November 5, 2008

Grant Park Blog: No defining moment

I came to Grant Park tonight expecting a moment of catharsis.

We certainly deserved a singular experience of relief – from two years of campaigning that was more antagonizing than inspiring, from eight years of war and fear and crisis, and from 232 years of a country that, despite its greatness, too often forgets to do right by all its people. The night could have exorcized many of the ghosts of the country, not to mention the city – the 1968 convention, the labor riots, the segregation and racism that still divides us today. It was an opportunity for a single man to embody all the slogans that his t-shirts carried: hope, change, and a new tomorrow. It was an election that resonated with millions of people across the country, and challenged the cynicism that dominates our politics.

Barack Obama won – decisively, impressively, and in a way that will be remembered in the annals of American history – but that moment never came.

It was hard, at first, to figure out why the crowd seemed subdued. More than 200,000 had poured into the Grant Park wanting just what they got – their hometown hero decisively sweeping across the electoral map. It could have been that Ohio, the first of multiple swing states to fall for Obama, was called as supporters were still streaming through the security checkpoints, taking any drama out of the evening. It might have been the exhaustion of the hard-fought campaign, and of a draining Election Day most of us spent on little sleep and lots of coffee, feverishly refreshing our favorite blogs and newspaper sites looking for any indication of what the night would bring. After 12 hours of anxious, stomach-churning anticipation, there was little to do but ride out the evening.

Still, there was a vague sense that we should all be feverishly excited – we were witnesses to history, after all. Oprah was even there. But that unique moment never genuinely manifested, in the way a crowd’s enthusiasm builds to a crescendo during a championship baseball game or during the last song of a concert. At ten o’clock, when polls closed in California and the networks named our Senator the President-elect, there were the obligatory hugs, and tears, and screams. But for the most part, as soon as the CNN cameras turned away, the calm returned.

My roommate, who took in the proceedings from the very back of the admitted area, might have put it best: “It was awesome, but – well, it just wasn’t crazy like I expected.”

As a journalist, it was infuriating to cover, because nobody could quite explain why the enthusiasm wasn’t overwhelming. It’s no fun rationalizing to yourself – much less turning that internal rationalization into words for some kid with a notepad- why a night that by all accounts should be something you remember forever was instead just a fairly entertaining evening. Yet the whole affair seemed at odds with what we have heard and seen about the campaign, and the already-established narrative in which all of downtown was overrun with hysterical supporters.

When Barack Obama finally took the stage, a palpable wave of relief seemed to wash over the crowd. He could salvage the evening, provide the takeaway moment, fire everyone up, and make standing on a dusty softball field for six hours worth every minute. Instead, the Senator, who is only a few years removed from his U of C classroom and has never abandoned the inherent intellectualism that pervades Hyde Park, did something even better – he gave us the context in which to understand the moment we were all witnessing:

“I know you didn't do this just to win an election and I know you didn't do it for me. You did it because you understand the enormity of the task that lies ahead. For even as we celebrate tonight, we know the challenges that tomorrow will bring are the greatest of our lifetime - two wars, a planet in peril, the worst financial crisis in a century. Even as we stand here tonight, we know there are brave Americans waking up in the deserts of Iraq and the mountains of Afghanistan to risk their lives for us. There are mothers and fathers who will lie awake after their children fall asleep and wonder how they'll make the mortgage, or pay their doctor's bills, or save enough for college. There is new energy to harness and new jobs to be created; new schools to build and threats to meet and alliances to repair.

The road ahead will be long. Our climb will be steep. We may not get there in one year or even one term, but America - I have never been more hopeful than I am tonight that we will get there. I promise you - we as a people will get there.

There will be setbacks and false starts. There are many who won't agree with every decision or policy I make as President, and we know that government can't solve every problem. But I will always be honest with you about the challenges we face. I will listen to you, especially when we disagree. And above all, I will ask you join in the work of remaking this nation the only way it's been done in America for two-hundred and twenty-one years - block by block, brick by brick, calloused hand by calloused hand.”

It would be easy to dismiss this section of his speech as trite platitude or a compilation of generic campaign slogans and nods to nationalism. (Not to mention a significant hedge he can recall in his reelection effort in four years.) But for everyone in Grant Park tonight, and for those people across the country who cast their ballot for one of the unlikeliest Presidents in American history, Obama perfectly encapsulated the moment. We were not there to celebrate his victory – everyone was glad he had won, and recognized the enormity of his accomplishment, but in the end, today was just applying the handbrake to a country that seemed on the verge of running off the rails. It shouldn’t have been like celebrating a Super Bowl title; the election was not the end of our challenges, and the clock has not run out.

Instead, the crowd in Grant Park had (for many unknowingly) assumed the calm demeanor and cool determination that has come to define the new President-elect. When we wake up tomorrow, it will be with the comfort that our country will never be the same again, but the foresight to know we still live with the same problems we had yesterday. We are enthusiastic about the future, but should – and do- realize that there are never perfect moments or magic solutions that alleviate the burdens of the past. That's why it is heartening to have just elected someone who knows the work of rebuilding a nation is done block by block, brick by brick.