Report from Grant Park, Chicago
by Larry Sawyer


Grant Park heaved and sighed like an accordion. It seemed like a tidal wave of Obama supporters as we neared the edge of the excited crowd anticipating an edge-of-your-seat ride as the returns came in. It seemed like a million, heaving together in agitation. We didn’t feel entirely certain that Obama would win, but with each step through the thickets of people, some waving signs and some strolling in pairs or small groups heavy with expectation, it became more and more certain that something was somehow different.

There was a frenzied hush of anxiety and a low but persistent pulse of conversation and occasional hoots and giggles in Grant Park. It seemed like we were pretty far off from the time of that president of days of yore. Occasionally small groups would gradually erupt in a chant of O-ba-ma, O-ba-ma and then the chant would subside gradually ending in laughs or more urgent conversations of who should win what battleground state, or talk of when Obama in person was scheduled to appear. O-ba-ma.

The time was drawing nearer as occasionally a low-flying helicopter would languidly hover against the sky spilling its light upon the huge crowd as if dumping a bucket of milk. The crowd began to spill up and down the entire length of Michigan Avenue—hundreds of thousands of them. Here to see who John McCain, in a moment of error, called “that one.”

Barack Obama supporters, gawkers, world media, tourists frantically describing the scene via telephone to family at home, the Democratic faithful, onlookers eager for a slice of history—all gathered with a merry sense of reverence as if we were about witness completely undiscovered country, and we were. I’d been following Barack Obama’s rise to political prominence somewhat loosely since he spoke at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. Most of my friends had mentioned that he seemed like someone with enough promise to take the helm, because the cadence of his speech and his vision as expressed by his oratorical skill gave the listener the sense that this was a man with a future.

The crowd was a huge mass of humanity covering every square foot of concrete from storefront to storefront all the way up and down Grant Park in the city of Chicago, filling every side street even and all to see the man whose rise to political fame had been truly meteoric. The park itself was brimming with thousands upon thousands, like a rock concert. I also had the feeling that we were at an event that might have been somehow similar to other great political events our time, the Reagan and Carter debate or even the great speeches in not-so-recent-history Lincoln at Gettysburg or John F. Kennedy (ask not what your country can do for you…).

Being only 38, I had only seen the speeches of John Kennedy on television, or else YouTube. Kennedy, along with Reagan, was the great presidential speaker of modern times, and everyone I had spoken with about Obama said the same— here was a guy on that level. The logical structure of his arguments and his appeal to America’s sense of its own mythology, appealed to voters. After eight years of George W. Bush, most of America now felt bludgeoned. His words and deeds had become blunt and empty. At this point in his presidency he’d not only become ineffectual but most in his own party wouldn’t be caught on camera with him. America seemed to want to shrug off the heavy burden of guilt-by-association—no weapons of mass destruction were found and the economy was plunging like the zipper on a Wall St. hooker. The promise of a tax cut for the middle class resonated, too. The masses of Americans were struggling financially. Men like “Joe the Plumber” had risen to prominence as de facto symbols of middle America. Later it was revealed that Joe wasn’t really a plumber but he’d already gained some kind of street cred in the national media and his brand had caught on. Others such as Lou Dobbs hammered home a message on nightly TV that the middle class had had enough of the fear mongering and layoffs. Many were downright angry at the course of recent events—Iraq, Afghanistan, a summer of frightening gas prices, and foreclosures galore. O-ba-ma.

The man we’d come to hear made references to cities on hills and promises of tax relief. A huge swath of the American public soaked it up like a sponge. We were hungry for a concept and an occasion to make it. The crowd was truly immense and awe inspiring. My cohorts Mark Knapke and Jim Turner spoke silently through facial expressions. It was difficult to not experience some kind of reverence at the sight of the crowd. I passed a mural of Obama in the park nearly 12-feet high. A semi-circle of admirers stood around photographing themselves giving the peace sign, or else mugging for the camera in some humorous way, but my mood was nearly solemn. The hero worship was a disappointment at that moment. I knew I was still skeptical.

The tenor of the movie of my own mind that night was mired in the gravity of the situation. Whomsoever was next to sit in that oval office would inherit a mean wind of fortune. The portents on the horizon made one think of the Great Depression and the Civil War. In the past few months I’d reread the words of Abraham Lincoln, in fact. I'd begun reading another biography of FDR. History was afoot. O-ba-ma.

To the final face off between John McCain and Barack Obama I had come unprepared. Unprepared for this level of enthusiasm and innocence. The crowd seemed a young crowd filled vision and hope. If Obama did win, he would inherit a world of trouble, economic, environmental, two unpopular wars, so the stakes couldn’t be higher. It gave me a slight shiver to think about the genuine gravity of the situation. Daley had welcomed the event in Chicago but had wondered publicly why it should be held outside. The kind of event such as that night’s needed to breath and be free of the constraints of confinement. Indeed this was the precise few hours leading up to the highpoint in a trajectory started generations ago and spoke of most eloquently by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Tonight the odds were very good that America had not defaulted on its promissory note.

Tonight there was a chance for history and the crowd assembled had listened for weeks and months on television as Obama spoke of a truly united America. It seemed like everyone had been exhausted to the breaking point with economic and financial concerns but grasped at this message with genuine joy but also an ounce of desperation. A continuance of the previous eight years seemed like a dire situation and having weathered quite a few national calamities in that time everyone seemed to want to turn the page and start afresh.

As the returns came in at Grant Park I waited in hushed nervousness. I heard that he’d taken Ohio. That’s when I knew that Obama had it in the can. Moments after I felt a genuine rush of wonder that soon swept the entire crowd. The skyline of Chicago alit that night loomed back behind us like a bejeweled mountain and on the other side was the vast expanse of Lake Michigan like a dark carpet dotted here and there with millions of eyes.

Suddenly walking again, pushed along with the crowd as one big voice I had the feeling momentarily of being lifted off the ground as I was jostled back and forth, finally able to catch a glimpse of the celebrants up and down Michigan Avenue and all the side streets even. As far as the eye could see there were people in the midst of the time of their lives.