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Published: Sunday, 11/2/2008

Obama breaks final barrier; McCain pulls political stunner

Of all the collisions of politics and culture in American life since the Civil War, none may have occurred with the force, impact, and historical significance of what Americans did on Nov. 4, 2008.

In selecting Barack Obama as their 44th president, they redeemed the created-equal promise of their founding document, freed both blacks and whites from the imprisonment of racial expectations, set a great nation on an uncharted course, and rewrote the rules of politics for a generation.

Mr. Obama's triumph was a remarkable narrative, a classic American chronicle of a swift ascent to celebrity, a morality tale of grit and determination overcoming long odds, an instant fable that affirmed the American conviction that an opportunity society can be a meritocracy.

The first Illinoisan since Lincoln to win the presidency, and with as little conventional political experience as Lincoln, Mr. Obama had no family connections but a compelling family story. He offered himself at once as a quiet and contemplative man, possessed of an inner serenity at odds with the timbre of the times, and as a man strangely suited for the moment, full of impatience with war, unease about the economy, and discomfort about the direction of the country.

Born during the John F. Kennedy years, with a touch of the Kennedy magic and a strong updraft of latter-day Kennedy support, Mr. Obama was the first Democratic presidential candidate with a post-Kennedy outlook and political profile.

He reclaimed the Catholic vote for the Democrats, to be sure, but his rise was fueled by a new generation of voters who were animated by a new Internet culture with its own means of social-networking, by mobile Americans without geographical roots but with netroots, and by an upswelling of young educated whites. His margin of victory among voters under 30 - the sort of voters who, a generation earlier, fled to Kennedy because he personified the Frank Sinatra song "High Hopes," which became part of his campaign soundtrack - was more than three times greater than the Democratic margin in 2004.

The result left the Republican Party, which had won seven of the 10 presidential elections between 1968 and 2004, in full retreat, its coalition of entrepreneurs and executives, white working-class men, and religious conservatives in confusion. The Democrats controlled not only the White House but both chambers of Congress, as well, much as they did in the Kennedy years.

But the historical echoes that penetrated the American psyche the morning after came not from Kennedy, who pushed but did not pass a major civil-rights bill, but from Lyndon B. Johnson, who uttered a sad but prescient aside after signing the Civil Rights Act of 1964 exactly 101 years after the Battle of Gettysburg. "We have lost the South for a generation, " he said after signing perhaps the most significant piece of legislation of his era.

Johnson was right. The Civil Rights Act, which owed its passage to Republican votes, nonetheless identified the Democrats with the aspirations of African-Americans and delivered the onetime Solid South of the Democrats into GOP hands. But it also empowered blacks to vote and, in 2008, to vote for a black president.

Forty-four years after the Civil Rights Act was signed, the 44th president shattered the Solid South of the Republicans even as he overcame one of the nation's greatest obstacles to racial inequality. No longer could Americans say that the White House was for whites only.

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