THE ROCK PARTY and THE FALL OF NEW YORK
It was a really magic night! Until the nightmare.
Couldn’t sleep the night before — up at 6 AM watching the camera follow Don Imus into his polling station with a long line of people out the door waiting to vote, and him saying, “I’ve Never seen it like this!”
There’s reports of record-breaking turnout in every county in the land. I dash over to the school at some low point in the news hour cycle and vote by pulling the giant rickety lever on NYS’s Depression-era voting machines for the Green Party. I’m a strategic voter and knew Kerry was karrying the state by double-digits, so I try to get the Green’s numbers up.
By noon, JFK’s headquarters is giddy and almost dancing, and Bush’s is heads-down and dour. All the pundits are pundificating about what went wrong for Bush. The wee Shrub himself stumbles out of his voting booth looking as shell‑shocked as his mother watching King George the First collapse in that great debate in ’92. And the Little One’s babbling even more incoherently than usual — he Knows it isn’t going his way.
This was obviously Our day! And the world was changing for the better!
The phone’s ringin’ off the hook, people stopping by. The “liberal” TV media are curling tiny smiles and radiating subtle shades of giddiness. Networks were monitoring exit polls, and they weren’t reporting them over the air, but the results were in their faces.
And there were parties everywhere. NBC was outside Rockefeller Center. CNN at Times Square. Senator Chuck Schumer at the Grand Hyatt. A thousand email invites to places like The Bowery Poetry Club and Crobar hosting serious election-party all-nighters.
Got to Rock Center by 6 and it felt like warm-ups on New Year’s Eve — everybody out with a smile, some rushing towards home with a big beam on, others waiting for the other ball to drop. As you entered the processional mall of the Rockefeller Cloister there was an almost beatific calm of joyous confidence. NBC, God bless ’em, had built this “Democracy Plaza,” a giant Disneyland playground for fans of democracy — towers with giant TV screens and concert speakers blaring NBC and MSNBC, three different broadcast studios behind walls of glass — reflecting the faux transparency of the election they’re covering — citizens and freedom-of-the-press merging in an open orgy — with Oval Office Fantasyland displays you could walk through, and a giant map of the nation on the skating rink below to be colored in as the states are won.
As I arrive, I see Tom Brokaw through the window sitting down in his chair for his final election night coverage, the only guy on the air in Nebraska or wherever he was when Kennedy was shot, and now signing-off his career with JFK II. I see my favorite player in the pundits league, Tim Russert, coming right towards me thru the crowd! He’s got his frowning don’t-mess-with-me scowl on, like he’s trying to scare off any space intruders, but I just go, “No way!” and give him this big smile, as in, “Stop it, Mr. Serious, this is gonna be a great night!” and tell him so, and he drops his scowl and smiles for just a second, winks, and says “Thanks!”
The whole place is wild! Like being at any euphoric mass gathering of like-minded people — a Woodstock for voters, Mass with the Pope, the real American Super Bowl —
2 teams, no tomorrow, a lotta hype, dancing bears, and Las Vegas layin’ odds! Except the winner of this gamble gets to turn its citizens into armed killers and our nation into a goose-stepping army of chest-pounding thugs. Or not — as the case will obviously be!
We were finally putting an end to this King George madness and everybody knew it! You could see it in the faces. Watching MSNBC prepare to go on the air, Ron Reagan Jr. was just bouncing and couldn’t stop smiling. Across the table, Republican Joe Scarborough was ashen in shock and lost in thought. All around there’s nothing but Kerry signs and buttons and women and Democrats and young people in a blazing rainbow of new-day joy.
Every time Kerry or a Democrat’s name is mentioned, the crowd cheers. When Bush’s name is mentioned, one guy claps.
“Who’s THAT guy?” and everyone laughs.
CNN’s been hyping their Times Square broadcast for about a month, so I scooch over there before the results start coming in at 7. If the Peacock has this goin’ on at a skating rink, the all-news network in the middle of Times Square is gonna be the center of the universe!
