Last night was an exciting time to be in New York.  Our younger daughter, L, voted in the morning for the first time in an American national election since becoming an American citizen:  there were no queues outside the polling station, and inside we watched the orderly line of voters patiently waiting for their turn to work the levers in the black-curtained voting booths.  Earlier in the day there had been queues stretching from the entrance to the polling station on E 67th street right up to Second Avenue and round the corner going up-town.  It was an unseasonably mild, sunny day:  a hopeful augury for the innumerable Obama supporters, saucer-sized Obama buttons and T-shirts everywhere, not a sign of McCainines.  But this was New York, not America.

In the evening L gave an election night party for an excited crowd of perhaps 30 or 40 friends and relations, ranging from teenagers to septuagenarians like J and me.  Obama faces, buttons, T-shirts, and posters filled the small Manhattan apartment.  Sixteen-year-old lads with guitars chatted to such affable household names as Gene Drucker, one of the two leaders of the fabulous Emerson Quartet, and his Blackberry-and-iPod-Touch-enabled wife Roberta.

A new dawn?

As the wine and beer and diet Coke flowed and heaped trays of food vanished down anxious throats, two television screens and the computer monitor delivered instant news of results beginning to trickle in.  We cheered when CNN, followed by the other main channels, projected an Obama victory in Pennsylvania, then soon afterwards in Ohio too.  Sighs of relief and rapid calculations:  a CNN poll analyst demonstrated on an interactive map that even on the most optimistic reckoning for McCain, he couldn’t now reach the magic 270 electoral college votes.  Then, on the dot of 11pm, the screen was filled with a new CNN projection:  OBAMA ELECTED PRESIDENT. We cheered and clapped and there were some tears.

We had to wait some 30 minutes or so for the McCain concession speech, a lot more graceful and generous than his campaign had been up to this moment of defeat.  Another few minutes’ wait, and almost on the stroke of midnight, Barack Obama, President-elect of the United States of America, led his wife and young daughters out onto the stage in a packed Grant Park in Chicago to wave to a crowd estimated at 125,000 people, cheering and waving back, laughing, smiling, weeping.  A momentary close-up showed the tears rolling down the cheeks of Jesse Jackson, somewhere in that vast crowd.  Obama had his serious look, head lifted in that slightly aloof magisterial way of his, but then his face lit up with his broad, happy grin:  he kissed Michelle, then each of his little girls, and went to the rostrum and microphone to acknowledge wave after wave of cheers from his happy adoring supporters.  Later there were clips of delirious crowds dancing and singing in the streets across the world from Sydney to — of course — Nairobi.

So there was welcome symbolism in the accident of the victory speech launching a new day, moments after midnight.  For us there was even more potent symbolism in that timing:  on the stroke of midnight our older granddaughter, L2, turned 18 and came of age; born in England to an American father and a British mother, just a few hours too late to be entitled to join her parents on that historic 4 November, 2008, in voting for the new President.  We drank champagne to celebrate the two happy events and I told the new adult that in four years’ time she would be voting to re-elect the President.  Enthusiasm and renewal and coming of age were in the air.

L’s partner D, the evening’s generous host and caterer, read my mind and offered me the use of his computer to record the evening’s historic (for once the accurate adjective) events for this blog.  I was tempted, but it was by now past 1am and I wanted a few hours to mull over it all.  On Lexington Avenue as we began to disperse to our hotels and apartments there were still some people celebrating, but moments later it began to rain.  Absit omen!

Reflecting this morning on a momentous night J and I were irresistibly reminded of another joyous election night, on May-Day, 1997, when another young fresh-faced leader, elected after years of destructive right-wing rule, came on national British television, kissed his wife and bade us welcome a new dawn for our country, as his supporters cheered and wept and waved and laughed.  Tony Blair’s message of optimism and change L has votedhad also lifted our spirits.  The glorious early summer weather of election day had also seemed to confirm the start of a new age, and indeed for the first few years of the new government many cobwebs were swept away and wrongs remedied.  But the expectations that Blair and Brown had raised were impossible for any mere human or group of humans to satisfy over the long haul.  And the circumstances that they inherited were incomparably more manageable and malleable than those which will face President Barack Obama as he delivers his inaugural address to an expectant nation, to a passionately relieved and hopeful world, on 20 January, 2009.

The damage and wreckage of the George W Bush years will take years to clear up and repair:  two bloody and hopeless wars, a world economy in collapse, America in imminent danger of a new depression.  Yesterday millions of Americans voted for more of pretty much the same under John McCain, many of them convinced that Obama, not content with being black, was and is a ‘socialist’ (we should be so lucky!), a Muslim, a neophyte and a friend of terrorists.  Some will make the effort to accept the decisive verdict of democracy in action:  others won’t be able to do so.  We should keep reminding ourselves that if it had not been for the collapse of the American economy half-way into the election campaign and a suicidally inept and irresponsible choice by McCain of a running-mate, Obama might well have lost this election.  The Republican minority in the Senate will have ample opportunities to block or delay radical measures from the Obama White House.  Obama himself is already committed to expanding the unwinnable war in Afghanistan.  Above all, none of the extreme difficulties facing the new administration at home as well as abroad will be susceptible of quick fixes.  But the relief, joy and hopes of almost the whole of the rest of the world will be behind Obama, as he seeks to put flesh on the bones of his brilliant and pithy campaign slogan:  Yes, we can.

