Excerpt from “Our President” by Jack M Silverstein, available on Amazon.com
Originally published on readjack.com November 25, 2008
Grant Park. Tuesday night. November 4th, 2008.
I had to be there.
Like a moth to the flame…like Indy reaching for the Grail…like a pre-teen boy spotting three 20-year-old babes by the hotel pool…I just had to get closer. No one to accompany me. No ticket to enter the gates. No clear idea of why I was going or what I would see.
Didn’t matter. Had to be there.
It’s not every day a President holds his Election Day speech in your hometown. Not every day you’re a ten-minute El ride from history. With that in mind, I grabbed my tape recorder Tuesday night and hopped on the Blue Line.
It’s a wonderful feeling riding the El to a group event. The trip gains momentum with every stop, more and more like-minded folk joining the ride. Stickers abounded: OBAMA/BIDEN. OBAMA ’08. CHANGE WE CAN BELIEVE IN. YES WE CAN. Usually it’s a trip to Wrigley, blue-clad Cub fans congregating for baseball and Budweiser and a seat in the sun. This time, we were electing a President. We were electing a black man President. We were electing an inquiring mind President. We were electing a Chicagoan President.
Division, Chicago, Grand…closer still. I couldn’t sit. I bopped my head like a chicken and tapped my hands on the rail. A guy across the aisle was doing the same. We caught eyes and smiled. And then laughed. And then made unexplainable faces of excitement. More passengers, more stickers, all of us heading down to Grant Park to watch our man Barack become the 44th President of these United States of America.
It never seemed real, you know? Logically, I knew it would happen…I guess. When I left my apartment Obama already had a sizeable electoral advantage. I had a friend texting me election updates, a stream of good news pouring over the airwaves.
“81 to 39 Obama now.”
“102 to 45!”
“McCain aid just quoted saying We need a miracle.”
The crowd on the El was bursting. Into the Loop now, Washington, Monroe, Jackson…and at once, all of us out the doors and down the platform and up the staircase, rushing, skipping, damn near dancing out into the freakishly warm Chicago night.
Immediately, there were the people. Young and old, black and white…certainly. But there was the family in their Kentucky Wildcats gear, repping for the state from which they’d traveled. There was the woman shouting into a man’s microphone and video camera in her thick accent: “We’re from Bosnia, and we just want to say Bosnians are for Obama!” There were the thousands of cell phones, snapping pictures and sending texts and jammed into ears as people shouted, “We’re almost there! WE’RE ALMOST THERE!” There were the street merchants hawking buttons and t-shirts and hats, victory presumed, streams of Obama buttons! Get those buttons! and President Obama t-shirts! and Let ‘em know you were there the night change happened! Let ‘em know with a shirt! rippling through the sidewalks.
A group of white, hippie-looking twentysomethings drumming on the corner of Adams and Michigan. A middle-aged black couple crossing the street moving past the drummers, looks on their faces that said “At last. At last.” And everywhere buttons, everywhere t-shirts and American flags and signs and smiles, everywhere the anticipation of something new.
So yeah, I had to be there. Had to see it, had to touch it, had to close my eyes a thousand times and simply listen to it.
I voted Barack on October 25th. Excitement filled me all morning, but walking into the booth at Mallinckrodt in Wilmette hit me with a second wave of thrill and then another. There was his name on the screen! There it was!
Illinois hasn’t gone Republican since Bush ’88, so when I stepped in for Gore in 2000 and Kerry four years later, I was full of cynical indifference. I should have registered in Indiana, I would say to myself. Then my vote could matter.
Not this time though. My vote was not extraneous because my desired end was already in hand; it was another piece of the puzzle, strengthening that end by being a part of it. And then his name on that screen, and I checked his box, and it felt so damn good that I unchecked it, waited ten seconds, and voted Obama again.
Why the excitement? Why the extraordinary thrill voting for this man? Well, as Kevin Garnett stated so eloquently last June: “ANYTHING IS POSSIBLLLLLLLLLLLLE!!!!!!” That’s what it felt like voting for Barack: like we were crossing an uncrossable boundary. Like we were James Earl Jones walking into the cornfield, not sure of what we would find and completely pumped to find it.