As I salivate thru the tourists for the feast ahead, there’s the first subtle hint of, “This isn’t right. What’s going on?” CNN’s Campaign Express bus is parked in the middle of Times Square . . . but nobody’s around it. And there’s the giant Nasdaq screen, but it’s Not showing CNN. There’s a street-level broadcast booth, but there’s only about 20 people around it. There’s Larry King and Jeff Greenfield, but there’s no audio on the outside of the studio. There’s kids smooshing their faces against the glass, and tourists from Kansas who just want to wave home on TV. What happened to the election? This is just a glass bowl of Larryfish. And they’re barely moving! Across the square, MTV’s plastered for 3 stories with their Choose or Lose campaign. NBC turned Rock Center into a Democracy Disneyland. Flags are flying all over the city – and here’s CNN with the sizzle of a stock ticker. Watching Larry in an isolation booth adjust his pants was about as awesome as crossing the Square and watching the Times’ print dry. So I zip back over to the November New Years Eve party.
Weaving through the Midtown canyons, some guy was up ahead washing windows with a squeegee, with some security guard standing over him, and I’m thinking, “Ope! There’s some guy with ‘community service’!” But as I get closer, I look through the windows he’s cleaning — and it’s the freakin’ Fox News broadcast booth! And not a single person is standing outside! Britt Doom, William Kristolmeth, and that still-in-the-closet Beetle Barnes are all sittin’ right there — and there’s not one fan at the window! It was almost sad — but . . . not. And so reconfirming of how the night was going! These guys were solo at a funeral and no one was hanging with them. Meanwhile, the Democrats were dancing in the street to Johnny B. Goode outside Radio City Music Hall!
Back at the Rock party, the first results come in — they only give piddly Vermont to Kerry, but a big cheer goes up anyway. There’s a funny little murmur of boos whenever they call a red state for Bush, and everybody laughs that we’re doing it. It’s like the silly unflappable mood when you’re at the big home game and know your team’s gonna win tonight. People are beaming, back-slapping, and beer drinking out of deli coffee cups — the new-age Guiliani-Buster. “Strangers stopping strangers just to shake their hand,” I heard some Deadhead singin’ on the back of a Cadillac. We were all together and happy. This horrific global nightmare was finally over! And we were all sharing the moment as one!
With each passing half-hour, more and more people were pouring into the town square as word was Kerrying across the land. Everyone wanted to be here. They were calling Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Mass and all sorts of others for Kerry, even recent toss-up New Jersey. And Republican stalwarts like Virginia and North & South Carolina were too-close-to-call! And I thought, “My God, not only is John Kerry gonna be President, John Edwards is going to be Vice-President! How cool is that!” I’d met him during the primaries and he seemed like a bright straight-ahead real person even though he’s a politician and looks like he’s about 12.
On the wall of the giant phallic Rockefeller Tower they’d rigged up (literally) two window washing rigs, draped one in red and the other in blue, and were pulleying them up the side of the building as each state’s electoral votes were determined, with this carny bell-ringing level marked at about the 27th floor reading game-over 270, and these long primary drapes streamed down to the ground forming a giant bar graph of votes like a flowing Ross Perot chart, New York skyscraper size.
The whole scene and vibe kept accelerating, faster and faster, the frenzy escalating with each state’s poll closings. I bump into Howard Dean as he’s leaving the MSNBC booth. He’s covered in the pancake make-up that looks so good on TV and so six-feet-under in person. He was gonna walk by, but I say, “Hey man, I was with you in New Hampshire!” and he stops and turns and says, “Hey! Thanks! That’s great, thank you very much,” and shakes my hand and looks me in the eye. But he seems all worried like he’s going to lose again or something. I wanna pump-up the TV QB, so I slap his shoulder making a poof of pancake dust cloud his head. “This is gonna be a great night!” I say, and he’s like, “Well, . . . I sure hope so (hak hak).”
