The Capital Goes Nuts

After nearly 30 years of Democratic disappointment, none of us could quite believe the Obama phenomenon was real.

11.06.08 8:34 AM ET

At six o'clock on election evening Washington seemed to be holding its breath. On the way to the BBC bureau a whole lot of nothing was going on: nary a poster; no lines of voters round the block; no outward signs of an unfolding political drama; just people going about their business as usual in the damp dark streets. The historian in me got petulant. Didn’t these people know this was big? Where were the sidewalk arguments; where was the caffeinated anxiety; the oxygenated rowdiness? Had downtown been slipped a sedative, asked to be awoken when there was News?

The city would vote 95 percent for Obama. So perhaps the population was silently steeling itself for another Great Disappointment. For Democrats, election-day heavy heartedness, the loser's stoicism, had become a way of life. My first election after coming to the United States was 1980. Up to "there you go again," as Jimmy Carter desperately attempted to make the debate about reality, the incumbent was doing well. But there had been an October surprise and the gas pump lines had turned the public mood ugly. As the magnitude of Reagan's victory became apparent, I slunk off to a bad Chinese restaurant in a grungy strip mall with a Harvard colleague whose natural temper anyway was to swing between euphoria and despair. Together we grimly ingested dishes of MSG with bean sprouts on the side. Since then, there had been—what? The wipeout of Where'sTheBeef Mondale despite signs that not all was well with the Gipper, as his speech, meant to bring California sunshine to a nation in grief, slalomed down Route 1, like Jimmy Stewart in North by Northwest. There had been Lee Atwater's piece of work inflicted on Michael Dukakis, whose big head and gnomic shoulder blades protruded comically from a tank turret—Bashful drives the Sherman. Comeback Kid should have made it all fine in 1992 except that during an inauguration party, I went up to my wisest pal in Washington (who also sports the loudest laugh in the nation's capitol), and before I could get a word out, he turned an Eeyoreish face to me and declared, "It's all downhill from here." And on to the Ballad of the Hanging Chads and the Lieutenant Goes Wind Surfing. What was the Democratic Party except a seminar in self-destruction? Why would this be any different? The polls were tightening in Ohio; the Bradley Effect would kick in; at the last moment the country would just not be able to Do It... So sure, the pall of silence hanging over the capital made sense. Why lead with your optimistic chin? Better by far to take a powder.

Two-seventy happened and with it the apprehensive city at last let out a collective whoop of relief and jubilation.

Except for so long, something weird had been buzzing in the wits. This was going to be different. Why? Because Obama would wrong-foot the Republican war room. For years they had been waiting for Hillary, cocksure they could do her in; send the Clinton raft into churning whitewater, there to founder and be lost. And then.

And then there was a small dinner party in the West Village in New York in the early spring of 2005. There was much pained talk around the table of what had gone wrong—or if anything had gone right—with the Kerry campaign. Well, there was the speech of the hitherto unknown orator from Illinois. "We are not a collection of red states and blue states"—a promise of the redefinition of patriotism; the possibility of resuscitating that pulling that bedraggled creature, American public service, out of the swamp of contempt into which conservative triumphalism had dumped it. There was some talk, that maybe, just maybe, this sinewy kid would be a hell of a ticket asset. "Oh no," said the host, who had been vocal on how Hillary would limp, not run, dragging the Clinton baggage behind her like a ball and chain. "Oh no," said the wise man of the media on the opposite side of the table; "he is the ticket." There was fretting about the how he would be tagged for inexperience, the one-term liability. Then everyone remembered the thin resume of Abraham Lincoln, one term congressman. "He doesn’t need an eight-year seasoning," said the wise man of the media. “Sometimes a moment comes along and the real politician, the man who knows where he's going, just takes it. Someone should tell him to take it."

The rest is indeed history. But until Iowa—even after Iowa—there were a lot of Democrats, never mind the rest of the country, that needed convincing. Not Jack Judge though. Jack was the driver of our camera crew as we set off on a long odyssey through America, making The American Future: A History, our four-part series for the BBC (just aired in Britain and coming to television in the States on inauguration week). Jack is in his 70s; had grown up on a farm in Melrose County; had looked after the hogs and tended the bean fields when his daddy lost his fingers in an accident. He'd been smitten by politics in 1960 when the Kennedy campaign had rolled through the state (before the caucuses had been established as the start of the nomination process). Jack had run for local office himself, stayed a loyal Democrat through thick and thin, war and peace, and was just the kind of clear-eyed fellow who could take the message out into the heartland. Jack is the heartland. "It's big," he said of the election. "Don’t know when I've seen the country this bad." And whom did he want to lead the charge against the party that had brought this misery on America? "Obama," he said, "seems like a down-to-earth guy."

Down-to-earth? Obama? In his sharp threads, Obama of the Harvard Law Review and the dark silk voice? "Yes," said Jack. "A regular guy.” What I think Jack meant was that there was something about Obama that was cleverly straightforward, something that said he was going to be a surprise to those who had set the rules of the game in the age of Rollins and Ailes and who had perfected them with Atwater and Rove. He wasn’t going to do the liberal flounder and flop when they came at him.

The Republican game-planners weren’t the only ones who didn’t know what was going to hit them, or rather did know and thought it was kids' stuff. Blogs? Sophomores on doorsteps? Give me a break. In Hillary HQ in downtown Des Moines, that afternoon of January 3rd they were tight with unearned confidence. They had the fleet of cars. They had the helpers flown in from L.A. and New York and Chicago. They had the money. They had it down cold.

Except they hadn’t. That evening, the face of the Clinton campaign manager in the 53rd Precinct fell on the floor of the high school gym as she saw a mass of caucus-goers shuffle their way to the Obama corner, all moving in unison like a giant millipede. The Obama shuffle was going on all over Iowa. In the media center, the hacks who had anointed Hillary took it personally. "This is a step, but the senator has a long, long way to go before he can be taken seriously" was the line. But in the convention center that night, an extraordinary party broke out: black and white, grannies and grade-schoolers. That there was no security whatsoever was telling. The Obama people themselves had been taken by surprise at the scale of their success.

That party resumed on election night. Until the threshold of 270 was crossed, the stillness of the clammy night continued to hang over the city. The place was quiet. In the BBC studio, I goaded the anchor to call it once Ohio was in, but he balked at jumping the gun. I sat beside John Bolton whose Nietzschean whiskers bristled at the turn history had taken. "What do you think of the way the McCain campaign has been run?" asked David Dimbleby at his most impishly British. "Not much," replied Bolton, the slow burn of disdain threatening to go on the boil.

Two-seventy happened and with it the apprehensive city at last let out a collective whoop of relief and jubilation. Block parties spilled into the streets. Windows opened and music poured into the balmy, damp air. Tears fell along with the rain. Car horns sounded; strangers fist-bumped. Those who wanted to could still find reasons to worry about what lay ahead. But few did. It was a night when American democracy spoke, or rather sang, and the people on the street allowed themselves at least one dance with history.

Simon Schama is a professor of history and art history at Columbia University. He has been an essayist and critic for The New Yorker since 1994, his art criticism winning the National Magazine Award in 1996.