Yes, he did.

New York City, 5 November 2008

8 Responses

  1. Carl Lundquist/LA says:

    Well he did it.    A remarkable campaign.   His fund raising technique represents a sea change in American politics — the cheap solicitation of millions of small donations.  It has absolutely changed the relationship of large labor and business donations — they are reduced to being seed money.   It has also destroyed public financing of presidential campaigns — McCain depended on that and was swamped by Obama money.   Like McCain said, who could imagine the Republican candidate being hard up for money.

    One of the big reasons that Obama won was that he occupied the center — an essential in US politics.  Push your opponent to the right, or the left, and he loses.  Americans are generally more conservative and incrementalist than Brits and have been throughout my lifetime.   Insofar as wars are concerned, Iraq is generally considered to be a screw up for which GWB bears the blame.   Afghanistan is entirely another matter,  Folks remember where Osma BinLadin was being hosted when 9/11 struck.  Even my liberal friends regard it as a needful thing — the Iraq fiasco having distracted needlessly from its prosecution.    If Obama liquidates the Iraq thing and concentrates on Afghanistan, he simply would be doing what he said he would.  

    In any case, there is an impression going on that on Jan. 20, at noon Obama will asend to heaven and sit at the right hand of the Father.  This is false.   Barak is a talented politicians, not the Messiah.  He is a brilliant organizer and articulate orator.  He has a sure political instinct and a great deal of sang froid.  His jettisoning of his crazy preacher was brilliant — he muzzled the idiot and disarmed the scandal in two sure strokes.

    And he is going to need all of that and luck besides.  The stock markets are still in the midst of financial hysteria with prices surging 4-500 points in a morning.   Putin has already informed the world that he will see if he can roll Obama like Khrushchev rolled Kennedy at Vienna.   And then there the danger of a Congress controlled by his own party going out of control.   And then there is health care to consider….

    God help the poor guy.     

    Brian writes:  All this looks to me very sound and plausible, apart from what you (and Obama and the New York Times) say about the need to step up the war in Afghanistan.  The experts on the spot and many commentators in the US and the UK seem agreed that Al Qaeda can't be defeated by military means alone, nor, probably, by any other means either.  There's also general acceptance that the situation is currently deteriorating rapidly.  I see no reason to suppose that sending yet more US troops to Afghanistan will halt the deterioration:  it might make matters worse.  The Pakistan factor makes the whole situation impossibly complex and it won't help that most of the Europeans will probably be unwilling to reinforce their troop contributions — rather the reverse. The spectacle of Afghan and Pakistani civilians being killed by US and other NATO air strikes aggravates the problem.  Whatever the rights and wrongs of the original decision to go in and topple the Taliban after 9/11, continuing on the present US and UK course seems to me evident folly:  it achieves no obvious objective, is counter-productive, and leads nowhere.  The only viable alternative that I can see is to try to divide the Taliban from Al Qaeda, get the Taliban committed to social and economic reform in both Afghanistan and Pakistan, and begin to organise a western military withdrawal with all deliberate speed.  It might not succeed, but it would be better than reinforcing failure — digging ourselves into an ever deeper hole.

  2. Carl Lundquist/LA says:

    By concentrate, I did not necessarily mean a major upgrade in troop strength.   CentCoM is now in the hands of David Gen. Petraeus.  He employed co-optation of the local sheiks to turn his 101 Division occupation and pacifying of Northern Iraq and similar methods to wean the Sunnis into opposition to the Al Qaeda in Anbar in conjunction the surge.   The result is Iraq has cooled down considerably. 

    Afghanistan is now within his purview and he has a new President — the failed Bush team is about to be history.  In fact, in the DOD it is history right now.  One can surely hope for a little more creativity in the Afghan approaches.  

    In any case, we must persist.   Pakistan looks on the brink of disintegration and the thought of radical jhadis with access to the Pakistani nuclear weapons armory is not a pleasant one — for us, for Europe, and for India.

  3. Tony says:

    There is a dispute whether the "surge" — which was  never meant  to include the co-optation of the local sheiks — resulted in  Iraq cooling down considerably.
    The National Intelligence Estimate of August 23 and the Government Accountability Office report of September 4th   both cast doubt on the Petraeus evidence on this point.

  4. Oliver Miles says:

    Oh Brian, it must be wonderful to be a party man, full of youthful enthusiasm and even able to recall without blushing how glad you were to be alive when Blair came into our lives! What a crabbed old codger I am by comparison.

