A Defining Moment In American History Four eminent historians, Bernice Johnson-Reagon, Robert Kagan, Victor Davis Hanson and Annette Gordon-Reed, talk about how history has shifted with Barack Obama's election.
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A Defining Moment In American History

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A Defining Moment In American History

A Defining Moment In American History

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This is an election special, the day after from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Like every presidential campaign this one focused at times on (unintelligible) we may little note nor long remember Joe the Plumber, but there was near universal agreement that Americans came out yesterday in unprecedented numbers to make history. President-elect Barack Obama campaigned for change and transformation and won the opportunity to get started. But let's step back today and ask, what changed? How history shifted? And what we expect of this new president. We're going to hear from four historians Bernice Johnson Reagon, Robert Kagan, Victor Davis Hanson, and Annette Gordon-Reed, and we want to hear from you.

Our phone number 800-989-8255, you can also join the conversation by email that address talk@npr.org, we begin with singer, composer, cultural historian, and civil right activist Bernice Johnson Reagon with us on the phone from her hotel in Easton, Pennsylvania. And it's nice to have you with us on the program today.

Ms. BERNICE JOHNSON REAGON (Singer, Composer, Civil Rights Activist): Thank you very much. It's good to be talking with you today.

CONAN: And it's been called a historic election, put that in context for us. What does it mean to you?

Ms. REAGON: I come on board in the middle of the last century, so to be in the 21st century is new for me and my marker is the civil rights movement. I was in college in the '60s, and one of the most important thing we did in organizing was getting African-Americans to register to vote in the south. And so no matter what you were doing, whether you were trying to integrate schools or integrate public facilities you had to get African-Americans to register to vote. And sometimes that had to do with just educating the voters to pass outlandish test and sometimes it was actually - you were risking your life if you did that kind of work. So, with this election what was very familiar to me but astounding was the kind of work to get Americans registered to vote and inspired enough to not only register to vote, but to go to the polls.

CONAN: It is been remarked that it was just 40 years ago the Voting Rights Act was passed eliminating a lot of those procedures you were talking about.

Ms. REAGON: Yes. Yes. So, what we actually have just seen is an application of something that was a part of a fight against racism. Being in education for general American citizen about their role in determining what - what happened to them under incoming administration and the importance of being involved and getting high numbers of citizens registered to vote and to actually on voting day turnout and that was an amazing experience to me seeing those numbers mount up and how many new voters we brought into the political process.

CONAN: We had the opportunity the other night to speak with Jesse Jackson just before the election and he was remembering that night. A lot of the people who marched on the Pettus Bridge with him all those years ago and remembering those who died in their efforts to bring about change in the American south and other places too, but specifically in the south he was talking about all those years ago. I'm sure you saw those pictures of him in Grant Park in Chicago last night as tears rolled down his cheeks and you too knew people who died?

Ms. REAGON: Yes. I really am very moved to be a witness to what feels like a new way of looking at what is possible in this country. And, it's very important to me that it's happening in a new century. And also many of the new voters are the same age I was when I became active in Albany, Georgia in the 1960s. And so, when you have this kind of step being taken by young people it is just a powerful kind of experience to watch and it is almost like I know something of what that excitement is for the young people who involved themselves in participating in this campaign and registering to vote, and it is incredible to stand in an America where we say we will pull leadership from the top echelon of our population, and we will not eliminate participation because of where somebody is from or what their race is, or what their gender is. That we are throwing open leadership in this country to the best we can have participating as leaders and this is very important, and to have a Barack Obama as the next president is just an amazing, amazing experience to witness.

CONAN: We're talking with historians this hour in our NPR Election special, the day after. We're beginning Bernice Johnson Reagon. 800-989-8255 if you'd like to join the conversation, email talk@npr.org. And let's begin with Newtondo(ph). Newtondo with us from Interlaken in New York. I hope I'm pronouncing your name correctly.

NEWTONDO (Caller): All right. Neal, the appropriate pronunciation is (unintelligible) correction is Iterlaken.

CONAN: Interlaken. OK.

NEWTONDO: Right on. My take on yesterday's event not only was it historical, but I sense now that America is now is get widening of the civic constrains. If you consider the percentage of those who said they - things will be better, versus the percentage of those who said they voted racially. Can you get me?

CONAN: Yes, I can get you.

NEWTONDO: All right? So, this wide (unintelligible) space I believe created (unintelligible) shift for the nation to move beyond coexistence towards co-living. I think that's the essence of yesterday's vote.

