The Rose of Hope
Election Night 2008
by Brian Hassett
Early morning in the Universe — sunrise over a New America.
I arose from the floor of a Harlem hotspot dreaming of something way bigger than me. And right off the mat, the Election Morning Ritual of tea & subtlety, pacing & breathing, and dreaming in the bright new light of it.
And there’s the widescreen of Barack & Michelle & their girls walking into the polling booth in Chicago and taking their time to burn in the memories of casting their historic ballots.
And all over New York you could hear doors slamming on apartments and taxis and trains as young and old, black and white went through their daily rituals — and today’s quite singular one.
I realized we were getting Obama as President, at least as Veep to Hillary, back on Super Bowl Saturday in January when I first watched will.i.am’s “Yes, We Can” video (here). It had just been uploaded the night before, and I watched it early in the jingle-jangle morning and just lost it — couldn’t watch it without getting choked up for weeks afterwards. It was so obvious then that he was ours — America’s, the world’s, right now’s. Somehow it felt more ancient than futuristic, more traditional than trendy, more Rushmore than YouTube. And it was good.
But of course there was still a helluva race ahead — first the primary against Hillary and then the general against McCain, and it did look close a couple of times, but especially starting that Monday of the Lehman Brothers collapse and McCain “suspending” his campaign and stumbling around like Henry Fonda in the woods in On Golden Pond, followed by Colin Powell coming out on Meet The Press, you knew who was going to win. In fact, I was able to post the final election results on this here site on Halloween, a full four days before election day — 367 to 171, and it turned out 365 to 173! — or 99.5% accurate.
I spent the afternoon getting all gussied up in black velvet tails and Ben Franklin knickers with knee-high socks topped off with a top hat, accented with colorful Obama buttons, and everything underneath my waving homemade Obama pennant flag with a little red & white Canadian one on top. All I needed was a clanging bell and some rolled parchment.
Heading into the Election Night, for the first time in my life I was the most popular person in Harlem! Looking like a “Hear-ye, hear-ye!” town crier from the American Revolution, I was carrying Obama’s flag into battle — lighting up faces of people who still haven’t come close to learning English. Shopkeepers were waving, and mothers were pointing me out to their small children. Passing pedestrians were either breaking into huge smiles or full-out hollering, “Obama!” It was dusk on the final day of The Nightmare From Texas, and minorities may have been happier than anyone that the lying war sap’s reign of error was ending.
Riding the subway through Harlem in black velvet regalia — facing beaming white smiles from dark African faces, shining and sharing across the aisle like Washington will soon be if all goes according to plan. A little boy beside me is admiring my buttons, and finally says in the cutest voice, “All Barack!” So I reach in my bag and find a button for him just before he gets off. And some guy’s watching me do this, and he pulls out his keys from his pocket and wound off and his little Obama key-chain and handed it to me across the subway car. It’s the coolest thing and I’ll cherish it forever. And so I looked in my bag and found another button and handed it across to him. And there was some guy standing nearby smiling as he watched all this go down, and the guy I just gave the button to handed it to him. A crowd got on right after that and we all got separated — but within seconds all us strangers had just given each other something for nothing. America was changing right before our eyes.
Then I’m off, flying between the towers of Midtown, when suddenly a-ha, a “Vote Here –>” sign for a polling station, and, decked head-to-toe in Obama, I enter most illegally and go beaming around. Poll site day-workers are smiling back huge hugs, and then I spot the ancient New York State steel levered polling machine and go over to open the curtains and have a good gander —
but Nooooo — The Big Bossman spots me wearing partisan duds and nearly football tackles me the heck outta there! So there I was; Tossed back into the Manhattan rush-hour of snappy suits and swinging briefcases, big ego scowls and some big-hearted smiles.
And then ah into the ah of the Election Plazah at Barackefeller Center! People. All beaming faces. Lights. A red, white & blue skyscraper. Broadcast trucks. Giant screens. And rows of flags waving wide and high in tonight’s heavy winds of change.
There’s lots of people, but it’s not crowded. And NBC had once again laid out the red carpet. Well, actually it was blue. And plush and thick, from one end of the plaza to the other — “Election Night 2008” woven into the ground that democracy’s participants were walking on. And not just Americans, but thousands and millions who came here from foreign countries, like me — because “America” is so much a part of so many.
