- 5 Nov 08, 11:54 PM GMT
Grant Park, Chicago, Illinois: The armies of the Chicago night were young, casual, diverse. Cool with sleeping out. There was the feel of a rock concert line. They enjoyed the buzz of the queue. The guitar strummers; the woman dressed as the Statue of Liberty; the Obama poodles. They were strangers but together, drawn there by history. They wanted, at some future time, to say they were in Grant Park the night the American face changed.
There was a confidence about the crowds. They relaxed, played cards, joked. They believed they were the new American majority.
When the police lines opened for them, they ran towards the stage. The first to get there whooped and cheered. Behind them would come tens of thousands of others.
Facing them were the stage and banks of TV cameras. Occasionally, the arm of a camera would sweep across them and they would cheer and wave. It was like being at a rock festival. Their image would appear on a screen in front of them and they would cheer some more. The sound-operator who tested the microphone with the
words "Barack Obama" heard the full roar of this Chicago night.
Four years ago in Boston, there was music and entertainment and desolation. The bands played on in the rain while John Kerry's aides drifted away into the night. In Chicago there was no music. Obama was the only draw.
The crowds enjoyed the early projection that Pennsylvania had gone for Obama. They roared for Ohio too. With Virginia, they knew they had it. And then, at 10pm local time, words appeared on the screen: "Barack Obama. President-elect."
The whole crowd was bouncing, embracing, slapping hands with neighbours and crying. They were caught up in something bigger than themselves, a cause. This was not about one man. It went deeper than that. It was about the world they lived in.
"It means all races and creeds" can live together, shouted one man. Another woman said it meant anyone, whatever their background, could make it. "Sublime," whispered one woman, half in tears. She went on to say she hoped George W Bush would not do more damage before he left office.
They listened, mainly quietly, to John McCain's speech of concession. Some clapped him respectfully and waved American flags. Here was a different McCain to the last weeks of the campaign; generous and concerned with honour, with doing the right thing. Only when Senator McCain praised Sarah Palin was there a murmur. But the concession speech was only a passing distraction. McCain no longer mattered to them.
Then a voice announced: "The first family of the United States." The new face of America emerged into 10,000 flashes. To see the Obamas there was to understand that, after a day of polling, a nation had been rebranded. Michelle and the two girls wore new outfits. They looked like special occasion clothes. I wondered when they had dared buy them. Sasha and Malia skipped on to stage. They remain wonderfully untouched by all the attention. Whether they understand it or not, they are an important part of America's image to a watching world.
To the left of the stage was a pen. Spike Lee was there. Oprah and Jesse Jackson in tears. Director, talk show host, preacher; they had all broken through. They had pushed back the boundaries but this day was different. It took an Obama to smash the glass ceiling.
Towards the front of the pen was Obama's inner circle. David Plouffe, campaign manager, David Axelrod, chief strategist, and Robert Gibbs, the communications director. They embraced friends and checked their Blackberries, an almost nervous tic from the campaign. The success partly belonged to them. They had fought a remarkably harmonious campaign. They had sacrificed nearly two years of their lives. I thought they might talk through Obama's speech but they listened carefully. Axelrod clapped enthusiastically. To the last, he is a passionate believer in the message of change.
This was not an election night speech by Obama. It was crafted. It could have done for the inauguration. It was not knocked up overnight. Like everything about the campaign, it was planned carefully. It was a speech of big dreams and high hopes. There were conscious traces of John F Kennedy and Martin Luther King in it. Obama is not coy about following in their steps. He addressed the world - friend or foe alike. "To those who would tear the world down - we will defeat you," he said. To study his face when he said it, you could not mistake his toughness.
He spoke about civil rights through the experience of a 106-year-old woman. "She was there for the buses in Montgomery, the hoses in Birmingham, a bridge in Selma and a preacher from Atlanta who told a people 'We Shall Overcome'." The settling of history matters for all the African-Americans who turned out for him, but Barack Obama does not want to be seen as a black president.
I watched him closely as the crowd rode every word with him. Afterwards, he stood alone between two bullet-proof screens. For a second, he seemed isolated and one could glimpse the loneliness of power and the burden of expectations that cannot possibly be fulfilled. It may not get any sweeter than this moment. His honeymoon will be short. The economy may splutter and the power of his words may fail.
In 1989, I was fortunate to have a front-row seat at another history day; the fall of the Berlin Wall. In that long night in East Berlin, I thought my known world as defined by the Cold War was ending. At Checkpoint Charlie, the hat of an East German border guard was removed and placed on a dancing bear and before my eyes Soviet authority slipped away. Russia is resurgent but those nations once locked behind the Iron Curtain are now part of the European home.
Looking out at Grant Park last night, I wondered whether this was another such night. America has voted for an African-American. Only a few years ago, I would have doubted it happening. Racism will not disappear but America recognised in this election that it is a rainbow nation and increasingly so. Diversity is its future. The younger generation does not fear it. I went to a Republican rally in Wilmington, Ohio. Every face was white. The party will have to broaden its appeal to stay competitive in the future.
The world is already saluting Barack Obama. The love affair won't last but, for a while, America will regain its lure. The strength and vibrancy of its democracy will be admired. To throw up a candidate like Barack Obama is testimony to the success of the American system. But will it be a history day? It could be but, in any case, to be there on that night was a privilege.
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