CONAN: And I'm going to ask Bernice Johnson Reagon to respond to that, but to respond to it in terms of the social reality of a world where she was talking about the efforts to desegregate, well we are clearly in an effort to - or in the midst of a process of re-segregation where whites and blacks live apart and with each other and not together and that is a trend that is increasing and not decreasing as we speak.

Ms. REAGON: I feel like it is not that this election is going to erase racism in the couch. But I do feel very strongly there are some very healthy signs in the coalition of communities and people from different walks of life and different cultures who came together to participate in the success of this campaign. And yes, I don't think we have addressed all of the issues that come out of racism or class or opportunity for training or work or income production and I think a lot of the separation of races in the 21st century is going to have to do with access to opportunity. And - but whether or not there is a legal system that requires it is something we actually have stepped beyond.

CONAN: Thanks...

Ms. REAGON: And that is important.

CONAN: Yes it is. And Newtondo, thanks for very much for the call. Let me see if I can get you to respond to something else that we've been hearing. And that is if the United States of America can elect an African-American to be president of this country, that then the politics of racial victimization in this country is over.

Ms. REAGON: I don't think that's true.

CONAN: Why not?

Ms. REAGON: Because you don't erase racism because you have erased and made illegal the system. You still have to deal with culture, and you still have to deal with cultural practices. I'm saying this is a very important milestone we have crossed. But, I think we have to live day by day, pushing and making sure we move forward so this is not an aberration, and I don't think it means at all that racism is finished.

CONAN: Finally, we just have a couple of minutes with you left and I wanted to ask you - is this obviously has a great deal to do - races is an incredibly important element of this, but nevertheless, there are other historical elements here, too. This is transition of generation. We saw an election also where as you noted earlier, women played an important part in this electoral process and could very well have ended up either with a woman as a President of the United States or woman as Vice-President of the United States.

Ms. REAGON: I'm talking a lot today to people who - as young people were a part of the assault on the system of racism and legal segregation in this country in the 20th century and we talked about what it felt like that we've actually been able to witness some of the changes and from my perspective, I actually remain an activist. So, for almost a half a century, I have worked not only against racism but also for a society open to gender and sexual preference freedoms and the right for women to choose what will happen with our bodies, and yes, that includes a country led by women. And I think we will see all of that in this new century. But it will not come unless we organize it into being. So, we are in a new space with a new opportunity, but we really have to stay organized and vigilant.

CONAN: Bernice Johnson Reagon, thank you so much for your time today. We appreciate it.

Ms. REAGON: Thank you.

CONAN: Singer-composer, cultural historian and civil rights activist, Bernice Johnson-Reagon. She joined us from her motel room in Easton, Pennsylvania. We're going to talk with historians this hour. When we come back, Robert Kagan and Victor Davis Hanson will join us. I'm Neal Conan, stay with us. This is special election coverage from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is an election special, the day after from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. President Bush among the many Americans who view the election of Barack Obama yesterday as an historic moment. He spoke earlier today in the White House Rose Garden.

President GEORGE W. BUSH (United States): It shows a president whose journey represents the triumph of the American story, testament to hard work, optimism and faith in the enduring promise of our nation. Many of our citizens thought they would never live to see that day. This moment is a especially uplifting for a generation of Americans who witnessed the struggle for civil rights with their own eyes. And four decades later, see a dream fulfilled.

CONAN: President Bush speaking earlier today in the White House Rose Garden. We're talking with historians this hour taking the long view of this moment and we want to hear from you, too. What to change, how has history shifted, what do we expect of this new president? The number is 800-989-8255, email us talk@npr.org. Joining us now is historian and foreign policy expert Robert Kagan, an adviser to John McCain on an informal and unpaid basis. He's with us here in Studio 3A. Nice to you have you back in the program.

Mr. ROBERT KAGAN (Senior Associate, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace): Thanks. Good to be back Neal.

CONAN: And how are you thinking about the significance of yesterday's election?

Mr. KAGAN: Well, I doubt I can add to what everyone has already said, but it's obviously unprecedented in American history. I think it really is a major turning point in a domestic sense and since I spend most of my time thinking about foreign policy, I can't remember a time certainly in my lifetime when the United States had, I think unarguably the world's most popular leader. That's quite significant and the last president I think who enjoyed that status was Woodrow Wilson when he went to Europe to negotiate the Versailles Treaty and was literally greeted by millions of people who loved him more than they loved their own elected leaders and it'd be interesting to see whether Barack Obama has that kind of effect in other countries.

CONAN: John Kennedy had some of that same effect.