I’m thinkin, “This guy’s a worrywart!” But I say, “This is what we were doin’ it all for!” And he says, “Yeah, I know,” shakin his head in an agreeing yet discouraging way that said, “Boy, you’re right. But, boy you’re wrong.” Like he knew somethin I didn’t yet. Then he says, “Let’s keep our fingers crossed,” as a handler grabs him by the arm and whisks him off to his next camera.
I start saying to people, “Say goodbye to Senator Kerry,” and a long pause as they look at me strangely. “And Hello to President-Elect John Kerry!” and they burst into smile and we all high-five and spill beer! It was So great! There was no place in the world I’d rather be. The cell phone’s ringing with calls from all over North America — some people biting their nails, others in vans biting the dust from swing-states and calling for the latest update. Then Walter calls, inviting me down to the Daily Show party at that sprawling Park Cafe party club. Well, okay, that’s one other place I’d like to be.
Jump in a cab headin’ downtown. Through Times Square, past CNN, a hundred people now swarming around the curving Larryfish bowl, but it’s nothing like Rock Center. The cab radio is calling Chuck Schumer the winner in the New York Senate race the minute after the polls close (9PM), and the Dem Senator in Colorado is beating Adolph Coors! This is a landslide! All is good in the universe! . . . . . .
. . . . . . Until I step into the other world of the Daily Show party.
Suddenly, as Dylan says, things have changed.
Giant wide-screen TVs hanging everywhere from the ceiling like bats;
— except loud music blaring instead of the news,
and no one was paying any attention
to The Election!
Grabbed a plateful of refueling salmon and stood under the lowest-hanging bat, squinting at the numbers, but it wasn’t coming into focus, and it wasn’t computing.
I’d just been dancing in throngs of victorious new world Democrats cheering every state,
but suddenly it was the state of dismay,
America’s best political TV show’s party . . .
didn’t even have the sound up!
Like this was some old debate from the C-SPAN library playing in the background and not the final numbers flowing in live after years of work and only our freakin’ species in the balance!
Bush up by 20,000 in Florida — “It must be just the Republican districts they’re counting so far.”
Then I look again, and he’s up by 100,000!
I think back to my many years of studying elections, and immediately start drinking tequila.
Then Virginia, and North & South Carolina all fall like saplings in a sudden storm and they’re gone.
We’re not even close in Arkansas,
Not even close in Louisiana,
Just a hairsbreadth ahead in Wisconsin and PA.
This isn’t right.
I quickly proceed to double tequilas.
I’d been telling people for days, “We’ll know the trend and what’s going to happen by 9:30.”
I look at my watch.
I’m standing under the batscreens,
that something’s not right . . . in A BIG Way.
Can’t admit the numbers are real,
something’s gotta be wrong,
go to another screen, another network, another number, but it’s not adding up.
or see anything but exploding numbers blinding from above,
like a bleeding soldier in the field,
I need morphine . . .
I need to be shot in the head.
I slump down in one of the giant curving Copacabana booths.
And once I’m off the glued TV screen hell I notice all these famous faces in the crowd around me, all these young actors and actresses I recognize from movies or my dreams or other parties.
Pale and goateed Ethan Hawke drops down beside me,
both of us stunned and staring up in open-mouthed shock at the numbers . . .
two wounded soldiers on the field of Gettysburg,
looking above for salvation, but dying inside as none comes,
stripped of hope;
a blood-red tide rising,
nothing we can do . . .
I’ve gotta drink this through:
Who’s got a light?
I know! It’s . . . the Daily Show‘s fault!
Yeah, that’s it!
I picture the million dancing Democrats at Rock Center and jump back in a cab uptown with visions of ferris wheels and carousals, calliopes and clowns, and everybody was dancin’, dancin’ in the street!
but as the cab rounds the corner onto 50th
a newspaper blows across the empty street in front of us.
We coulda driven on the sidewalk.
