Monday, November 17, 2008

"Am I Here," He Asks, as City Goes Wild with Frenzy of Joy


Watching Barack and Michelle Obama tonight on "60 Minutes," I'm struck by the pace of events. This spring I could walk past the Obama household on the way to the 57th Street Art Fair. Now in mid-November, the Obamas are laying claim to a much bigger house, with what Michelle slyly calls a really big home office. And after a walk-through with the current occupant, the next tenant is reviewing his closing-day list with Steve Kroft. Obama seems relaxed. Inauguration is two months away, but he's ready to seal the deal now.

Obama's every day seems groundbreaking. As he reviews his agenda for Day 1, Brenda is choking up. "Look," she said, pointing to the screen. "He's the president."

History is usually coming at me from my blind spot. Ten years ago, as database whiz pressed into service as election-night reporter, I had to divide my time among three contenders in a state senate primary race. I spent probably more than I could afford with one of the Bronzeville challengers. I was curious whether he viewed the University of Chicago incumbent as a dilletante. Finally the assignment editor called and said the 13th District was looking like a lock. So I rushed toward Hyde Park, where Jesse Jackson is holding court before a perfunctory acceptance speech from the victor, Barack Obama.

I missed my chance to go one-on-one with the future president. But I'm more in my element as a concerned citizen than a political reporter. And my job makes it easier to take sides in preservation than in politics. When a historic district was proposed for East Village three years ago, I testified in its support. When the city's landmark commission recommended the proposal, I stayed to thank the alderman and a group of commission members. Later I find that table of Daley appointees included the wife of the junior senator from Illinois, Michelle Obama.

So I've covered him, lobbied her. But I keep missing the mano a mano moment. So much for my eye for up-and-comers.

Brenda too had seen Obama only from a crowd. Still, on election night we want to be close to the event. As do a million other people. The scant information available on the Grant Park rally is front-page news. The party seems like an invitation for supporters to spend time camping in line rather than escorting voters to the polls. When Brenda is offered tickets, she put me on notice that I'd be holding her place.

In fact she wraps up canvassing and is queued on Balbo before 3 p.m. on Nov. 4. I stop to bring for sandwiches and Starbucks when Brenda phones. The line is moving! I grab a cab and soon am introducing myself to her new friends, a police lieutenant improvising a series of entry lines, and a pair of student photographers, shooting for publication in Facebook. Brenda makes a break for the bathroom at the Hilton and the line starts moving again. I go through the checkpoint without her, surrendering the sandwiches and Starbucks, and by phone talk her back to my new location, the closed-off intersection of Congress and Columbus.

One of the Facebook photographers asks me, OK, is the press really in the tank for Obama? Well, it's like the pressbox at a ballgame. Of course you have favorites. But, no cheering. This is more like the crowd in the box seats, and everyone is in high spirits showing off their Obama paraphernalia. We wonder how the women with the long jacket covered in campaign buttons is going to get through the metal detectors. And I'm concerned about getting even that far: Beyond the barricades, the police are huddling. Do they know how they'll keep the penned-up crowd from turning into a stampede? One of them peels off and talks us down with a bullhorn. When we move the sawhorses, stay cool and wait for our signal.

Sure enough, there's no mad rush when we're let loose, just a brisk walk to another holding area. Here we get two choices: Turn toward the lake and the concession stands, or toward the stage and get searched. It's dusk and we've only eaten the crackers I managed to get past the first checkpoint, but we're all in. A mass of Secret Service screeners is lined up under a canopy west of Hutchinson Field, and in no time at all we're through their metal detectors.

We're close to the stage, but no closer than I can afford seated at Lyric Opera, and not as close as Oprah will get tonight: a half-dozen rows beyond bunting that marks off the VIP area, behind three press photographers who thought they too should be much closer. A man from the campaign comes through every so often as a courier for their memory cards.

The VIP area extends the width of a football field, marked off by network reviewing stands, rows of press tables under bright lights, and to our left the stage, with a big-screen TV airing scant but encouraging CNN returns. The drama builds despite the network's odd serenade from Hank Williams Jr. and an even more head-scratching in-studio projection of Will.i.am.

CNN teases a big projection at 10. The sound system is cranked up and the network's election theme blares. Then then we see Obama's photo onscreen, and the announcement is drowned in cheers. A couple hugs beside me and my wife covers her mouth and cries. We keep reliving this moment, partly because we're still in the photographers' sights and Brenda's 10:01 p.m. gasp goes out on the Reuters wire.

The crowd's roar seems to continue for hours, quieting only for the victory speech. It's simple, it's commanding, it's everything I missed hearing at close range 10 years ago. Thanks to the TV coverage, you can picture the scene. Bright lights in a dark night, the Chicago skyline framing waves of people, happy to be in Grant Park just then.

The headline is authentic history, borrowed from the Chicago Tribune report of Charles Lindberg's 1927 transcontinental flight. Does election night in Grant Park measure up? I'm no judge of the historic moment. But it was a grand night in Chicago. That's big enough.

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