Mr. KAGAN: Yeah, although I think it was much more Jackie Kennedy and the whole Camelot thing. I think that really Wilson stands alone in really evoking that kind of loyalty among foreign peoples, and I think it'll be interesting to see whether Barack Obama comes close to Wilson and in that regard, at least in the near term.

CONAN: The United States probably one of the more recent nadirs of popularity around the world, certainly this president, if not the United States itself, and it's always best to follow an act which is not been spectacular to put to put it mildly.

Mr. KAGAN: Well, we certainly no way to go but up in that respect. But I think this is also very special I think - I always felt and I argued that if John McCain had been elected, the world would've been very happy to see John McCain in office. But clearly, because of what Barack Obama represents in terms of American society, given American history, it's even more extraordinary. It's not just that he is not George Bush. I think it really strikes the world as a very special - and I think a real tribute to the United States. I think most of the world will view it that way.

CONAN: And is the United States proper to view it that way. Did the country do something cleansing for itself as some people said?

Mr. KAGAN: I mean, certainly, you know, the race issue is the great stain in American history. It's the great failing it really puts us, you know, as a slave holding country. We're high on the list of evil countries in history, you know, in a certain sense during that period and for us to be able now to elect a black president is really an incredible feat I think, and I must say I have spent many years recently living in Europe, and I've been joking with my European friends who are very excited that the United States elected Barack Obama in that they would've voted for Barack Obama, too. And I said yes, except in your own country. It's almost inconceivable that in Europe, any minority could possibly win an election and probably won't for some time. So, I think in that respect there's even - it's going to be some admiration of the United States for making this decision.

CONAN: And do you fear for - there's obviously going to be a change in foreign policy as well, not just ideological change between the Bush administration and the Obama administration to come. But as an expert in foreign policy, do you worry about the United States which is the accusations have been throughout his campaign going to be a less prepared, less diligent, less interested in defense?

Mr. KAGAN: Well, I'm going to be optimistic. I think that clearly the less experienced of the two candidates won, but I also think that President-elect Obama brings enormous strengths to this job. Not the least of which is the one that I've already mentioned which is the fact that he is so popular in the world. The question is, can he translate this popularity into - in ways that are policy relevant? He's going to have to go to Europe and ask the Europeans to do some things that Europeans do not want to do. The question in my mind is, does everybody after being very happy and smiley about Barack Obama go back to their own basic interests and do what they want to do, or is he actually able to influence their domestic politics to get them to do things they might not otherwise do? That is going to be a real challenge.

CONAN: Now, let's get a caller on the line. And this is Brian. Brian with us from Portland, Oregon.

BRIAN (Caller): Hi. I'm a Mormon, and I put myself through school. I'm a first generation college graduate. I built a small business, I paid $25,000 in tax this year. I voted Republican ticket in my entire life, and I voted for Barack Obama, my wife voted for Barack Obama. It was a very difficult choice. We made the decision to tell our friends at church and in our community what choice we're making and also our kids and it was incredibly difficult. And we had - when we're talking to our kids, we had to really drill home the fact that some of the things that Barack Obama believes in really differ greatly with our own personal beliefs.

And yet, we made that choice because we felt like this was the most righteous man for the job. And honestly, the only president in my lifetime, I'm 34 years old, president-elect or potential candidate that really understood what it was like to come from a background of very little wealth, from poverty to put yourself, to pull yourself to up, you know, by your bootstraps and to make something out of that and give something back. So, it's a really hard decision for us and hard to sell to our children and to our friends.

CONAN: I wonder Brian, as you were about to pull that lever where - obviously you're in Oregon. You marked a piece of paper and mailed it in. As you did that though, I wondered, did you think that this was something historical that you were doing?

BRIAN: You know, it didn't really hit me until last night, really, really how grateful I was for the decision that I made. Not only because of all things that I just said, but also because - yes, I felt like I was part of something that I might never in the rest of my life be able to participate in again. And the feelings, you know, I felt almost giddy, I felt like, you know, I want to go run for an office or contribute or, you know, I'm OK with giving a little bit more, you know, on my taxes. And I'm really worried, I have a lot of concerns about gun control and abortion and, you know, how my hard-earned money is going to be used by this administration to help other people. But despite all of that, yeah, I was euphoric last night to be a part of that.

CONAN: Brian, thanks very much for the call. I appreciate it.

BRIAN: Thanks.

CONAN: And I think Brian is not alone, Robert Kagan.

Mr. KAGAN: No, and I mean obviously it has been very exciting and euphoric for people. And the only thing I worry about is that I hope people aren't going to hold the next president to unreasonable standards. I supposed somebody else have probably made this point over the course of the day. But, you know, he cannot fix every problem and make everybody happy. And so, I hope people after they get over the euphoria, have a realistic appreciation of what the man can do. Otherwise, he may not measure up to their expectations, that may not even be fair.

