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
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.