WASHINGTON -- The history-making moment with which we're now all familiar seems to have surpassed inevitability and entered the realm of foregoneness.
There seems no stopping Barack Obama, not solely because of his obvious appeal but because, who really wants to be the one who stands athwart history yelling "Stop!" when this particular history is so compelling?
And so charged.
It is compelling, no matter one's politics. Watching Obama give his celebration speech Tuesday night, I became aware that I was smiling. I slapped myself, of course, but the fool thing wouldn't go away.
It is hard not to smile when Obama is smiling, but it was more than the animal impulse to mimicry. It was simply satisfying to witness the birth of this new political offspring after centuries of labor. We were all midwives in that moment. Bravo.
It's too bad John McCain didn't say something along those lines instead of starting the general election off with a badly delivered attack on Obama. McCain's performance Tuesday provided a glimpse of the downer aspect of competing with this particular foe.
Suddenly, the Old Warrior was grumpy ol' granddad breaking up the keg party.
McCain will have to fight that bummer rap throughout the campaign as he says what he must to bring Obama down. He will also have to battle something else less tangible, which is the human attraction to momentousness, the desire to be part of the unfolding drama. (Involuntary smiling is an early symptom.)
Not everyone's swooning, clearly. Republicans want to stop Obama for all the right reasons (increased government confiscation of earnings, redistribution of wealth, and the prospect of a President Obama empowering enemies through therapeutic chats). Nevertheless, many GOP insiders -- resigned to the growing probability of a Democratic surge -- long ago shifted their focus to 2012.
Some Hillary supporters would also like to stop Obama as a protest, believing they've been cheated in their quest to place the first female in the presidency. We witness in that reaction the downside of winning when someone else's "first" is thwarted in the process.
But overall, as headlines around the world have treated Obama's nomination as the second coming, there is a perceptible undercurrent of fait accompli.
"For the time being, Barack Obama is changing the world," wrote one British columnist. "Star Wars" creator George Lucas bestowed the force on Obama, declaring him a hero "for all of us that have dreams and hope."
All that remains is for Obama's visage to appear on some petrified Mayan bagel.
Neither candidate has an easy road ahead, but McCain's ride may be bumpier, not least because he is incorrectly viewed as a Bush clone. Obama continues to hammer that notion with words and clever ads, but the truth is McCain has differed with Bush on the most important issues, from climate change to torture to the surge, which McCain urged long before Bush ordered it.
But before McCain can hope to challenge Obama on substance, he has to get people to avert their gaze from the shiny new object of their infatuation.
Ultimately, the idea of Obama may be harder to defeat than the man himself. He isn't just a candidate anymore, but has become the human symbol of a nation's trajectory. In that sense, he (BEG ITAL)is(END ITAL) the one we've been waiting for -- a blend of our best efforts, the product of the American imagination: not of one race, nor of one region, belonging to no single demographic. He is living proof of what makes America unique.
McCain's success, therefore, may ride in part upon whether he can survive his own deconstruction of Obama, through which we will discover the ultimate truth of Obama's candidacy and of the American experiment.
Can we critique the issues -- and the man -- without resorting to racial interpretations and recriminations? If McCain wins, can his victory simply be a loss for Democrats -- and not a loss specifically for African-Americans?
The answers to those questions will be the measure of whether we've really progressed to the point we claim.