CONAN: You know, we had one of the supporters on the last week who have pointed out to one of his detractors that you have to remember, he still a politician. He is trying to get elected here. He has to take positions that you may not totally agree with. Stay with us, Robert Kagan. We want to bring a colleague of yours into the conversation, Victor Davis Hanson, who teaches classes in military history at Stanford and is a senior fellow with the Hoover Institution there and he joins us from the studio on the Stanford campus and Victor, nice to talk with you again.

Mr. VICTOR DAVIS HANSON (Senior Fellow in Classics/Military History, Hoover Institution, Stanford University): Nice to have me, Conan. Thank you.

CONAN: Where does the election Barack Obama fit in in your long view of history?

Mr. HANSON: Well, I think it's a landmark development. I think most people in the world will see, well, he will resonate with most people in the world based on his nomenclature, his mixed ancestry, his charisma, his youth in a way that we haven't seen in an American president. I'm a little worried for two or three reasons and that is that much of the campaign rhetoric that we we're preemptory or unilateral on dislike may have been true among popular people around the world, but a lot of the governments that were anti-American are no longer there.

And specially, when we look at Italy or France or Germany or what the British are pretty friendly, India is OK, China has sold it, there's a lot of goodwill that's going to be there for Obama to tap into. The second thing is there's a lot of crisis in the world that are 51-49, I mean, what do you do about land for peace in the Middle East, or how do you encourage Russia not to reabsorb the former Soviet Republics or what do you do about going after terrorists when you hit civilians in the Pakistani war? These are problems that were there kind of before George Bush.

In some cases, they transcend George Bush and now, it's not going to be Barack Obama who solves them. He's going to be with the burdens of America solving them. And it's going to be very difficult, and I don't know to the extent that his personal magnetism in a way that JFK entered will be enough. And he will be burdened with having to take a particular American point of view at a time when a lot of people don't like the United States not just because of George Bush, but because it represents consensual government or free markets or individual rights in a way that now Obama's going to have to defend.

I think he has a lot of advantages, and I think we all wish him well. But it's going to be something. The final concern is: I remember in '76 - and I voted for Jimmy Carter - I was very happy as a young graduate student that he emphasized human rights, that he had no inordinate fear of communism in a McCarthy since he got into office. Everybody really had good will worldwide for him and then suddenly, we found out that there were certain characters or developments in the world - whether it was Iranian Islamic revolution or the Russians in Afghanistan or with problems in Cambodia or Central America - where his good intentions and his rhetoric were not enough given that there were people who didn't like the United States or wanted to challenge the United States for reasons that had nothing to do with Richard Nixon or Jerry Ford.

CONAN: So you like Senator Biden suspect that this new president will be tested soon.

Mr. HANSON: He will. But I think that one last comment I would make as well, I think everybody's tired of the novels, the films about George Bush as Nazi or killing the president or naming a (unintelligible). I think everybody's just absolutely sick of that, and I think it is incumbent upon people who did not vote for Obama, and I did not. But you give not only a honeymoon but you keep in perspective that you want him to succeed because you really do feel he wants the best for the United States so that when you have to criticize him, you do it in a way that we hope would be persuasive rather than nihilistic. And I think we've lost sight of that the last. It started probably in the Clinton administration, but I think it also gives an opportunity for people who were opposed to Obama to show some character and give him a honeymoon and try to be constructive in their criticism.

CONAN: Robert Kagan, I was wondering if you were picking up on what Victor was saying about America's interests in the world. Clearly, to a large degree, they will not have changed when the administration changes on January 20th.

Mr. KAGAN: No. I mean, obviously, that the next administration is going to face the same menu of problems, the same menu of concerns that is America. And I mean, the comparison with Jimmy Carter is interesting because I actually think, I don't know, but I think that Obama comes to office with much less baggage ideologically than Jimmy Carter did. I think Jimmy Carter came in with the idea that America really was the problem in many respects and that America had behaved badly and now needed to sort of absolve itself.

And in some cases, that meant trying to reduce American influence because American influence - he conceived it to be - a malevolent force. I don't really get the sense that that's what Barack Obama thinks. I think he thinks America is a force for good in the world and it's just a matter of trying to get the balance right ,and so I'm less concerned that he has some kind of view of the world that's likely to collide with reality. I think he's a fairly pragmatic guy who understands that there's going to be resistance out there.

