What I did on my holidays (part 3 – election night special)

Tuesday 4th November

Since our arrival in New York there had been a low frequency buzz on the streets about the election. It seemed like every conversation we tuned into on the crowded sidewalks contained snippets of “Obama”, “McCain” or “Palin” (poor Biden). It’s difficult to imagine an election in the UK creating such a level of interest, although I suspect this is no ordinary US election.

Despite this level of public interest, there was actually very little in the way of election publicity in the city. New York is one of the most reliably Democratic states on the electoral map, so neither candidate saw the need to waste money on posters or adverts. A good number of people , though, were walking about with Obama-Biden badges on their lapels (almost nobody had McCain-Palin badges).

One source of these badges revealed itself on our way to Macy’s (the world’s largest department store). A middle-aged black woman had set up a table on a 7th Avenue corner with an enormous selection of pro-Obama merchandise. She was so excited about the prospect of an Obama victory that she told us how she had voted at 6.30am; the Democratic campaign’s message of hope and change had genuinely become ingrained in the desires of people like her.

We bought some badges and headed to Macy’s. It’s basically just a big John Lewis, but it’s worth a visit just to ride the ancient wooden escalators on the upper floors. OK, it’s maybe not worth a visit just for that, but if you happen to be there you should at least take a look.

Realising that we didn’t really have any shopping to do, the Matts and I parted company with Neil, Andy, John and LJ. We headed towards the Rockefeller Center to check out the planned NBC election night party taking place around the ice rink. We’d been tipped off about the party by a news bulletin on one of the LCD screens that have been fitted into the back of apparently every taxi cab in the city.

A map of the country had been drawn onto the ice, which they would somehow illuminate state-by-state in either red or blue as the election results rolled in. NBC had set up a temporary studio next to where we were standing that appeared to be broadcasting live on the big screens above us. On our way out of the plaza, a man with a Blackberry stopped us and said he was looking for good looking young people to sit on the front rows of the following morning’s Fox Morning Show. Clearly, there was a shortage of good looking young people, so he handed the tickets to us; we’d have to be there at 7.30am, but breakfast would be free.

Another option for election night festivities was in Times Square where CNN had set up a big screen in front of the tiered seating that forms the roof of the half-price ticket booth. It was still mid-afternoon, but we took some seats and watched some CNN. They were showing off an artist’s impression that they had commissioned of what the candidates would look like if McCain were black and Obama white. McCain looked a bit like Bill Crosby, whereas Obama looked like a used car salesman.

While sitting in Times Square, a young man approached us with a clipboard and asked if we wanted to watch the Late Show with David Letterman being filmed the following afternoon. We said yes, and he said they were ours if we could answer two “simple” trivia questions. I cracked my Itbox-playing fingers, only to realise seconds later that the trivia was Letterman-related. Despite none of us having ever really watched it, the Matts were able to answer a question each to win us the tickets (for future reference, the bald band leader plays the keyboards and Letterman likes to throw his pen).

Later that afternoon we returned to our vantage point in Times Square and settled down for election night. As the clock ticked towards the first polling stations closing, the steps and the square below filled and the atmosphere began to crackle with anticipation. At 7pm, America reached the beginning of the end of this epic two-year long election when Vermont and Kentucky were called for Obama and McCain respectively. Not a single vote had been counted in either state (the polls had been closed for just a few seconds), but CNN used exit polls and common sense to put the first electoral college votes on the boards: McCain leads by eight votes to three.

Despite McCain’s early advantage, things were looking good for Obama who was neck-and-neck with McCain in Indiana (where votes had started being counted at 6pm), which had not voted for a Democrat in decades. At 8pm, ten more states were called without bothering to count any votes, eight of them for Obama, but it was the Pennsylvania result about half an hour later that reassured the crowd that they’d be going home happy.

McCain’s chance of victory was dealt a huge blow by Pennsylvania staying Democratic, but the celebrations couldn’t formally begin for some time yet. Times Square went wild when New York was called, and indeed every time the CNN coverage switched to our crowd. Ohio also fell to the Obama surge, meaning that it was now just a matter of the world politely waiting for the solidly-Democratic west coast states to close their polling stations so that the networks could push Obama over the magic 270.

That moment came at 11pm EST. The giant CNN screen moved from one of its many commercial breaks to one of their now-hourly countdowns to the closure of the next polls. The crowd in Times Square counted the last ten seconds out loud and, instead of calling any individual states, CNN immediately projected that Barack Obama had been elected the next President of the United States.

To say that the crowd went a bit wild would be like saying that Sarah Palin is a bit thick. All around us was cheering, crying and hugging; if there were any Republicans in the crowd at the start of the evening, they’d either slipped off or converted to Obamania by eleven o’clock. It was beyond anything I’ve ever seen at a football match or a rock concert, this was absolute elation among people who genuinely believed that things would now be different.

Cars around Times Square began honking their horns even more than usual, with Obama-Biden signs held out through their sunroofs. Eventually, the big screen cut to Arizona and John McCain’s concession speech. McCain’s audience looked uniformly unpleasant, a bunch of handlebar moustachioed rednecks and not a single non-white face to be seen.  The speech itself was gracious and humble, reminding the world of the McCain that used to command cross-party respect before he lowered himself to the level of the very worst elements of the GOP. These elements, however, were alive and well in his bigoted crowd who booed every mention of President-elect Obama.

Other than a few initial boos, McCain’s speech was well received in Times Square, receiving the applause it deserved. We did not show the same respect to his running mate: when Sarah Palin’s face filled the big screen, the boos echoed off the skyscrapers. We can only hope that she fades back into the obscurity that she emerged from in August, but I fear we haven’t seen the last of Palin and her brand of anti-intellectualism.

 After what felt like forever, the CNN coverage switched to the massive gathering in Grant Park, Chicago where Barack Obama and Joe Biden walked onto the stage accompanied by the new first and second families of the United States. 800 miles away in New York, our crowd was again going wild, anticipating a fine speech by a great orator. Sadly someone had alternative plans for our evening and as Obama opened his mouth to speak the CNN screen went dead. Thousands of people strained their eyes towards the Fox screen at the far end of the Square, but the subtitles were too small to read.

After several minutes, police began clearing our tiered seating, telling us to go home as the party was over. We followed the deflated crowds down the steps, but as we reached the bottom the screen flashed back into life and we were treated to the final five minutes of a great speech. When the 44th President left his Chicago stage the applause continued in Times Square for several minutes, as much of the crowd blinked tears from their eyes.

Our walk back towards our hostel was slow as we moved through the dense crowds. People were literally dancing in the streets; we saw spontaneous hip hop dancing on a street corner and a man moonwalk across a pedestrian crossing. It remains to be seen whether the world changed on 4th November 2008, but it was certainly a night we’ll never forget.

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