    With my obsession with the Middle East I have been reading about reactions there to Obamania. I commend the Israeli journalist Uri Orbach (at http://www.ynetnews.com/articles/0,7340,L-3619139,00.html) whose conclusion just about echoes my own: "I just don’t know. I really don’t know. Only two days have passed. But thank God that some people already have it all figured out."

    BTW, you mention queues (Americanice lines). Can anyone explain why American voters have to stand in long queues? We don’t in Britain, and I have never seen them in elections elsewhere. It must deter some voters, it would certainly deter me. Is that perhaps the point (conspiracy theory begins here) – they don’t really want us to vote?

    Brian writes: Being what you call ‘a party man’ isn’t all roses, despite the joy of the very occasional new dawn such as occurred in May 1997, celebrated at the time by very many non-party as well as party men, and even women. Spending decades working, I hope loyally, for the other man’s party can be pretty frustrating: this party man’s party didn’t get back into office until three years after I retired. When the party man’s party falls into the hands of a war-monger, collaborator in aggression, religious fanatic, serial liar, close ally of the most incompetent and reactionary American President of all time — when all these things happen, the party man’s life is not a happy one, happy one. But with even an American new dawn, one’s hopes surge again, however quickly to be dashed once more.

    I’ll read your Uri Orbach’s piece when circs are more propitious (I’m writing and sending this on a laptop in the British Airways Club Class Lounge at John F Kennedy airport and trying not to spill my vodka martini onto its keyboard). But if Orbach has certain misgivings and reservations about the President-elect, amid the celebration of the coming to power of a thoughtful, literate, articulate, calm and instinctively liberal politician in Washington, then he’s not alone — see the last two paragraphs of my Obamania post. I am afraid The Man is on the wrong lines altogether over Afghanistan and his repeated commitments to Israel risk prejudicing his chances of acting as an effective middle east mediator. His commitment to free trade seems highly qualified, and indeed running a free trade policy in a deep recession will require immense courage in the face of Democratic Senators’ and Congressmen’s protectionist clamour. Still, we can’t expect everything all at once and there hasn’t been a western politician since Robert Kennedy who has shown such enormous promise. I just hope that he won’t suffer the same fate. But I agree with you, of course, that we don’t and can’t know how Barack Hussein Obama will perform in this worst of times; only that he can’t possibly fulfill the expectations he has aroused.

    As to queues or lines of Americans at (some) polling stations on 4 November, and earlier: I watched a few dozen people in a long queue (containing my daughter) inside a Manhattan polling station actually go into the voting booths to vote, and observed how long some of them took. My daughter was surely not the only one to be puzzled by finding that she had to choose between levers for Obama/Biden (Democratic Party) and Obama/Biden (Work and Family Party): she tried but failed to vote for both, and had to choose between them, fearing that a vote for the WFP might be wasted. Then there were Congressmen to vote for and in some states a Senator and a raft of Propositions. Some of the propositions are so obscurely worded that it’s really difficult to work out which way to vote on them. In some places you can vote the straight party ticket; in others you can’t. My daughter had to summon help in pulling the final lever: she’s not a weak or frail person but it was too stiff for her to get it moving. We saw a public notice on television urging people in New York to visit a website containing guidance on how to vote: those who had studied this in advance were reckoned to need about ten minutes to complete the process: those who hadn’t, up to half an hour. Of course (as Carl’s comment here points out) these things vary hugely from state to state. But in New York anyway it’s no wonder that voters have to wait in line for a bit to await their turn. The wonder is that anyone gets to cast valid votes at all. There’s much to be said for giving the voter a piece of paper containing a list of names and parties and inviting them to put an X in a box opposite the candidate[s] of their choice with a pencil that’s also provided, with humans doing the counting.

    It’s been an amazing week to be here in the US and it will take much more than a week to assess its implications. But at last all sorts of things are now possible for the first time for eight years.

  5. Tony says:

    Long queues….may have something to do with the size of the ballot papers  . This is a pdf example  of the St. Louis absentee ballot….and then there are the machines!


    Brian writes: Tony, I’m afraid the Javascript link in your comment doesn’t work. An ordinary http:// hyperlink should work, though. Apologies.

    I’ll hope to respond to some of the comments about having to queue (stand in line) to vote shortly.

  6. Carl Lundquist/LA says:

    Long lines were a function of record turnouts.  In Los Angeles County for example, the turnout was 82%.  In black precincts it got into the 90s.   Even the Latino precincts turnouts were in the 60s and Latinos are notoriously poor turners-out  — 20-30% is more their speed.

    By contrast in a normal election, even the quadrennial presidentals, in my precinct the lines if any are no more than 5 minutes as voters are checked against the rolls and sign them.  This election, at 10 in the morning (!), my wait was a bit over 20 minutes.

    The voting its self used a mark-sense system.  The votes had about 10 carrels to vote in so there was little weight there.   The “ballot box” had an optical scanner built in that  counted the vote as it was deposited thru a motorized slot like the card slot on an ATM.  Even with a ballot with a dozen offices and 14 ballot propositions, the whole thing was fast and damn near idiot proof.

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