If I sound like a teenage gushing neophyte it's because I am-minus the teenage reference. I've never been to a national political event. Due to laziness I missed the 2008 intimate party of 240,000 in Grant Park.(see below)
No matter your political leanings, and I know some of yours are not like mine and that's fine, but there's no denying the heady feeling of being with 30,000 (or so it sounded and felt) of your suddenly best friends, as I was last night at McCormick Place for President Barack Obama's presidential election night victory celebration. I got there early, about 7:30, thinking parking and getting through security and crowds would be a nightmare. It wasn't. Wearing my "special guest" pass, I was directed by smiling, efficient volunteers to the raised wheelchair section, which was next to the main press area directly in front of the stage. This gave me a terrific view of the entire hall and stage. We could see Mayor Rahm Emmanuel, Congressman Bobby Rush and other local notables being interviewed for TV, and the huge sound camera on a long boom arm swinging back and forth across the center floor capturing the sights and sounds of the gathering throng. We could look down and see the action below--a banner held up for the tv camera that played a riff on the famous civil rights refrain but instead of "shall" this one said "We HAVE overcome!" The crowd was packed in pretty tight, but gave wide berth to a tiny 2 year old in her pretty little party dress who was twirling, dancing, and running around in circles, happy in her own world! And I was delighted to see a true representation of America streaming into the hall--all colors, races, ethnicities and cultures.
Chicago can be justly proud or orchestrating, along with the campaign committee, such a smooth evening and remarkable event: polite and knowledgeable police, traffic directors, security personnel, and campaign workers. There were no traffic tie-ups and parking was a breeze, coming and going. I wish parking at a ballgame was so easy. Accessibility signs throughout made the long walks easy. Wouldn't it be nice if going through security at the airport could be like this? I didn't have to take off my jacket, shoes, belt, scarf or gloves! TSA, are you listening?
I was impresed with the committee's job of creating an atmostphere of a lively happy party, with the hall, which usually hosts the annual auto show, turned into an enormous Hollywood sound stage. Music blasted from enormous loudspeakers in the great hall all night long, stirring the crowd up, but further destroying my already severely compromised ears, over which a booming baritone screamed announcements or results as they trickled in ever so slowly. Imax sized screens on either side of the stage and throughout the cavernous exhibition hall-approximately 35,000 sq. ft (close to football field size), showed repetitive images of candidates, CNN and MSNBC pundits prattling on endlessly (whom you couldn't hear, thank goodness), state maps, districts, etc. I now know the shape, size and population of every corner and hamlet of the United States. The hall was draped with huge red and blue drapes, flags, flags, flags everywhere and bunting galore. At the back of the stage hung an enormous red curtain, which I was sure Obama and family would eventually walk through. When it did finally open, shortly before Obama walked in quietly from the side, it revealed a backdrop of stands filled with a huge crowd of madly cheering fans waving hand-held flags. They went on for at least 10 minutes. What fun! So of course we all started waving out flags. At one end of the hall was another big cheering section seated in stands that reached the rafters. It felt as though we were at a footbal game, only indoors and warm. Every few minutes the crowds erupted in thunderous cheering and flag waving. It all seemed spontaneous and not stage managed except for when the curtains opens and then the first family walked out. It reminded me of the old movies of nominating conventions, loud and raucous, with marching bands playing and crowds cheering. When Obama finally made his entrance I thought a live band would break into FDR's "Happy Days are Here Again."
Fifty of my nearest and dearest new friends and I waited anxiously for an interminably long 4 hours, knowing it would be a nail-biting, close race, alternately cheering and moaning as the results began to trickle in. We shared food, drinks, saved floor space while one or another of us found a restroom, exchanged email addresses and information about iphones, professional cameras with gigantic zoom lenses and hopes. Justina, sitting next to me, and I became friendly and chatted all the while and her lovely son Kevin took pictures for me of the massive crowds in a hall of 5 million lights. Unfortunately my phone died just as Obama and his family walked out on stage! The woman on my other side got so excited about one of the results she fell out of her wheelchair, cheering and laughing all the while. Our mood of excitement, however, devolved into torpor as the evening wore on, yet we rallied as each new state score was announced. Some of the time I didn't even know what I was screaming about or for whom I was cheering. A volunteer staff came by passing out water; another handed out flags to all of us and intermittently the entire hall erupted in a massive cheer, waving our flags over our heads. When it was announced that Ohio went for Obama, putting him over 270, the roar of the crowd sounded like an explosion of fireworks. Then we had another long wait of and hour and a half for Mitt Romney's concession speech. I expected the President and his family would come out right after he spoke but no, the Secret Service wouldn't bring him over from the hotel for another half hour. I almost left but was glad I waited. I decided that if people in Florida could stand in line for 8 hours in the heat to vote I could wait for 5 hours to witness and cheer this incredibly moving and second historic event for our country. After Obama's speech, exhausted and hoarse, I finally left and got home about 3 in the morning! But of course I watched TV for another 2 hours to hear recap and commentary by those same Cable reporters and pundits.
It was a great, though exhausting, evening, which made me feel proud to have exercised my franchise. Seeing it all on TV at home may be more comfortable, but there's nothing like being in the midst of this sea of goodwill, participating in and watching the results of this remarkable democratic process--the privilege and the right to make your voice heard with your vote. This is participatory government. If you ever think your vote doesn't count, or you take the right for granted, think again.
And Congratulations, Chicago. Congratulations, America. Job well done!
Photos: Kevyn Giggers