November 5, 2008
Tomgram: Heading for 2012
Obama and “the Elecular”
By Tom Engelhardt
The following email came in from my friend Wendy, very early Tuesday morning: “At 6:22, I am standing in a block long line on w. 65th. In 33 years I have never stood behind more than ten people for a prez election…”
Keep in mind that we’re talking about New York City, where the election result was never in doubt. At about the same time, at our neighborhood polling place, my wife found a more than hour-long line winding around the block, and my son, on his way to work, had a similar traffic-jam experience. For a friend downtown, it was two-and-a-half hours. Again, this wasn’t contested Ohio, it was New York City.
So don’t think I wasn’t excited — even thrilled, even filled with hope — when, at 11:30 that morning I hit my polling place and still found a sizeable, if swiftly moving, line of voters of every age, size, and color, and in the sunniest of moods. Normally, on voting day, I just waltz in. But it was a pleasure to wait and imagine. Even then I knew, as Jonathan Freedland wrote recently of Tom Friedman’s new book, that the plural of “anecdote” is not “data.” But believe me, that didn’t stop me from thinking about what the turnout might be like in states where it mattered, or what that might mean. And it didn’t stop me from remembering another moment, more than four years earlier.
It was the summer of 2004 and I was walking the floor of a packed Democratic Convention in Boston, interviewing dutiful delegates. They were intent on nominating John Kerry as the Party’s candidate because they were convinced he was the man who could “win.” Despite no less dutiful cheering as speakers rattled on, there was a low hum of conversation, a sense of distraction in the air — until, that is, a politician I had never heard of, a young man from Illinois named Barack Obama, was introduced as the keynote speaker.
All I can say is that I’ve never been in a crowd so electrified. It was visceral, as if the auditorium itself had suddenly come alive. I felt it as a pure shot of energy coursing through my body. Like others in that vast arena, I simply didn’t know what hit me. When it was over — and it took a long time for that surging din to ebb — when I could finally shout into a cell phone, I called my daughter, who, by an odd coincidence, was in the nosebleed section of the same arena with a camera crew. What I said to her (and then repeated to a friend in another call soon after) was: “I know this is going to sound ridiculous but I think I just heard a future president of the United States.” (And then, in my report from the convention, I actually wrote it down: “He was a knock-out. Call me starry-eyed, or simply punchy as a day inside the Fleet Center ended, but there’s always something about genuine enthusiasts that just does get to you. I thought to myself when Obama was finished and the place was truly rocking, maybe, just maybe, I listened to a speech by a future president of the United States.”)
Soon after, a friend commented that people had said the same thing of Julian Bond back in the 1960s. And I promptly forgot all about it until my daughter reminded me of it this spring.
Last night, that electric moment came to mind again — as a journey of unbelievable improbability reached its provisional, slightly miraculous endpoint. And, while the results poured in, I had another visit from the past. I remembered a day in 1950. I was six and my mother had taken me to one of those magnificent old movie palaces then still on Broadway in New York City to see a cowboy flick. At its climax, with the hero and villain locked in primordial struggle on a mountainside, the bad guy went over the cliff. As it happened, my father had mentioned this dramatic plot development the previous evening and so, as the villain dropped into the void, I yelled out into that darkened theater in sheer delight at being in the know, “My Dad told me it was going to happen this way!”