When I left here a few seconds ago (it seems) it was New Year’s Eve — and now it’s suddenly the hungover morning after — and it’s not even midnight.
I stagger like a wounded cowpoke through the ghost-town tumbleweeds. Disembodied voices echo through empty canyons like taunting demons. The balloons had all dropped and popped, and multi-colored litter is all that’s left of the dream. A dancing mosh-pit of war-ending democracy was now a ghoulish accident scene in the middle of the night — flashing lights, the absence of life and the sense of death, clusters of silent cops by yellow police tape and beaten blue barricades — and a bloody red splatter all over the white skating rink below.
The happy circus had turned into some upside-down Bizarro-world, a Twilight Zone where all the people have disappeared, and echoing through a canyon, when some state is called for Bush . . . a Cheer goes up from some hidden pocket of insurgents! A cheer for godsakes! Here! In My city! The Artist’s Village! . . . of liberals, democracy, our nation’s first capital, Washington’s oath, the birth of it all, the revolutionaries, the beatniks, the spirit guides, the mystics, painters and poets, Greenwich Village and the morning New York Times, immigrants, minorities, and open-mindedness — the cradle that berthed be-bop and folk, that drew Lennon and Dylan and me and you — Clinton’s victory convention and his First Lady becoming Senator — FDR and Eleanor’s home for godsake! and Moynahan and Jackie O., Walt Whitman and Mr. Poe . . .
Another state’s called for Bush,
and another faint cheer washes in where angels fear to tread,
and the building-size red stripe is pulled higher up the wall, closer and closer to the 270 buzzer,
but the blood-red dye’s already cast in the ice,
and Bush’s smirking face is on the giant screens Everywhere looking down on us like Saddam Hussein’s glower all over Baghdad,
and hidden somewhere in the haunted streets lay a pocket of his Republican Guard
in the middle of Manhattan!
Someone shoot me in the head!
I’m no longer grateful — I just wanna be dead!
I wanna jump in front of a cab, but jump inside one instead.
I can put this nightmare to rest — if I can just go to bed;
And dream in blue rhymes, and never see red;
I promise, oh lord, if you’ll just end this dread,
That I’ll be a good person, from this day ahead!
And I know there’s a meaning, or so I’ve read;
That I can still carve my future and will not be led.
* * *
the afternoon after:
One time I asked Beat poet Michael McClure about the unified and driving force of his “generation,” and how that was missing today. And he answered, like a poet, almost in a haiku:
“Go to Texas,” is all he said.
Then a long pause.
When it looked like Bush was going to win a few months ago, I thought, “Well, this is sure gonna be great for music!”
From ‘68 to ’74, when America had its former Worst President, it was one of the highpoints in creative life for most of the American arts.
We’ve had a good start, but we’ve only got a few more years to take advantage of this war-mongering born-again chicken-hawk liar,
to channel our fire
into our art
and our lives
and be better people
and lead by example if our White House doesn’t.
This kind of oppositional inspiration only comes around about once a generation!
And it’s going to be a joy to collectively make the art and life-choices that matter, and stoke the fires in the smithy of our souls.
Groove forth, and thrive in the underground — just as our roots always have.
For a similar Adventure Tale with a much happier ending — check out — Election Night in New York 2008
For one of the most historic events in American history — check out my Obama Inauguration Adventures.
For how Woodstock promoter Michael Lang used my reports in his book — check out how Obama’s Inauguration was like Woodstock.
For the kind of creations that got us across the historic finish line — check out my poem and video for Where Wayward Jekylls Hyde.
For an on-the-campaign-trail adventure — check out the physical altercation I was in the middle of with Al Franken at a Howard Dean rally in ’04.
For my tribute to a great political reporter — check out my Tim Russert tribute.
For a full listing of great reporters and news sources — check out my Political Sources Primer.
For how well these sources work — check out my 2012 election predictions.
… or here’s the 2008 projections — in both, I’m over 98% correct. 😉
Brian Hassett — firstname.lastname@example.org — BrianHassett.com