And meanwhile, I’m getting photographed more than I ever have in my life. Plus, they’ve got somebody dressed up like donkey and somebody like an elephant, and for an hour the three of us become the most in-demand trio in New York. And on top of that, the inside of my coat is lined with buttons that I’m selling. Which I never even mentioned to anyone, but people kind of figured it out. All I kept saying was, “Vote Socialist! Vote Obama!”
And a couple times I actually get challenged about being an interferring Canadian, but I quickly bounce ’em back with ol’ Christopher Columbus and Thomas Paine and Alexander Hamilton as pretty cool un-Americans. And if that don’t shut ’em, I drop Albert Einstein, Andrew Carnegie and Madeline Albright. And if that don’t do it, John Lennon, Neil Young and Charlie Chaplin usually does. You can be American from wherever you’re born.
And waving my colorful homemade flag was doing the trick! It was like a freakin’ antenna pulling in the channels. Friends were tuning in from all over. Philip the Iraq war reporter with his big pro camera weaves in documenting the stories of regular people in the eye of history. And here’s Levi, the online LitKicks disturber, happily dancing through the crowd like it’s an outdoor Dead show. And there’s the Jimmy Carter staffer Zoe waving from her comfortable perch, soaking in the immensity of it all.
And friendships are being made instantaneously all over the plaza, conversations starting without introductions. It was a family reunion and we all knew each other. And even though it was early it felt pretty late, with everybody already a little giddy, a little silly, a little too happy — and it didn’t matter to anyone.
And of all excellent things they were actually handing out plastic beer mugs! Or maybe they were coffee mugs, but I figured they’d work way better for beer. So, I copped several for the crew, and away we go.
It was getting time to plant the flag and hold the fort. There are two main giant screens: one for NBC, and one for MSNBC, which has been my network of choice since it came on the air about 10 years ago. And to boot, it’s their side of 30 Rock that’s completely bathed in Democratic blue and turns out to be the naturally livelier side of the grand plazoo all night. So, I promptly claim n maintain the center screen-front fort-site!
There’s a six-inch high curb running across the battlefield a perfect distance from the screen and it makes the best forward line I can think of. Next, I’m lookin for SOUND — where some half-deaf old people can hear what’s being said even while crazy New Yorkers are screaming in joy. And right along the curb line directly in front of the MSNBC screen, there’s a nice big Bose speaker on a stand, squared off by barricade stantions. So that becomes our solid right flank; and I’m holding down the front curb-line; and our left flank is held by Gina Gershon’s sister and a wall of her girlfriends who haven’t moved in an hour. “We’re solid.” “We’re bull’s-eye center.” “It’s a go, General.”
We had our private box at the theater — once we had our perimeter secured, there was a buffer of about 50 people deep in every direction around us — and we could just GO! And lemmi tell ya, nobody’s burners were on “medium”!
And as I keep waving my Canadian–Obama flag, along comes Winnipeg-Manhattan guitarist brother Terry; and Paul, who I only just met but who’s been a friend for life; and Anna, Philip’s pregnant wife blessing her child who’ll be born around the same time as the next President in January. And here comes Ralph the producer, and Brad the net oracle, and Anne the global adventurer. And then comes somebody holding up a giant Obama yard sign as they’re dancing and weaving through the crowd, and as the sign floats closer, sure enough, underneath it all is Nadette, an actress friend of nearly 30 years bringing suburbian lawns into this uber-urban plaza.
And from our private box we could easily make runs to the deli which you could almost see from our “seats”. The only trick was getting back through the outer ring of the scene — excuse-me-ing through the tight outer strata of late-comers and non-insiders, then weaving through the gentler inner rings of patriots to our secret center where we had enough room to dance.
And dance we did. Along came four cute girls from England who’d flown over just for this moment and were as funny as that other Fab Four who flew over here. Or the flowing French poet who’d also flown in just for this. Or the gorgeous Kim Basinger with the flower in her long blond hair. Or the Canadians who kept appearing all night from Vancouver and Montreal and Toronto and Edmonton. It was like all the Americans who materialized in Ontario when we were registering people to vote with Democrats Abroad. In fact, as the night comically revealed itself, our encampment became surrounded by Canadians — typically too shy to say anything, but when they saw my flag came and stood near and felt safe. I had become the freakin’ Canadian Consulate at Barackefeller Center on Election Night.