As a white man, Barack Obama is still exciting. His vision, speech, aura, humor, communication skills, his organic candidacy born of the people’s need to be inspired: all appealing. And of course there are his campaign goals in public education, health care, the war, foreign relations. As a white man, Barack Obama is still an outstanding candidate.
But it is his color that intensifies everything he is and everything he does, his color that makes him historic, his color that prompted that uncrossable boundary in the first place. Is it so terrible that the deciding factor for my Obama support was my yearning to vote for the black guy? I just had to know: what happens when the uncrossable is crossed? When the world’s most powerful man is not white? When Barack Obama is our leader, our President, our chief role model?
Will we become nicer? Will we become calmer drivers? Harder workers? Community organizers? Will we aim our careers away from money towards something we truly love? Will we become better role models? Will we remove our religions from each other’s homes and bodies? Will we pay more attention to local politics? Will we be quicker to give to charity? Will we smile more? Relax more? Will we be more inclined to learn about each other? To learn from each other? To celebrate each other? Will we show more respect for our elders, more care for our children? Will we search for solutions from within rather than anywhere else? Will we tip more? Read more? Listen more? Will we take better care of ourselves? Will we eat better, drink less, quit smoking? Will we be happier? More focused? Will we adjust the importance we place on sports and celebrity? Will we change what it means to be American? Will citizens who never had an interest in running for office develop one? Will we search for other politicians of the Obama-mold?
And speaking of politicians…
Will they re-evaluate their priorities? Their day-to-day involvement with the people? Their interactions with each other? Will they work more for us, less for themselves? Will they be quicker to compromise and cooperate? Will political parties promote Obamaesque politicians the way movie studios do when films from a certain genre prove successful? Will men and women who do not belong in public service be humbled enough to remove themselves?
That’s what’s so thrilling about it, so liberating. Suddenly a gajillion and one ideas previously unconsidered seem realistic. When you’ve said “yes” to a black President, how can you let anyone say “no” to you ever again?
ANYTHING IS POSSIBLLLLLLLLLLLLE!!!!!!
Don’t you want to see it? Don’t you want to see what will happen? If you could choose every President in your lifetime to be white, OR you could choose at least one to be black, wouldn’t you pick the latter? Isn’t that infinitely more interesting? Don’t you want to see if a black President will be just as self-serving and thoughtless as most whites? Or if he will have a perspective that makes him invaluable, a key perspective we’ve been lacking for 219 years? Or if there will be a racially-charged white backlash? Or if all artificial, divisive boundaries will fall limply away like autumn leaves?
And Obama himself? Will he be the Change we’ve all hoped for? Will he make good on his promise and his promises? Will he reveal himself as just another self-servant? Will he be dragged down by the world of professional American politics? If he fulfills our expectations, how great will our world be? If he fails us like so many others, will we ever trust another Presidential candidate again?
What do you do when your purest of hopes proves unreliable?
What do you do when you reach the promised land?
Aren’t you curious?
The crowd was growing, Obama’s lead expanding. We set down Congress and took a left on Columbus before coming to a split: ticket-holders moved to the right, the rest of us to the left. A quick security check—bags and purses, no pat-down—and forward we moved onto the lawn. Enormous television screens lay ahead, Wolf Blitzer and Anderson Cooper and Roland Martin and the rest of the CNN gang looming enormous over the Chicago sky.
From the jump, I was amazed at the crowd’s peacefulness. My mom was apprehensive about my heading down, thoughts of 1968 dancing in her head, but once I arrived it was clear I was in for an entirely different experience. Had our candidate lost…yes, perhaps there would have been trouble. But as we approached the 10 o’clock hour, the feeling of togetherness was enlightening.
Even the usual panic-surges were absent. Ordinarily a large group of strangers gathered in public are prone to sudden pushes. They do not think they will get close enough to their desired point, or they will not be able to remove themselves from the suddenly swelling mass of dangerous bodies. They panic, moving too quickly for the space, leaning just a bit into someone’s shoulder, that person trying to hold ground by leaning back, someone getting bumped, someone taking exception…all standard. But nothing of the like happened. We were orderly and gracious.