CONAN: Let's get a caller in. This is AJ. AJ with us from Lincoln in Maine. AJ, are you there?

AJ (Caller): Yes, I am.

CONAN: You're on the air. Go ahead, please.

AJ: One small comment. I think that the actual increase in percentage of African-American voters from Kerry to Obama is less than the increase in percentage in Caucasian voters to Kerry to Obama. But I think the change that this election is triggering from our being consumers - remember, we were told after 9/11 to go out and shop to our being asked to be citizens. And I was disappointed at - although McCain's speech was wonderfully graceful, it was terms of I whereas Obama's speech was first person plural and the entire interactive nature of his Internet vehicle really calls us to a level of citizenship that the Republicans need to imitate.

CONAN: Victor Hanson, let me ask you about...

EJ: Thank you.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call, EJ. About that, it was a somber speech in some ways last night. Certainly accepting the realities of the situation that the country faces and the challenges towards economic crisis and whatnot. Yet, the president-elect did layout the idea that there are going to have to be sacrifices, perhaps, spread more broadly not just placed on the military families of this country.

Mr. HANSON: Yeah. I think that's absolutely right. I think that when McCain said he was going to cut taxes and Obama says he was going to raise spending, the American people realized that with 12 trillion dollars worth of debt and a half trillion dollar budget deficit that both of those may have been impossible and he's going to have to now move even more to the center and he's had an ability to do that because he as disassociated himself from dubious associates in the past that people were worried about. He said that I was wrong on that, I've switched on certain issues that he felt that were necessary in the primary that had to be discarded in the general election like most politicians. So he's shown that degree of pragmatism and now in foreign policy in regards to Robert's statement.

He has, at certain times, said things about the invasion of Georgia or he said things about the nature of the threat from Iran or Venezuela that later, he's corrected and it suggests that maybe he's less ideological. But I would say that I don't think - I remember Jimmy Carter - he did not come into office with a hard ideological edge. He said more that it was a matter of style, more truth telling, more of promising not to lie to people, and I think he was sorely disappointed when he saw that the world didn't quite work the way he wanted. And, I agree that maybe Obama, given his experience in Chicago, has a little been bit more pragmatic.

But there have been times in the campaign when I think he said things or embraced certain ideas whether it's the coal industry might have to be bankrupted for a solar and wind future, or he said something about other things that really collided with reality now let's hope that the advisers around him and his own experience over the last two years have prepped him for a pretty cruel harsh world that he's going to encounter. But as again, I said, I wish him well. and I think that everybody who did not vote for him owes him an allegiance as our Commander-In-Chief.

CONAN: Robert Kagan, we're going to give you the last 30 seconds because we've got to move on.

Mr. KAGAN: Well, again, for me, the interesting question will be: Here you have - for the first time in, really, many years - the United States has the world's most popular person. And that's really quite an unusual circumstance.

CONAN: As a leader not as an athlete, Muhammad Ali or as a singer.

Mr. KAGAN: Well, I suppose right. I don't know where Michael Jordan and Barack Obama stand in the comparison but certainly, as a political leader. And we're actually in a world where most political leaders are fairly weak. European leaders are fairly weak, there's not a lot of competition and I think he stands very tall. And this is an extraordinary opportunity, I think, if he uses it well.

CONAN: Robert Kagan, senior associate at Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He's the author of "The Return of History and The End of Dreams", and he joined us here at Studio 3A. Thank you very much.

Mr. KAGAN: Thank you.

CONAN: And Victor Davis Hanson, a senior fellow in classics and military history at the Hoover Institution. He's also a syndicated columnist. Victor, always nice to speak with you.

Mr. HANSON: Thank you yet again.

CONAN: And when we come back, Annette Gordon-Reed will join us. This is NPR News.

CONAN: Democrat Barack Obama won an electoral college landslide last night as the nation's first African-American president. There's no doubt history has been made and we're marking this moment with historians, those who take the long view. We want to hear your thoughts on this moment. Step back and tell us what's changed, how has history shifted? What do we expect of this new president? You can join the conversation, 800-989-8255. Email is talk@npr.org. And joining us now is Annette Gordon-Reed, Professor of law at New York Law School as well as history Professor at Rutgers in New Jersey. Her most recent book is the "The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family." She joins us from our bureau in New York. And nice to have you with us again.

Professor ANNETTE GORDON-REED (Presidential Historian, New York Law School, History, Rutgers University, Author): Nice to be here.

CONAN: And how do you place the election of Barack Obama in historical terms?