As Zoe & I are making what we thought at the time was the final beer run of the night at about 7:40, and we bump into this group of four Midwestern couples in their 40s and 50s leaving the scene. Of course we start talking and they mention they’re heading out to get something to eat, to which I say, “Are you freakin’ crazy?! The big moment is coming right up and you’re gonna be staring down at a tuna sandwich?!” They all laugh as I give ‘em hell, Harry. So, Zoe & I hit the deli, and sure enough a minute later the whole crew of ‘em come in and say, “You convinced us.” 🙂 And they just grabbed some road grub and headed back into Democracy’s mosh pit.
Another wonderful thing about the scene was the diversity of people. Besides there being every conceivable shade of pigmentation from the darkest African blacks to translucent northern whites, there was also every body type, age, and orientation. There were turbans and ball caps, piercings and wheelchairs, suits and sandals. It was America, and it was the world.
I was talking to this bunch of Jamaicans and we were all laughing and beaming and “Yesing,” and their accents were so damn thick I understood not a word they said the entire time! Except “Obama.” Yet we were totally communicating for a good long time — our faces and hearts knowing what the other was saying all along.
And I’ll tell ya, there’s been a buncha times I wished John Lennon was here, but oh boy, none more than while we’re talkin’ bout a revolution, well, you know. And how this was the world playing out that he and so many other visionary men of peace have shared through sermons or songs or non-violent stands. This was the dream — and it has manifested and is dancing and cheering and wired.
It’s like tonight had gone into sudden-death overtime where you couldn’t leave because it could be called and be over at any moment! The best part of course was when the Dems scored points by winning a state — and a cheer went up as far as you could hear, echoing through the canyons of our spines. And for every Kentucky or Mississippi there was a playful boo, then we laughed out loud at our own silliness.
And as each state was called, just like in ’04, NBC had these two giant tapestries, one Dem blue & the other Republican red, that were being pulled up the side of 30 Rock, one foot for each electoral vote won. Except this time the blue side was climbing much higher than the red one. 🙂
Although my predictions for the Presidential winner, electoral college numbers, percentage split, and Senate and House seats were all Dead on or close damn to it — the one thing I (joyously) didn’t get right was the time the news organizations would project a winner. I knew it could come at 8, and if not then, at 9 for sure. “There’s no way we’re not going to know before 10.” But all those hours came and went with nothing.
Here’s an obvious conspiracy for those who enjoy those sort of things: There was obviously collusion between the networks to all hold off their Presidential projections until 11PM. They obviously didn’t coincidentally all make the “call” at exactly the same time. They coulda called it a week ago, or anytime all night . . . but what the heck, the whole county was riveted until the match was sparked and the emotional fireworks set off. No matter when you tuned in or arrived at your election night gathering, by 11:00 you’d been on the edge of your seat for a while. Or, the edge of your curb, as the case may be.
There was a clock on the bottom of the screen — and although it was obvious to some of us what was going to happen when it struck 11:00:00, most in the crowd didn’t know it was coming.
But after hours of good-vibe build-up, the clock ticked eleven and the screen tocked Barack — and the voices and the spirits and the hands shot up, fingers splaying, eyes blazing, thousands jumping, people hugging, falling into another, high-fiving hands so fast you never see the arms, screaming, tear-soaked faces like thousands of brand new parents — but no romantic midnight New Year’s Eve couples kissing — for just a moment there was something even bigger than one loved one.
Some people were frozen in Buddha-still calmness, others were bent over crying and shaking. People were hanging out windows, flashbulbs were flashing from every direction, horns honking over everything, girls screaming like Beatlemania, it all swirling into a roaring, deafening tornado, tossing us side to side, but hardly anyone falling down. And the cheering kept going — there was no person telling us to simmer down so the show could resume. Talking heads were yammering away on movie screens and the speakers were still blaring but we were all chanting “O – ba – ma” or “Yes we can” so loud nobody heard a word. And after one wave of peak cheering would begin to subside, another would start out of nowhere and everyone would raise their voices and arms again for no reason except the joy of it, the beyond-beliefness of everything — as new layers of what just happened were rolling through people’s hearts and minds and out their faces.
For some it was a tearful release of exhaustion after sleepless nights for days or weeks or months — defenses down, fatigued openness, sleep-deprivation delirium. And for others it was such a sweet gentle smile of serenity. . . . “Finally.”
But so-sadly, with the networks calling it at 11:00 — that was the exact time of the last elevator to The Top of The Rock rooftop so there was no way to kiss the sky as well as all the pretty girls in the plaza.
