Wednesday, November 5, 2008

The very early morning of Nov 5, 2008

It's almost 5am, I'm still awake from last night, and I'm wired.

It's a tense, artificial energy I'm familiar with, which always arrives around this time at the end of a long night.

I watched the election tonight with some friends, had a few drinks, didn't touch my assignment for tomorrow. I felt something lean and strong inside me pull taut as the evening progressed, and stopped worrying about getting it done; my nerves have carried me through far harder nights.

We watched CNN without flipping. We joked about their holograms, ogled Anderson Cooper, and coloured in a map of the US red and blue as the states were called. We made rude jokes.

At the same time, as that old something pulled taut inside me, it became harder and harder to ignore how much I had invested in this election - not only in the man I've never met but have a guilty trust in, but in the process that's unfolded over the last two years and in something even larger than that. That taut solid something could feel my eyes flickering across the screen, cracking my wrists and pulling at my fingers as I watched the numbers and, more importantly, listened to what was being said.

My search for decency in the human race is all-consuming. It is happening at every moment of my day. Every gesture of respect and compassion, from a nod between strangers to much larger sacrifices, gets tucked away and archived as evidence that the faith which sustains me is not a foolish one. My most fundamental faith is that, given two options or positions argued with equal skill, people will generally choose the more decent of the two. At moments like tonight, I realize how fragile and edifying that faith is, and how much it sometimes takes to maintain.

I think this is where my attraction to Obama comes from. His rhetorical gift (and maybe his political gift generally) is in reconnecting us with our place in the larger picture - of a community, a society, a moment in history. And reconnecting Americans with their finer selves. I guess I see in his approach to politics (or at least to this campaign) a mirror of my fundamental faith: that whenever it makes sense to do so, people will be higher, better, good.

I cheered when CNN called it for Obama. I teared up a bit. But I realized - after McCain's speech, which seemed so dignified after the last few weeks, after thinking of Obama's grandmother who missed this moment by only a single day, after seeing Jesse Jackson crying in the crowd - that for all the validation, the relief, the release of tension and the renewal, this moment was bittersweet.

We saw tonight the realization of dreams which were long overdue, hard-earned, and glorious in the truest sense of the word. But to be honest, to be selfish, I need to admit that around 11.30 I suddenly wanted to see Hillary Rodham-Clinton... badly.

I was really surprised to be having that reaction. I had a hard time getting too excited about Clinton during the primaries - too centrist, I guess, too 'establishment,' and of course a little resistence to the idea that I ought to support her for her femaleness - although I had no trouble getting worked up about the sexist bullshit heaped upon her. But god damn. God damn.

Some day I will get to feel what Jesse Jackson felt tonight. But not today - and possibly not for a long time yet.

I was moved when Obama came out with his family. I was choked up through the first part of his speech - choked up and reminded that there's a very, very good reason why this man won. He had no real reason to include Clinton in his acknowledgements, but I couldn't help wanting to hear her name. It didn't come.

Obama's acceptance speech was probably the most memorable public address I've ever heard. By "waited for hours," by "gay and straight, disabled and not disabled," by the time we were putting our hands on the arc of history and bending it towards a better day, my mind was blown. I laugh-sobbed at Sasha and Malia's puppy.

Mostly, though, this speech was remarkable for the things it put to rest. I have cringed, at times, at the way Obama rhetorically collapses his own electoral victory with the accomplishment of the "change we need" idea, especially when he links his own fortunes to those of the voters and his campaign volunteers. Tonight, somehow, the next step happened: he rolled that momentum seamlessly, self-evidently, into the idea that what began 21 months ago in the depths of winter cannot end on this autumn night; that what's been earned is not a victory but an opportunity; that the spirit of service is renewed not concluded tonight.

That this man will seek to belong even to those whose faith he hasn't yet earned.

Needless to say, by the time he got to Ann Nixon Cooper, the bittersweetness was gone. A good friend who I spoke to afterwards said it felt like watching the moon landing, and that's exactly correct. I caught myself mouthing "yes we can," I nodded and shook my head at the New Deal and the buses in Birmingham.

But it was a shot of a black woman nodding along in the crowd that made me break down and cry.

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