The clock ticked forward. The delegates piled up. I looked around, examining the faces. Different faces, all the same. The votes kept coming. Each state called brought forth cheers or boos accordingly. With the assumed states like Illinois and Texas, the response was reflexive. But then came Ohio! Then came Florida! Then came Iowa and Colorado! Those were cheers of true victory!
I looked around the crowd once more. Oh my goodness…it’s gonna happen. It’s really going to happen. I was surrounded by faces of the hopeful, a pack of people waiting to pop. A guy in front of me, standing alone, pressed his eyes into his hands. He was a black guy, around my age, thin dreads and a zip-up hoodie. He was crying. I put my hand on his shoulder and held it there. I was not quite at the point of tears—I was stuck firm in amazement. But here was this guy crying with no one around, and it just seemed right to let him know that somebody saw him.
He looked up and smiled at me, befuddlement mixed with happiness mixed with tears of joy mixed, perhaps, with some other emotion I could not myself experience.
“And I don’t even know where my friends are!” he blurted.
“Isn’t this crazy!” I yelled back.
“I’m from the South, man…” He shook his head in disbelief.
“Jack,” I said, holding out my hand.
No sooner did we have that settled did Wolf Blitzer and CNN call Virginia for Obama. VIRGINIAAAAAAAA! Chris and I high-fived and excitedly gripped hands, shaking each other as Wolf carried on.
It was nearly 10. Polls in California, Hawaii, Idaho, Oregon, and Washington would be closing at 10. Obama would be President-elect by 10. Still, I had been conditioned by 2000 and 2004 to assume any Presidential election to be dragged out beyond reason. Surely Obama would hit his delegate count, followed by protest from the McCain camp, followed by, at least, two or three hours of back-and-forth. Surely this thing would not be settled at 10.
But we were wrong. Chris and I arm in arm at this point, 9:53, 9:54, 9:55, and finally to the last ten seconds of the nine o’clock hour, the crowd breaking into a New Years style countdown:
10! 9! 8! 7! 6! 5! 4! 3! 2! 1!
Obama’s lead jumped from 220-135 to 297-139. Flashing on the screen:
BARACK OBAMA ELECTED PRESIDENT
From the front of the crowd came a glorious roar, and it moved back, a wave of cheer sweeping over us and blanketing us and making us sing out to all around.
I turned and looked again at the faces. People were leaping and hugging and clapping and high-fiving and crying! I stood in amazement, my eyes agape. Had it happened? Any moment now would come the news: Republican voters complain of scare tactics from Obama flunkies…Candidate McCain set to challenge the results in Florida, Ohio, Virginia…Obama camp prepares for month-long court battles…
Instead, McCain stepped to a podium in Phoenix and delivered his concession.
The senator from Arizona was gracious and humble, his love for his country never more evident. He reminded me of the man I would have considered voting for in 2000 had he managed to defeat that pesky bugger of a challenger in the Republican primary. But that was a long time ago, and now here was Senator McCain asking his faithful to shift their support to the man they had opposed. Feels good finally being on the right side of that request, I couldn’t help thinking.
It was over! It was really over! McCain took his final curtain call. Moments later the announcement: “Ladies and gentlemen! The next first family of the United States of America.” Out came Barack and Michelle, each one holding the hand of one of their two lovely daughters. Chris and I bounced in some kind of uncoordinated hug-jump, me thinking to myself how the Obamas really looked like the All-American family. The girls gave a wave, Michelle a kiss to her husband, the three of them turning and exiting as Barack stepped forward, the man of the Obama household becoming the face of our nation.
If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible…
We listened as he spoke. He was speaking to us, for us, through us, with us, about us. I was drifting into tears at this point, smiles and cries, smiles and cries. Suddenly I came back to consciousness and pulled out my tape recorder, holding it high above my head, capturing his speech and the crowd all the same.