After a prolonged evening of anticipation, the dominoes fell quickly. I lost any sense of time at this point, but it seemed like right after the projection, John McCain was walking out to give his concession speech. As I expected, he was huge and gracious — his best speech since I-dunno-when. Poor old guy got waylaid somewhere, off into the Rovian practices of kill n torture what you don’t like and ask questions later (See, also: Iraq, Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, Clelland, Kerry, Bush-McCain 2000, etc., etc.)
Everybody was in a “boo-McCain” spirit, but I knew he was better than what we’d seen in this campaign. So every time he said something particularly gracious, I’d yell, “Alight! Give it up for John McCain!” And nobody would. 🙂 The crowd had followed my every cue all night — when to clap, cheer, laughing at my one-liners — as Zoe said, “You had those people eating out of your hand,” — but when it came to giving props to the distinguished gentlemen from Arizona, I had zero pull. 🙂
And geez I just gotta say — in politics, your opponent is your enemy only until you win; and the moment it’s over, you become colleagues again. You compete as hard as you can, or “vigorously” as Obama wonderfully called it; then we all work together. Done.
So, immediately after McCain finishes his concessionary congratulatory comments to the new President-elect, the world was transported via Marshall McLuhan stacks of amped televisions to the massive gathering in historic Grant Park in Chicago where Democratic supporters had their heads bashed in by billyclubs in 1968 — and had them blown off by words in 2008.
And once again, Obama Presents a beautiful stage, with a classic row of flags like those waving around the Washington Monuments and this Barackefeller rink in New York City.
And as the soul-speaker soars, the Barock Center New York crowd is cheering like we’re at the greatest Central Park concert ever. Except there’s no rock star. There’s not even a person. Just “two big screens and a politician.” And we’re peaking all over the city, all over the country, all over the world in a synchronized riot of joy. This is not just an American story, not just a black story, not just a Democrat’s or young person’s story, nor just an immigrant’s story or this story — it’s all of us — all North America, Africa, Europe — dancing as one, in more ways than one. It’s every underdog, every book-reader & book-writer, every neighbor, every one with hope in whatever language they speak — this Rose smells as sweet tonight.
And Obama’s calmly asking for our collective help, our common good. It gets so quiet you only hear the people sobbing in the crowd of thousands. Complete breakdowns. Some couples now hugging like they didn’t at the New Year’s Moment — because now one of them is shaking and crying. We see the soon-to-be-famous tears from Jesse and Oprah, but seeing them for real glistening in the Barockefeller Lights on the cheeks of both women and men, old and young, white and black, red-eyed and helpless, weeping uncontrollably — there wasn’t an unblurry eye in the house.
“This is our time to reaffirm that fundamental truth, that out of many, we are one; that while we breathe, we hope. And where we are met with cynicism and doubts and those who tell us that we can’t, we will respond with that timeless creed that sums up the spirit of a people: Yes, we can.”
And your cells and limbs harmonize with the words, and you’re “Yes!” And Joe Biden walks out, and that gem finally kicks in – “Oh my god! Joe freakin’ Biden is Vice President!!”
And as the guests began to leave, I stayed and shook hands or winked into their dazey eyes or stood for a picture next to their ear-to-ear smile as they passed from the plaza womb out to the new world of New York tonight where strangers were stopping strangers just to shake their hand.
As we were leaving the light and into the night, my final image was of the giant blue column still climbing up 30 Rock, and the whole plaza bright and glowing . . . like it should be.
Meanwhile the streets were all a half-hour-after-midnight on New Year’s Eve — laughter echoing through every canyon, girls holding hands and skipping down the sidewalk, old shopkeepers watching everything from their doorways.
Terry and I whirl around the corner onto Sixth Avenue and Boom! Right into the Midwestern crew we talked into staying at 8:00! And it was now a whole lot more than a few hours later. The well-put-together folks we’d met were now red-faced and joyous with their glasses listing crookedly, their hair a shambles, shirt-tails flapping, just a puddled mess they were, and as soon as they saw me rounding the corner they dropped their bags and ran over with giant bear-hugs of joy, thanking me most profusely for encouraging them to stay. And the leader goes, “Hey, wait a minute,” and rushes back to his bags, and another guy says with a beam, “You’re gonna get something special.” And sure enough he comes back with this high-end print of an almost 3-D painting of Obama & Biden that will beam tonight from my walls forever.
And after a boatful of giant hugs, off they sailed into the glistening New York Sea as Terry & I floated on down the Avenue of The Americas, following The Great Invisible Forces to . . . . Times Square.
