Thursday, November 06, 2008

Liz's Night in Grant Park

Our daughter Liz, a junior at Northwestern University, landed tickets to Obama's acceptance speech on election night. Here is her account:
Getting off the train in Chicago was like stepping into another world, one that could easily be called "Obama-land". On every street corner and scattered in between were vendors selling Obama paraphernalia—shirts, buttons, hats. The air was charged with anticipation, even blocks away from Grant Park; it was impossible not to be excited. Although our group had planned to stop to eat on the way to the park, once on the sidewalks of Chicago, it was clear where our feet were going to lead us, and it was not the nearest Taco Bell.

We reached the entrance to the park and went through the first checkpoint. It wasn't even 5:00 yet; gates were said to open at 8:30. Another Northwestern student painted our faces with the Obama emblem while we waited. Soon more people were gathered behind us than in front of us, and around this time the Democratic Party, or maybe the City of Chicago decided to open the gates early, and we began our long journey through more checkpoints and finally, the metal detectors. Polls closed in some states at 6:00, and we began to hear snippets of exit polls and early results from the "outside world" via cell phone. The wait at this point is unbearable. Finally, mercifully, we empty our pockets, walk through the metal detectors…and we're in!

The park itself wasn't even half full when we got inside. CNN was being aired on a giant screen, keeping the rally-goers current on election results. We begin our search for food and find pizza ($5/slice, apparently "slightly more upscale" than the pizza served to non-ticketholders). While we were eating the pizza, a CBS news reporter catches sight of our painted faces and ends up interviewing my friend Dan and I for TV; this wouldn't be the last time our face paint got us noticed. Soon after we finished eating, CNN projected Michigan for Obama. I cheered loudly.

We found a spot to stand with a passable view of the stage and a pretty good view of the screen. My recollection of the next couple of hours is hazy. More and more states were being called for both candidates, with Obama taking states with large numbers of electoral college votes and McCain grabbing up smaller states. At some point Ohio was called for Obama. Then, finally, Virginia. It is 10 seconds before 10:00 CT and we count down to the polls closing in California and other western states, knowing that with California's electoral votes, Obama has the nomination.

8…7…6…5…4…3…2…1…BARACK OBAMA ELECTED PRESIDENT! There is an explosion of sound as every single person in Grant Park reads those words on the screen. We had been expecting the countdown to end with "Polls closed", or even "California goes to Obama", but most of us weren't expecting the race to be called at that moment. People are hugging, and crying, and screaming, and jumping up and down. It is surreal and dreamlike and…perfect. As much as we had all thought, wanted, and above all, hoped this would happen, there was no sense of this being the predicted outcome. After two years of hoping for change, we had suspended that hope just in case it didn't happen. Hope, but don't get your hopes up. And now…suddenly…we had every reason in the world to feel hopeful.

There was a lot of cheering and picture-taking and general happiness as we waited for McCain's speech. We had been making fun of the McCain rally when it appeared on the screen throughout the night; here we were, hundreds of thousands of people gathered outside in Chicago, dressed and painted and EXCITED! And McCain was in a hotel in Phoenix with who we could only assume to be the most elite of the Republican Party. There was no joking, however, when McCain gave his speech. The speech itself was so different from what we've heard from McCain lately; he praised Obama as his "supporters" booed. In Grant Park, we clapped for McCain, sometimes to be polite, but mostly because he was saying things worth clapping for. We were looking again at the McCain who won the Republican nomination, the man who could once be thought of as a "maverick". The only time our Grant Park audience didn't perform better than the McCain's Phoenix one was at the mention of Sarah Palin, when the entire park let out a (presumably involuntary) snort of laughter.

And then, finally, it was our turn. Time for Obama to address us with one of his famed speeches. The announcer man said "Ladies and Gentlemen…" and we all held our breath, only to have the man leading a prayer announced to us. And then the man leading the Pledge of Allegiance. And then the woman singing the National Anthem. And then, not one, not two, but three songs. And then, finally, FINALLY… the entire Obama family is on stage. The future First Family of the United States of America is on stage. And we are within (strained) eyesight.

Obama's speech was everything we had been waiting for. He was eloquent, deliberate, and modest. His victory was not his own—it belonged to each one of us who struck a ballot for him, to everyone who worked on the campaign, for every single person who donated even the smallest amount to the cause. I was surprised to discover later that the speech only lasted about 15 minutes; few people can convey such a powerful message in so little time. I have no words to describe how breathtaking the speech was, and I urge everyone to watch it online. The video cannot recreate the surge of positive energy that was in Grant Park, but the words that our future President speaks can provide hope for America.

Nothing can ever compare to what I witnessed last night in Grant Park. 24 hours later, I'm still giddy, still wearing a ridiculous grin, and still filled with a hope I've never felt before. Uploading my rally pictures onto the computer, I was pleasantly surprised to see how many pictures I had taken of American flags. Before last night, I associated "patriotism" with the Republican Party, a word too often used to justify unpopular agendas. November 4, 2008 changed that. Now, after 20 years of indifference, I finally understand how it feels to be truly proud to be an American.
Here in Leelanau, I'd be careful to use the term "neocon" instead of "Republican" in that last paragraph. Still, there's a first hand account of the beginning of the future.

No comments: