Since I started keeping track, I believe we have now had five of "the most important presidential election of our times" in a row -- despite "our times" remaining fairly similar to what they were before.
The world "changed forever" on 9/11. Though if you were magically transported from 9-10-2000 to 9-10-2007, you'd notice few differences unless you happened upon the foreign affairs section of the newspaper or an airport security line. (And even then, the differences are not so large.)
This election cycle seems to be lending itself to much of this thinking. Several acquaintances emailed me after Sen. Obama's "Philadelphia Speech on Race" informing me that this would rank as the third great moment of American oratory next to the Gettysburg Address and MLK's I Have A Dream speech. School children would, I was assured, be reading this speech fifty years hence in order to understand "when America changed". Does anyone remember much about that speech now -- not yet 90 days later?
One must account for the enthusiasm of the moment, surely, but it seems at times that, having forgotten most of our history, we increasingly declare to be historic whatever caught our attention five minutes ago. Perhaps we even believe ourselves. When announcing his victory in the Democratic primary Sen. Obama declared:
I am absolutely certain that generations from now, we will be able to look back and tell our children that this was the moment when we began to provide care for the sick and good jobs to the jobless; this was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal; this was the moment when we ended a war and secured our nation and restored our image as the last, best hope on Earth.Perhaps I'm a hardened cynic, but: excuse me? Our past is not so bad, nor our possible future (whether under Obama or otherwise) so good, that such a thing would be remembered. Now sure, part of my reaction to this speech is that I simply don't like Obama. I find his policies and inclinations dangerous, and his rhetoric foolish and shot through with demagoguery under a thin veneer of self-congratulatory high-mindedness.
But that aside, from any political side-taking: History simply is not made every day. It can't be made every day. What makes a historical moment "historic" is its status as a unique event or pivot point in the course of events, as it later becomes clear to us. As such, it's often difficult to know at the time to know that something is historic, but in general, you'll win most of the time by betting that any given event or speech is not. In order to understand that, however, we need to have the perspective of actually knowing history. Not just a few scattered names and dates, but enough of the flow of events in our own country and in others to know what seemed important to people at the time, and to what extent that continues to seem important now.
Only then can we begin to have any perspective as to what is historic and what is not -- and any perspective on what "change" is likely to happen through national politics, and what is not.