Ellen and I lay on the couch listening to election returns. We were wrung out, exhausted by a final day of canvassing and by the emotional roller-coaster of what had seemed like a never-ending campaign. The tension was almost too much to bear.
The earliest returns favored McCain, but then Pennsylvania and New Hampshire, both critical to a McCain victory, went for Obama, and Ellen thought she heard a lightness, a barely-disguised relief in the voices of Robert Siegel and Mara Liasson at the NPR national election desk.
We could hardly allow ourselves to hope. Surely, Karl Rove had some last-minute (but no doubt long-planned) skullduggery up his sleeve. Why would the Republicans not try to steal this election as they had the previous two? With its history of voter suppression, with the hodge-podge of registration and ballot-casting rules around the country, with the mechanics of voting so opaque, so susceptible to challenge…
We lay in the dark hardly moving. The local NPR affiliate cut in with our Montrose County results. Every single Democrat on the ballot was losing, and would lose by large margins, including the lone incumbent Democratic commissioner. We had hoped, given the relatively large number of Obama/Biden yard signs and the youthful optimism of the local campaign staff (plus the admittedly miniscule but sincere work we and others we knew had put in) that we might see a close race at least. It was not close. Montrose remains a stubborn anachronism.
A major storm that had been predicted to hit sometime on election day finally arrived. It started with a few plinking drops against our west windows then quickly escalated to a lashing rain. The rain was driven sideways so that the sound was like being inside your car in a drive-through carwash. Ellen held her head in her hands and rocked.
Then they called Ohio for Obama. The state that had tipped the election to Bush four years ago had turned around. We would learn later that this news virtually guaranteed an Obama victory, but that the folks on the radio purposely squelched any such talk in deference to polls still open on the west coast. We weren’t allowed to relax just yet. The voices in the dark maintained a maddening neutrality.
If the best happened, what might this mean? What would this say about the country we live in? E and I weren’t thinking about race. Although afterward for days that’s all the media talked about. The election of a black man was indeed historic, and it signaled a monumental, and welcome, shift in American political life. But for us, it wasn’t about race. This election had been reduced long ago in our minds to a contest between Obama’s articulate intelligence and George W. Bush’s willful, bludgeoning ignorance – an approach the McCain/Palin camp adopted (even as they tried to distance themselves from Mr. Bush) out of blindness or necessity, I’m not sure which.
They ran on what worked in the past, lizard-brain fear and the discredited notion of American exceptionalism. God bless America. And for everybody else out there, well… Obama pals around with terrorists. Obama is a socialist – a last-gasp, Cold War canard that made about as much sense as calling Sarah Palin a feminist bellwether. (And would somebody please explain to me how the moral and economic failures of Sweden, France, Norway, and the U.K. should make us want to run screaming in the opposite direction.)
Still, we could hardly believe in a win for common sense and common decency. We could not imagine it after an interminable eight years of being beaten down, pummeled by lies (“America does not torture.” “I’m a uniter not a divider.”), the mangling of language with its evil sidekick, the twisting of ideas to mislead a mostly inattentive populace.
We couldn’t stand the thought of four more years. We’d already looked into emigrating to Canada back in 2004. It turned out they wouldn’t have welcomed us. We’re too old – they’re on to people moving north for the nationalized health care (there’s that darned socialism) – and we have too little money to bring with us. We’re here, for good or ill. And despite the growing good news from Michigan, Wisconsin, and – wonder of wonders! – New Mexico and Colorado, we still couldn’t shake the feeling that defeat might somehow be snatched from the jaws of victory. That we might get fooled again.
But then the west coast polls closed, and the voices in the air were free to declare what they had known for hours, that Barack Obama would be the next president of the United States.
A black man, yes. A fulfillment of the lofty rhetoric in the Declaration of Independence, of the dreams of Lincoln and Martin Luther King, yes. We felt that pride, too. But just as important, as an Italian newspaper put it the next day (leave it to the Euros to see us clearly), it was “the revenge of intelligence and preparation” against “the myth of the Everyman.” American voters finally stood up and declared that “they were tired of being treated like a bunch of idiots content to be governed by a drinking buddy who makes them feel less stupid.”
Ellen opened the door and stepped out into the rain. The wind blew her hair straight out behind, as the rain came horizontally through the night. She stayed out there a long time, rotisserie-ing around to feel the pelting on every side.
When we woke up the next morning, the world was white with new snow.