Prof. GORDON-REED: Well, obviously as everybody has said, I can only second what they've said - it's historic. He's not only the first African-American president but he is defacto, the leader of the Western World. And it's an astonishing thing to have a non-white man in that position.

CONAN: Non-white man, we went through this election with a black skin and a funny name and really strange ears.

Prof. GORDON-REED: It's astonishing. I'm somewhat in a state of shock because as other people have said, even the president said, this isn't something that I ever expected to see in my lifetime.

CONAN: Does it go beyond the issue of race?

Prof. GORDON-REED: Well, yes, it goes beyond the issue of race. Certainly, as was mentioned before, this is a generational change. It's a change in people's perception of the country. I mean, as you mentioned before, that this was also an election in which two women could have been at the top of the American political landscape either as a president if Hillary Clinton had won the election or Sarah Palin as a vice president. So it's just a change in attitudes about what it means to be an American. It's more than race although race is a part of it because you look at that map and we're still seem to be fighting the civil war here in some way.

CONAN: Yet, in many ways, the legacy of the Civil War took a beating yesterday.

Prof. GORDON-REED: Yes, it did. It did. And certainly, the affirmation or sort of a statement about where African-Americans belong as citizens in the United States, not just people who vote for other leaders but people who can be leaders as well. The pinnacle of leadership certainly is something the people of the Civil War generation or the founders could never have envisioned.

CONAN: It is interesting having read your book recently which is of course about the beginnings of slavery in this country and the beginnings of this country. There is an almost undeniable circular aspect of the story of this presidential campaign where an African-American, as it turns out, his family has no experience of slavery in America but nevertheless, that legacy is still there. Culturally, he can't ignore it. He had to accept it during this presidential race in a way that may have been new to him, too.

Prof. GORDON-REED: Yes. Well, I mean, certainly his wife, through his wife, he has a connection. But we have to remember this is not - I mean, slavery, there's a legacy of slavery but there's also the legacy of white supremacy in Kenya for his father, his father came from. It was under colonial rule. The same sort of attitude that whites could rule over blacks whether it was blacks as chattel slavery or blacks who were as part of colonial possessions. It was definitely there. So that's why I referred to this sort of almost miraculous nature of this that he's not only a leader of the Americans but he's a leader of the Western world, a non-white person in that position that you can't imagine as - I think it was Robert Kagan who said before - this happening in another country. So this really is a sort of a fulfillment of a sort of unique American view of itself and the world's view of America as a place where lots of things are possible.

CONAN: I think we should probably note that a two-day holiday declared in Kenya.

Prof. GORDON-REED: Oh, two-day holiday. Wow!

CONAN: Absolutely. Worth more than one day. Let's see if we can get some callers in on the conversation. And let's go to Anne and Anne is with us from Hamilton in Ohio.

ANNE (Caller): Hello. Thank you for having me on the air.

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

ANNE: I'd like to say that I think this victory goes beyond just the depth of his being the first black president. I think this is a victory of hope over fear, a victory of unity over divisiveness and of conciliation over contention. I can't honestly imagine any other person, black or white, leading America on into the next century with the things that we're facing because of the hopefulness and the unity of his message.

CONAN: I wanted to ask you about that, Annette Gordon-Reed. There is a school of thought that almost any Democrat, given this year, given the unpopularity of the president, given the unpopularity of the two wars we're fighting in the situation, given the economy, almost any Democrat could have won on policy grounds narrowly. It seems to me that Barack Obama may have won a thumping victory, a mandate if you will, by running broadly in the terms that Anne is just talking about. Running for head of state, America's peculiar that we combine the jobs of head of government and head of state in one job, but that aspect of the unifier, that person above the humdrum politics, which some of his campaign appeal to very directly.

Prof. GORDON-REED: Well, yes. And it's because of his extraordinary gifts, his extraordinary oratory ability as an orator, as a communicator, his background. I mean, he has pointed out on so many occasions. As other people pointed out. He was sort of symbolic of this change, of this notion of change. He's also symbolic of sort of coming together, a person who has a mixed ancestry, who's lived in other places besides America, who knew the world and at home. I think he was uniquely positioned to do this kind of thing and he had the kind of vision.

He seems to have seen himself as a special person who could bring this about. I think this was a bad year for the Republicans all the way around whoever was the Democratic nominee. But this is a little more than that. What we saw last night or what we've seen in the crowds, the huge crowds who turn out to come and see him to be a part of this, it's something - it's not ordinary. This is not an ordinary person that we're dealing with here. He was seemingly - seemed uniquely qualified for this particular moment, and that's very often the way it happens.

CONAN: Anne, thanks very much.

