A week after the election of Barack Obama, millions of American news junkies are in serious cold turkey, the big bump of withdrawal from two years of addiction to the dizzying ups and downs of a campaign that threatened never to end.It's been days since I read every politics article on the front page of the NY Times. Days since I've had a permanent parking spot on The Atlantic Blogs and hopped obsessively from Andrew Sullivan to Ta-Nehisi Coates to Ross Douthat to Marc Armbinder to Jim Fallows to Salon to Slate to Politico to The Huffington Post to CNN to FoxNews, refreshed each page multiple times and followed the myriad links on each page (which took me to The National Review, Vanity Fair, The Guardian) before circling back to start all over again. Here's a shout out to whoever invented the refresh button.
I knew things I did not want to know. I could not get enough of the things I wanted to know about. It was surreal.
I've been witness to five US Presidential elections so far and I cannot remember one other that riveted my attention so (and by all accounts, the attention of a sizable chunk of the earth).
Back in 1992, I called my parents from my second-floor apartment on Federal Street in Philadelphia with the news that Bill Clinton had just defeated the incumbent president. It was a short call. I was a student (read: poor) and international rates to India were not as cheap as they are now. I don't remember much from the campaign, except for that interview of the Clinton couple on 60 Minutes when one of the spotlights behind their sofa keeled over and almost hit Hillary Clinton on the head; Clinton's appearance on Arsenio Hall where he played the trumpet; and James Baker's face, pinched and drawn, as he realized his boss was about to lose.
The '96 elections seemed like a formality. It was obvious from the get-to that Clinton wasn't going anywhere and Dole and Kemp seemed woefully inadequate. Even the debates were boring.
Four years later, in 2000, there was not much drama during the campaign. Of course, everyone was probably saving all the energy they had for what came after the election. That was the first election I was eligible to vote in. In a reliably red state, my vote did not count and I knew my vote did not count, but I went any way. I was not going to miss out on the experience. Thinking back about that year now, I have no memory of the primaries. I most definitely did not go vote in the primaries. Perhaps it was a foregone conclusion that Gore would win the Democratic nomination. Did anyone even challenge him? I do remember the debates though - Gore's sighing, Bush's snickering - Naomi's Wood's recommendation that Gore dress in "earth tones" and the ensuing obsessive media coverage. And Gore trying to distance himself from Clinton throughout the general election campaign. Not in the wholesale way that McCain tried to do eight years later from his own party's sitting president, but in a more selective manner - trying to attach himself to the economic successes of the Clinton years but trying to untangle himself from Clinton's personal failings. The result was that Clinton did not stump for him much at all. Would history have been different if he had?
Election day 2000 was memorable. Voting usually takes place at the numerous government buildings in the neighborhood - schools, county recreation centers, etc. I drove to the wrong polling location, to the middle school attached to our neighborhood instead of the elementary school. The officials there could not find me on the voting rolls. They set me straight and sent me packing. Slightly rattled, what with it being my first time voting 'n all, I headed out hoping I was riding to the correct location this time.
I was in line by 7 am at the elementary school. The line was not very long. When it was my turn, I walked up to a long table manned by two women. They asked for my driver's license, went down a long list of names in the printout and checked off my name. Phew! Then an elderly gentleman took me to a booth and showed me how the voting machine worked. I touched the screen a few times - there were a couple of ballot measures to vote on too, something about parks and bonds - and then touched the big red button that said VOTE. Feeling like I'd accomplished something, I walked out. Someone handed me a "I Voted" sticker which I proceeded to wear for the rest of the day. Then it was back to the mad scramble, taking C to his daycare, heading off to work and then back home much later in the day to a democratic process all gone haywire.
The TV hummed in the background the entire evening and well into the night. The pundits droned on and on and Tim Russert kept harping about Florida and how the election was going to turn on that state. Then came the decisive moment - if I remember right, NBC called Florida for Bush, followed by a concession speech. Well, almost. As the Gore motorcade was driving to his party gathering, he heard that Bush had not won after all. So he called Bush right back and retracted his concession.
Much of the next month is a blur. The circus played on, parallel to our lives. There must have been deep angst and frustration in many quarters but towards the end of it there was the feeling of just wanting a result, for the hanging chads and the pregnant chads and the beady-eyed vote counters to go off the TV screens.
Almost a year later, in 2001, Gore resurfaced in DC. The story goes that following the ban on air traffic over the US and the cancellation of all US-bound flights in the aftermath of 9/11 he was stuck in Austria. He somehow managed to get to NY on an army transport plane and flew into DC on Clinton's plane for a service at the National Cathedral that President Bush had organized. It was a shock to see the normally fit Gore with a large beard and not trim anymore. But what a difference a few years makes. In 2007 he made a visit to the White House. A deeply unpopular President occupied the Oval Office. Ten different presidential candidates vying for the same office were tearing him down in ten different ways. Shortly before a reception at the White House for Nobel winners, Gore walked into that office as the winner of the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize for a private audience with President.
In 2004, we were heading out to India right around election time, so we voted early. The voting room at the government center was way more crowded than we expected, but it felt good to have taken the time to vote. Again, our state was not in play at all, but with the spectre of Florida hanging over our heads, it was easy to drive out and spend whatever time it took. "Swiftboating" and "I voted no before I voted yes" entered our already vast political lexicon. And four hundred dollar haircuts entered our understanding of the realm of the possible, courtesy John Edwards. John Kerry's struggles during the campaign is a cautionary tale of why presidential candidates entrenched in the ways of the Senate make such poor campaigners. When juxtaposed against Bush's simple, declarative sentences, Kerry's thoughtful pronouncements managed to appear plodding and indecisive.
Come 2008 and it was a totally different story. I was voting in the primaries! I walked towards the school and there was an hour-long wait. It was unbelievable! Throughout the primary season and the general campaign, there were more events in our neighborhood and the ones close by that I can remember from the two previous elections put together. Obama seriously believed the state could be won and that had both parties scrambling to shake hands and hold babies and give shout outs to incarnations of Joe the Plumber (VA's version was Tito the Something, I forget) at rallies. Campaign signs went up early and stayed put. Some lawns had campaign signs every few feet. Signs showing up on common property were promptly taken down. Volunteers came a-knocking on our doors, early and often. There were young kids with tattoos and piercings, there was an old couple who had supported Clinton in the primaries but had moved on to Obama, there was a young Asian couple the weekend before the election.
The things that riveted voters and gawkers were as many and as varied as people with opinions - there was race, gender, age, experience, SNL, Palin, moose chili, abortion rights, right to life, pregnant teenagers, special-needs children, run-on sentences (one of Salon's writers actually diagrammed one of Palin's sentences), the Bush Doctrine, Katie Couric, McCain dissing Letterman (and regretting it, I'm sure), Maureen Dowd and Judith Warner's columns in the NYT, Chris Buckley and Kathleen Parker (two conservatives) both endorsing Obama and both being ostracized by the party faithful for it, Bill Kristol's wild suggestions for the McCain campaign, Campbell Brown's rantings on CNN...
I'm glad the election is over and, the biggest surprise of all, that the decision came quickly and painlessly and that McCain made a wonderful, graceful concession speech. But I'm not sure I'm glad the campaign is over.