And as we whoosh around the corner into Times Square’s trash & vaudeville — the barricaded streets, shut-down sidewalks, yellow police tape everywhere, battalions of uniforms, and eight lanes of traffic racing through the center of it! The massive crowd has dissolved down to a nice loud throng — so we fit right in! — bolting directly to the center island — the core of the core — ground-to-sky screens all around — Obama’s ears 8 Miles High — a constant roar — traffic, different speakers blasting different speakers, and a very high cheers-per-second ratio.
cue: “Dancing In The Streets” — loud. [Phil Lesh & Friends, NYC, Nov. 6th, 2008 recommended]
And my Canadian flag’s immediately attracting a flood of delirious Canucks, some from the city I just left, some from places I never heard of. And again it’s the celebrity flash-flash of my town crier top-hat n tails hailing in the news in Times Square routine.
All heck’s broken loose — for a moment it seems like old New York — people having a good time and no one interfering. “Signed, Sealed, Delivered” is being belted out by an ensemble well beyond any concerns over harmony. There’s a thousand Lady Libertys with one arm raised holding torches of camera-phones broadcasting beacons of freedom’s light to the rest of the world. It’s the first time New York’s been like this since the Rangers won the Stanley Cup in game 7 at Madison Sq. Garden, when all the cars on Seventh Avenue were caught in the human flood, and the streets for blocks around became an instant street party — and you could walk up the avenue between rows of cars high-fiving both drivers and passengers from their open windows.
It was like that all through Times Square, except it seemed every car was coming from an Obama party, not just arriving at one! It wasn’t random drivers caught up in some random New York street party, but every person in the city was in on it. Or at least every person who was awake and outside. The few Republicans here were long since safe behind their security systems, and anyone who was alive for the last few hours couldn’t help hearing and seeing and feeling the emotional and literal fireworks shooting off of every streetcorner in New York.
It was Fourth of July. It was Beatlemania screams still echoing outside Ed Sullivan’s Paramount Theater. Not only was every car smiling like a cartoon, and every driver too, but there was a person sticking out of every sunroof that went by — and people leaning out the side windows to high-five the Times Squarers as they drove through the piazza. And if you weren’t honking your horn enough and got stuck at a light, brothers reached in your open window and honked it for you. And not only were people chanting as they marched, a fire truck went by honking out “O – ba – ma” on its horn in time with the crowd, and the young Irish cops were doing stand-up routines for the crowds and working the passers-by like the best street comedians.
I talked to one of the officers in charge who said there’d been no problems at all over the entire city all night.
New York, I love ya! So much like the blackout night five years ago — happy positive vibes emitting from everywhere. It was Woodstock without the mud. It was a sunrise without the hangover. It was a White House without a Bush.
And word filters up that Union Square was overflowing with people, and St. Marks Place in the East Village has broken into a spontaneous street-long block-party, and it was clear this was not going to be over anytime soon. 🙂
And it was so gawdamn global — the giant screens were flashing crowds of people in Paris and London and Rome and Rio and Sydney and Toronto and hot-damn, summer in the city! The back of my neck feelin’ all goosebumpy.
It was great that we were not dancing just cuz it was some date on a calendar, but because of something worked for by people the world over — and because of all the changes this will bring, from the smallest of human exchanges to the speeches of kings — it’s “a transformation of civilization” as Neil Young is currently singing it — it’s the hundredth monkey cracking the cocoanut for milk — an evolutionary step in our species — a turning-point that’ll be taught long after we’re gone.
And it’s happening now. If you can read this, you’ve got your invitation. We are the cells that are multiplying. We are the lucky ones that make it across the river to The Promised Land. This is a moment all people will wish they lived through. And that this is even bigger for the world than it is for America.
It is our time, as he kept saying.
Live it or lose it, as I keep saying.
= = = = = = = = = = =
And wonderfully P.S.
A night later, a bunch of us went to the best band goin’, Phil Lesh & Friends, and at the beginning of the show, the 68 year old bandleader came out and Dedicated the show — something I’ve never seen any GD member ever do . . .
Phil: “Two days ago, we lived through and participated in a turning point in history, as important as anything that we’ve seen in our lives. And I bet everybody in this room was a part of that in some way. So, I want to dedicate this show tonight to that uniquely American spirit, which was just thrown up, at the perfect moment, with this man, and this movement, and these people. So, here’s to you!”
Followed by chants of, “U.S.A., U.S.A., U.S.A.,” at an underground Grateful Dead concert in the core of Manhattan! 🙂
See, also: Election Night in New York 2004 🙂
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