ANNE: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Let's go now to Roy, and Roy is calling us from Cincinnati in Ohio.

ROY (Caller): Hi. I just wanted to say that in my view, nothing has actually happened that is going to change anything other than this is a symbolic item, because due to the racism and the way that it's built in this and ingrained in everything, he will be viewed as an exemption not as the standard of the rule. So to me, it's a gesture more than an impact.

CONAN: A gesture to elect an African-American President of the Unites States.

ROY: If we're going to focus on his - on the fact that he's black, yes.

CONAN: I wonder if you agree, Annette Gordon-Reed.

Prof. GORDON-REED: It's a pretty broad gesture. It's a pretty amazing gesture. As a matter of fact, over $700 million raised or something like that, for his campaign. I understand the notion that it doesn't mean that we're going to reach - that heaven has been reached and that everything is going to be OK. But it's a little more than symbolism. But also, symbolism is very important. I think sometimes people don't see the value of it. But I do think that if it's symbolism and it means it's something that's empty and it doesn't matter - oh, it matters. There are a lot of people who are hurting about this. They don't take it as nothing. And namely, the people who would be considered the enemies of Barack Obama and the people who are in favor of white supremacy, I don't think they take this as a nothing gesture at all.

I do think it's symbolic in the sense that it's not going to change everything, but nobody's election does that. The election of a white person doesn't automatically change every single thing about the nature of American society, but it's nonetheless important. I mean, I don't think that the react - the response to him by people all over the world goes along with the idea that this is nothing. These people wouldn't react this way if there were not something there. And so I understand where you're coming from, but I disagree with this as an empty symbolism.

ROY: Just real quick. Because my own experience as a mixed guy in this world that I've live in U.S. I've ran into that a lot, where people have told me that I'm the exception, and they've actually whispered into my ear that other black people aren't like me, and I've seen that with other people in my family. So...

Prof. GORDON-REED: Oh, yes. I'm not even mixed, and people have said that about me as well. But nevertheless, I don't think that the things that I have accomplished are nothing because a handful of people choose to make an exception. It's still - I think it's meaningful in and of itself.

CONAN: Roy, thanks very much.

ROY: All right. Have a good day.

CONAN: You, too. Here's an email we have from Robin in San Diego. Do you believe that the new civil rights issue stem not from race, but from class? Also, with the growing income disparity between the upper and middle classes, do you believe the issue of divisive cultural politics will begin to shrink or will we see a continuation of rove-style politics dividing the electorate between race, sexuality and more now than ever region?

Prof. GORDON-REED: Well, I think people will continue to the extent that being - to try to sow discord among people is profitable for individuals. Of course, they will keep it up. I think race and class, it doesn't have to be an either or thing. Race is not going to go away as a problem. Class has always been there and that's something that we don't talk about as much in America. The racial issue has been subsumed on - it's sort of covered over that. But definitely, the issues of class within the black community and class just in general will always be there. But, I don't buy into this notion that it's either or, either one thing or the other. It's both, and it always has been both.

CONAN: And certainly, if you look at the campaign, Barack Obama did not run a Rovian election, the Rove idea being if you could win 50 percent plus one, you have a mandate. This was a campaign where I thought he took real chances to campaign in places like North Carolina, like Indiana, to campaign in states where a lot of Democrats said are you crazy? We have to focus on Pennsylvania and Ohio and Florida, the places where this election is going to be decided. He was trying to expand the electoral map and change it. There were tactics involved in that for sure, but also that he was hoping to win a victory that will enable him, if he did win, to go about and maybe have a real mandate - not only a majority of the vote, but a huge crushing majority in the electoral column.

Prof. GORDON-REED: Oh, absolutely. He had a much more expansive vision. Also, Howard Dean is part of his vision...

CONAN: Absolutely.

Prof. GORDON-REED: For the 50-state strategy that the Democratic Party had to build itself everywhere that it possibly could even in places where they may not have had on paper or shot at winning. I mean, he did pick off Indiana and apparently, North Carolina. I don't know whether that has been...

CONAN: Still up in the air.

Prof. GORDON-REED: Still up in the air yet. But, he came very, very close to that. But, certainly, the people down the ticket whom you help, if you go there and campaign or make, you know, sort of a visible presence - no, this is - he did not campaign in the sort of narrow, narrow way. He took a chance with the idea that you can expand the party instead of just getting, as you said, the sort of narrow, narrow victory in playing one side after another. You gave people an opportunity to say hey, I don't have to be in that box. I don't have to be in the red box or the blue box or whatever. He asked people to vote for him on the basis of his ideas and not their particular identity that had been foisted on them by whether they lived in a red state or blue state, and it actually worked.