In this country, we rise or fall as one nation, as one people. Let’s resist the temptation to fall back on the same partisanship and pettiness and immaturity that has poisoned our politics for so long…
We listened as he spoke, telling the story of Ann Nixon Cooper, the 106-year-old Atlanta woman who voted Obama. Through her life he chronicled the last century of our nation’s history, of black progress in America that is really human progress on Earth. With each recollection he framed the American experience as one born of the past and angled towards the future, capping off every section with a YES WE CAN followed by Chris echoing with one of his own, my new friend sniffling out a response in jubilant restraint, getting louder each time.
When the bombs fell on our harbor and tyranny threatened the world, she was there to witness a generation rise to greatness and a democracy was saved. Yes we can.
“yes we can”
She was there for the buses in Montgomery, the hoses in Birmingham, a bridge in Selma, and a preacher in Atlanta who told a people that “We shall overcome.” Yes we can.
“Yes we can!”
A man touched down on the moon, a wall came down in Berlin, a world was connected by our own science and imagination. And this year, in this election, she touched her finger to a screen and cast her vote, because after 106 years in America, through the best of times and the darkest of hours, she knows how America can change. Yes we can.
“YES WE CAN!”
Yes we can. Yes we can. Yes we can.
I woke up the next day in a smiley haze. Had it really happened? Was last night real? I felt like I’d gotten blackout-drunk, yet I’d not a sip of alcohol. I felt like I’d experienced a night’s-worth of marvelous sex with a magnificent woman, but a quick look found my bed empty. I showered, dressed, and drove to work, viewing the streets of Chicago with a drained gaze of slight recognition.
Maybe I had been drunk. After all, I recall stumbling out of Grant Park with a silly orgasm face slapped on my head, a pure feeling of goodwill resting square in my heart. The crowd’s kindness had been remarkable from the get-go, but now I felt a mood of responsibility radiating from my fellow gatherers. Indeed, how could we elect this President in the morning, and then return to pettiness and immaturity that very night?
But the joy was still there. Oh, how it ever was. Getting back out to the streets, to Columbus and Michigan and Jackson and Monroe, the collective feeling was one of true rejoice. Drivers honking their horns, passengers swaying in the moonroofs. Outcries of “Yes We Can” and “O-ba-ma” and “U-S-A” breaking out every few minutes. The streets lined with CPD, police on guard for the childish mayhem that so often mars public events, and while some simply looked intently at the scene around them, I saw a majority of officers smiling. Smiling! When was the last time you saw police at large public gatherings smiling? That alone was the sight for me.
Before heading down to the subway I stopped and turned around. I had to see it one last time. Had to sit in it one last time. From there it was down the stairs and back on the train and somehow home…I can’t rightly say I remember that…don’t even recall which way I walked from the El…taking out my keys…pulling down the covers…
Driving to work was a delight. I can say that. You could tell at stop lights which of your fellow drivers were on the Obama buzz, and since I work on the South Side nearly all of them were. Passing 44th street was a kick: his number! And I knew that from here on out, every address or phone number I needed to remember that featured a 44 would bring President Obama to mind.
Work, by the way, was a high school called Richards Career Academy, where from September 2nd to November 6th I completed my student teaching. There are surprises in every job, happy surprises in most, and I found that the happiest surprise of teaching was the feeling of identity, the realization that, along with now being in prime position to accomplish your life goals, you carry with you the status, title and privilege of Teacher. It’s an empowering feeling that is also humbling: you know where you fit, how you can help, that you are good at what you do. You also know you have been trusted with the well-being of a community and you had better live up to that public trust.
I parked my car and walked to the building. For the first time in my career, I felt like I was working with a President instead of around one. I felt like it was Obama’s team and I was happy to do my part. I felt the honor of being a teacher in the age of this Presidency. I felt I did not need to know a man personally to work with him side-by-side. It was a new day.
Jack M Silverstein is a freelance writer covering music, sports, and community in Chicago. His first book, “Our President,” is available at Amazon.com. Say hey at twitter/readjack or facebook/readjack.
More on Obama from Jack M Silverstein:
From October 17, 2006: 1.20.09…we still got problems…
From May 5, 2008: Bread and butter [the Jeremiah Wright situation]
From November 3, 2008: Change we can do for ourselves
From January 18, 2009: Barack Obama is dead.
More from readjack.com on the evolution from George W. Bush to Barack Obama