Tuesday, 8 PM California time, 11 PM Eastern Time: I'm watching CNN. The screen goes crazy, even by CNN standards. I am looking at something unbelievable, a caption that is flashing like a strobe light:
"Obama elected President," or words to that effect.
The camera zeroes in on Anderson Cooper, who confirms the words on the screen, then the scene shifts to Grant Park in Chicago, where Obama's supporters have gathered en masse. For once, there is no talking, no talking heads. Just images. Pictures that say a thousand words:
A group of young black women dancing in jubilation. An older black man as still as a statue, eyes that have seen it all, hardly daring to exhale. Faces, faces.
My limbic memory pulls up a scene from 48 years earlier, a scene that I am in. It is well past midnight in Waterbury, Connecticut. I am standing in the drizzling freezing cold with my father and thousands of others. JFK was due here hours ago, but no one is leaving. People are warming their hands around improvised fires they have lit in steel trash drums.
My father is part of the new post-war suburban managerial class, but he hasn't forgotten who he is and where he comes from. An Irish-Catholic depression kid from West Springfield, Massachusetts. In America, you can grow up to be anything you want. My father is living that dream. But dare tell he tell his own son that an Irish-Catholic can grow up to be President?
I don't recall much about Kennedy that night, but I vividly remember that crowd. I recall my father, I recall the emotion. History was being made. Theodore White, in his book "The Making of the President," recounted that memorable night and how Kennedy was astounded by the turn-out and the enthusiasm. That reception, others have commented, animated the exhausted candidate, gave him a second wind, imbued him with the strength to squeak out a win in what was then the closest election in history.
And I was part of it.
Election night, 2008: I am cozy. I am indoors. The early returns indicate that Obama is performing according to expectations. His campaign is the first I have ever contributed to. Dare I hope?
Sometime after six, my time, CNN feels confident enough to call Pennsylvania for Obama. The election is breaking Obama's way. I am feverishly multi-tasking with my laptop, shooing away my two kittens, pulling up corroboration. CNN projects Ohio for Obama.
I have terrible memories about Ohio. This was the state that sealed Kerry's fate four years ago. I had voted in New Jersey, mistakenly believing I had fired George Bush. Turns out I hadn't. Thanks to Ohio, I felt like St Augustine contemplating the imminent collapse of the Roman Empire. The barbarians were at the gates. It was the end of Western Civilization, as far as I was concerned.
Nothing Bush did in the next four years disabused me of that notion.
Four years ago, thanks to Ohio, I sunk into a severe depression. A depression so bad that I could not perform my normal work. I had to find another project to divert me. Now, four years later, I am feeling new emotions, good emotions.
My mother is in her eighties. She is still living in Connecticut. She will be going to bed in a little while. But I know she is watching the returns, taking it all in, feeling like I do. She wasn't there with me that bitter cold Waterbury night. She was home, minding my little brother. But she was working the phones for the local Dems, getting out the vote.
The two of us had been through it all together, witnesses to history, thanks to the black-and-white TV in our living room: Orval Faubus and Little Rock, George Wallace standing in the doorway, the fire hoses and dogs turned loose on the crowds, civil rights workers murdered ...
"Never!" chanted the segregationists.
After World War II, my father had been hired as a token Irish-Catholic in a public utility run by old boy WASPs with degrees from Yale. In the late 60s, this same utility - most likely under duress - began hiring token blacks in management positions. Times were changing, and my father, as head of the local Human Rights Commission, was part of that change.
Don't ask my mother to say a single good thing about a Republican. Okay, maybe Eisenhower. The rest? To her, it's as if GOP Illuminati have been sneaking out with blow torches every night, intentionally melting the polar ice cap. Can't say I disagree with her. Please, don't get either one of us started.
John Kennedy assassinated, Martin Luther King assassinated, Robert Kennedy assassinated, urban riots, Nixon elected, the bright promises of the sixties dashed. This had to be a bad dream, right?
I could go on and on.
I am talking to my mom about JFK. I talk to her about that night in Waterbury. She is intent on staying up, waiting for the official word from NBC. I assure her in a steady voice that the election is safely in the bank, that no surprises are about to happen, that she can rest easy, get some sleep.
I hang up. My limbic system is having difficulty processing my emotions. One one hand, my eyes are tearing up. One the other, my fear circuits are acting as a giant air brake.
Eight o'clock my time, 11 Eastern time: The polls on the west coast have just closed. Instantly, CNN makes it official. Suddenly, I'm hearing Senator Obama referred to as President-elect Obama.
I see the faces in Grant Park. I am reconnected to Waterbury and those innocent days of hope. The emotional dam breaks loose. It's time to call my daughter, Emily.
Emily lives in New Zealand, where I lived for 11 years in the seventies and eighties. I have dual US/New Zealand citizenship, as does she. In March, I was there for her wedding. Improbably, Obama was holding his own in an Ali-Frazier heavyweight bout with Hillary that clearly was going the full 15 rounds. I had initially written off Obama as a lightweight with no experience, with no chance of getting elected, much less nominated. A short time prior to my New Zealand trip, I had turned up at a polling station in rural CA, with every intention of voting for Hillary in the primary. Instead, call me crazy, I voted for Obama.
Everyone I talked to in New Zealand was fascinated by events unfolding in our country. They peppered me with questions, which I did my best to answer. But look, I finally had to concede, if I can't understand myself and how I voted, how can we possibly expect the experts to figure it out?
Elect a black man? In a Democratic landslide? No, America simply wasn't ready.
"Is it official?" my daughter bursts out in an excited voice, without even saying hello. It is sometime after 5 PM the next day there. It is spring. She has just gotten out of work and is driving home, so she hasn't been tracking the results.
"McCain is just about to concede," I inform her.
Instantly, she has her car radio on. Instantly, she is bubbling with enthusiasm. New Zealand will be going to the polls in two days. But even there, an eternity of time zones removed and seasons apart, our election has overshadowed theirs. When the US sneezes, everyone catches cold.
It is Obama's turn to talk. His speech is soaring. It is inspirational. I see a black man, but I also see the Kennedy I stood witness to in the freezing cold in Waterbury, up way past my bed time. Rationally, I know that Obama has his work cut out for him and that he may fail miserably. But now is the time to turn my brain over to my limbic system.
This is a moment I never thought I could have imagined. But my late father actually planted the dream in me nearly a half a century ago. My mother is alive to see the dream realized. And my daughter one day will take the dream to a new level.
I know a lot of you voted for McCain, and I respect your choice. This particular piece isn't about which side is right and which side is wrong. This isn't about the future of the country. This is simply about how I feel. This is about my emotions and the lifetime that went into shaping those emotions. Last night, after years of disappointment, finally, I felt something good. Profoundly good. Something I could share with my family and those close to me. By now, I trust you can appreciate where I'm coming from.
Published On: November 05, 2008
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