The Polar Express – The Obama Rally in Grant Park

An extended roar emanated from the crowd, and extended into various pockets of the media area.

By Tim Murphy

Well, that’s over with.

At approximately 10:02 p.m. central time, Anderson Cooper appeared on the giant television screens by the stage at Grant Park and announced that Barack Obama, the junior senator from Illinois, would be the 44th president of the United States.

With his declaration, coming just minutes after tens of thousands of supporters had celebrated the senator’s victory in Virginia—a once improbable accomplishment that has come to embody the changing electoral map of 2008—bedlam erupted in Chicago. An extended roar emanated from the crowd, and extended into various pockets of the media area.

But while it was easy to get caught up in the immediacy of the moment—what the president-elect might call “the fierce urgency of now”—it was another scene, hours earlier and far from the spotlight, that better reflected the mood and the significance of Decision 2008.

First, a little background: All of Hyde Park, it seemed, was going somewhere on Tuesday evening. Students and long-time residents alike were out and about on 55th Street, on their way to dozens of Barack-B-Ques and election-watching parties. And, often enough, they were waiting for transportation downtown, to Grant Park for the biggest thing to happen to Chicago since the fire.

It was on one of these—or more likely, many of these—rides into the city that the long-brewing anticipation manifested itself. Students and grizzled Hyde Parkers alike packed the Metra, decked out in the finest Obama gear Walgreen’s has to offer. Hats, buttons, hats with buttons, t-shirts—it made no difference. All were plastered on with the same eccentricity of a delegate to a nominating convention (you know, the kind that wears hats with states on top), but entirely unconscious. For the duration of the trip, the train turned into a real-life Polar Express, its passengers exhibiting the same giddy, childlike anticipation as those kids on their way to the North Pole.

Election night in Grant Park was not about drama. There would be enough of that, sure, but the real story was the palpable anticipation of what was essentially a foregone conclusion. Obama was going to win and most anyone who read a newspaper beforehand had figured that out. But what would it all mean, and how would we feel when it happened? For some, the answer was already quite clear, but that was the question floating unasked through much of the rally and again, as the country prepares to move on in the coming days and weeks.

More to come later…