four years at the national level, and that he has been running for president for the last two of those years. He has not governed as an executive, nor has he led a legislature. And since entering the Senate he has cast few controversial votes or spoken out against his party’s leadership.
But we are reassured by those with whom Obama has chosen to surround himself. From his first day in office, Obama will have Joe Biden at his side to provide wise counsel guided by decades in the Senate. He will also have, as he has had throughout the campaign, dozens of advisers with impressive experience in all areas of governance to help him. After an administration dominated by yes-men, it will be refreshing and necessary to have a president who once again invites disagreement.
In his associations, McCain, on the other hand, fails to recommend himself. Most visibly, his vice presidential selection appalls us. As popular as Palin is among her constituents, she has shown herself to be shockingly ignorant on many of the most important issues national leaders confront daily. Watching Palin since her addition to McCain’s ticket, it has become clear to millions of Americans that in the most important decision of his campaign, McCain placed political strategy over qualifications. So much for “Country First.”
Before he selected Palin to join his ticket, McCain asked the country not to choose Obama because he is inexperienced. But experience — or the lack of it — does not wholly define a person. We do not find it an insurmountable weakness that Obama does not have decades of familiarity with Robert’s Rules of Order and the nuances of the Senate Commerce Committee. It will be Congress, not Obama, writing our laws under his administration.
Obama’s inexperience, while not ideal, is hardly a disqualifying factor to his candidacy, at least not after all he has shown throughout the campaign. He has been steady and strong, thoughtful and honest, resolute and restrained. He won his primary and grew his support without tearing down his opponents, and without undermining his reasons for running.
* * *
Two years into this historic campaign, we are comfortable elevating Obama to the White House because of what he has proven himself to be, both as a lawmaker and as a person.
We are encouraged by his positions on issues important to all Americans, notably those listed earlier. But as students, we must think too about each candidate’s stance on education.
Obama’s vision will be felt here at Yale and on college campuses nationwide. To help young people defray the cost of college, he will advance a tax credit in return for community service — a thoughtful and fair idea. McCain has proposed nothing so innovative.
Of course, Obama offers more than policies should he be elected. He promises remarkable judgment and intellect. He has shown eagerness to rise above party lines and to transcend ideological entitlement, ego and special interests. He aspires to govern by cooperation, not by brute force; to treat the world community with tolerance and respect, not aloofness and disregard. And he respects the Constitution.
This is what America needs.
The old John McCain — the one we saw in the 2000 primary, and over many years in the Senate — might have fit that description. But the McCain of this campaign will bring four more years of political strife and closed-mindedness to the White House.
Obama had it right at his party’s convention. “America, we are better than these last eight years,” he said. “We are a better country than this.”
Indeed we are. And though both campaigns have claimed as much, one campaign has shown it to be true. One campaign has appealed to hope and unity, the other to fear and division. One campaign has looked to the future, the other to the past. One campaign has sought to represent the United States of America, the other the select few who live in the so-called “real” America. We can’t allow the latter to reach the White House.
* * *
The Rev. Coffin passed away two years ago, but his wisdom remains with us. “Hope is a state of mind independent of the state of the world,” he once told an interviewer. “If your heart’s full of hope, you can be persistent when you can’t be optimistic. You can keep the faith despite the evidence, knowing that only in so doing has the evidence any chance of changing. So while I’m not optimistic, I’m always very hopeful.”
Obama, too, has spoken about hope. But he has not only spoken about it; he has created it. While we have come to our endorsement by judging the records of the two candidates, it is impossible to overlook the positive power of the Obama campaign — and the negative force of the McCain campaign.
Though once we may have been torn between these two men, over two years of campaigning, the contrast between them has grown increasingly stark. And we have come to support Obama with no hesitation.
In his convention speech, Obama called this election our chance to keep the American promise alive. It is a chance we cannot afford to pass up.
Barack Obama’s message of hope and vision toward the future has lifted us over the course of this campaign. Let him now do the same to the nation.