CONAN: We're talking with historians this hour. Currently, our guests, Annette Gordon-Reed, author of "The Hemingses of Monticello." Let's get Jerry on the line. Jerry is with us from Clarence Center in New York.

JERRY (Caller): Yeah. Thanks for taking my call. Just a couple quick observations. I just want to vehemently oppose the one view that somebody called in and said that this was a more of a symbolic gesture. Boy, I couldn't think of anything farther from truth. My God. And I guess my reason that I gave is because I lived through that civil rights era and my gosh, I mean, if you lived through that era, it was just breath-taking. And my other view is that I'm a banker, international banker and I talked to, you know, people especially over Europe all the time and they're very happy that we elected Obama, very happy that we're going to get somebody who's going to take our country in a different direction and a direction that - a non-militaristic direction that we've been going through for the past - these 15 or 20 years, but maybe something more of a conciliatory and understanding type of foreign policy. And that's my comments and I just want to also say that I was with the other ones, crying tears of joy.

CONAN: Thanks very much, Jerry. Annette Gordon-Reed, I wanted to ask you a question that focuses a little bit more on the immediate future and practicality as we look ahead to the next administration. I think 74 days away, Barack Obama will be sworn in as the 44th president of the United States. What would you look for in terms of - well, we're talking about symbols. He has promised to have Republicans in his cabinet and there are important positions that could be opened. What kind of openness would you be looking for if it's if we're going to see someone who is going to try to govern from the center of the country as some have said - put it rather than from the center of his party given that Democrats control both Houses of Congress now by hefty margins as well as the White House.

Prof. GORDON-REED: Well, you would see him - to reach across the aisle, as you said, to probably try to find maybe a moderate Republican who might be suitable for the cabinet. I heard today - I don't know whether it's been confirmed that Rahm Emanuel might be Chief of Staff. That is certainly someone from the Clinton era. There may be some noises about whether or not that should be something he should do. But I expect him to - he will have to perhaps as someone suggested earlier, disappoint a few people with pragmatism, making choices that are not as progressive as people may want him to be.

But I expect that sort of thing, sort of bipartisanship may be coming up with a particular piece of - you know, sort of a policy that he thinks that he can enact - have enacted quickly or that he can get behind quickly to have a quick victory or whatever to show himself to be an effective leader. But certainly, the main thing is to be transparent and also to try to reach across the aisle to sort of say - you know, sort of justify what he said last night that he's going to be the president of all the American people and maybe give Republicans, within reason, some reason to have a stake in his administration.

CONAN: The two parties are closer together perhaps in terms of the big issues on energy policy than anything else. That might be an area where that quick victory you were talking about and reaching out across the aisle might prove productive. Health care...

Prof. GORDON-REED: Oh, that's going to be a tough one. Obviously, it's been a tough and an intractable one, but people want to do something about it now. We have a sense. We don't - the Democrats didn't get their filibuster-proof number, magic number there. But I think this may be one that he can start, but it's not going to - that won't be the quick victory that I think that he would need. But, he can certainly start the process of reaching across the aisle and to say that he really - to show that he really does want to move things forward.

CONAN: As you look ahead, the next great speech that he will give and clearly, this is something that he is enormously talented of doing.


CONAN: Will be his inaugural address delivered on January 20th here in Washington D.C. And this is a moment of great speechifying. These are some of the greatest and worst speeches in American history and we both listened to a few of them. I suspect that we would fit in both categories. I can imagine looking forward with greater anticipation to an address.

Prof. GORDON-REED: Oh, it's kind of - he's going to have to put out all the stops in this one, and I'm sure he's thought about it for a long time, and he has people working on it and he's working on it himself. But, this is going to be a great moment because it's perfectly suited to his particular talent, as I said before. And we don't really - we haven't seen this in a while, and we haven't had a person who is a great orator as a president. We have people who are pretty good at it, but he has a natural feel for it, and I can't wait to see what he comes up with. Also, it is the anniversary of Lincoln's birth, and they will be re-consecrating the Lincoln Memorial and the president will be involved in that. And that, too, will be a special moment as well.

CONAN: Annette Gordon-Reed, thank you so much for your time.

Prof. GORDON-REED: Glad to be here.

CONAN: Annette Gordon-Reed teaches law at New York Law School and history at Rutgers. She's the author of "The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family." With us from our bureau in New York. Tomorrow, join us for our election special, Talk of the World, a global view on what the world expects from our new president on the economy, terrorism and the environment. That's tomorrow. This has been election special from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

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