The following is a copy of my previously published report from President Obama's 2008 victory celebration.
It’s weird. Not only to be consciously aware of history, but to be present when your location—Chicago—is the literal center of the world right now. All eyes, from Japan and Kenya to Berlin and Syria, were watching us last night. (Apparently I was on TV, too.) And by “us” I mean 240,000 people who packed into Grant Park. Black, white, asian, latino, people old enough to have actually walked with Dr. King and toddlers barely old enough to speak or walk. I would say a majority of the crowd was young—my age or younger.
The mood was happy, for sure. But also very somber and emotional as if we’d just been asked to carry an enormous burden or begin extraordinarily difficult work. A reflection, for sure, of the man we were there to see. There were high fives and hugs, but an awful lot of tears and disbelief. And then even the President-elect himself did not seem to be proud in a selfish, “look what I did” kind of way, but was almost cold like a celebration was the last thing on his mind because he’s got more important things to be doing. A thought which is so strange and refreshing that it alone validates the reason we wanted him to be elected in the first place. It is one thing to be a good candidate and an entirely different thing to be good at running the country. And the mood certainly was a contributing factor in a quarter million people gathering and Chicago Police reporting no incidents. In fact, a shout out to the Chicago Police for keeping everything orderly, functioning, and officers behaving in a dignified and polite way all around. They were present and helpful everywhere.
We got off the train and the stream of people lining up to get into the park was so steady that it was an uphill battle to get to the sandwich shop where we wanted to eat beforehand. The Art Institute was bathed in red, white, and blue and all the buildings downtown had patriotic floodlights, spelled out USA, or VOTE. We literally ran into will.i.am of the Black Eyed Peas and a camera crew. Then, aside from a crush of people at the gates themselves, the line down the sidewalk to enter security was neat and tidy…but long. It began at the corner of Michigan and Congress and snaked down Michigan Ave. to Roosevelt Rd. and down Roosevelt Rd. to Columbus Drive. A distance equal to 7-10 city blocks. The line moved very little until they opened up a portion of the park as a parallel queue and we walked pretty much as a group up to the first checkpoint.
You had to show tickets and confirm who your guest was and then go through a secondary screening before the floodlighted park opened up before you. Immediately upon entering there were t-shirt stands and pizza and the portable toilets, but mostly a mass of people in a field focused on a giant TV screen at the far end of the meadow—next to the stage, the media tents, and the VIP area. All said and done, we were in line probably a little over an hour and arrived at the rally just in time for the big moment where Barack Obama was announced as the new President of the United States.
We all watched John McCain’s wonderful, gracious concession speech which I give him tons and tons of credit for—he showed he’s a classy guy in the end. There was a black minister who said a prayer and a supremely nervous singer who did a blues-ish version of the National Anthem but forgot/skipped a few phrases. Then we listened to a few songs: Jackie Wilson’s “Higher and Higher,” Stevie Wonder’s “Signed, Sealed, Delivered,” a country song, and “Sweet Home Chicago.” There was also a short, patriotic video of average people going about their lives and campaigning and talking about hope and change. The meat of the event then was Barack’s message and we got the rare opportunity while exiting to walk happily down a carless Michigan Ave. to go home.
In the end, I think I was home by about 1:00am.
I’m still digesting and reflecting, but that was my night. And I’m glad I went. I think I would have been embarrassed to have had the chance and not gone. Overall, some 119 million people took part in voting. And in a nation which once would have counted Barack Obama as 3/5 of a person, it chose him in an Electoral College landslide and by nearly 7 million votes. The guy with the white Kansan mother, the black Kenyan father, who went to school in Indonesia, grew up in Hawaii, went to Harvard and then grew to maturity in the tough neighborhoods on Chicago’s South Side. He is, as he admits, the most unlikely person to be elected to the world’s most powerful office. But choose him we did.
To quote from my favorite part of his speech last night: “And to all those watching tonight from beyond our shores, from parliaments and palaces to those who are huddled around radios in the forgotten corners of our world -- our stories are singular, but our destiny is shared, and a new dawn of American leadership is at hand. To those who would tear this world down -- we will defeat you. To those who seek peace and security -- we support you. And to all those who have wondered if America's beacon still burns as bright --tonight we proved once more that the true strength of our nation comes not from the might of our arms or the scale of our wealth, but from the enduring power of our ideals: democracy, liberty, opportunity, and unyielding hope.”