2008 Election: Witness to History at the White House

by Phil Kehres*
Special to iVoryTowerz

As the last words of Barack Obama’s victory speech echoed through Grant Park in Chicago, my roommate and I threw on our jackets. We rushed out of our apartment in Arlington, Virginia to grab the first cab we could find to get into Washington, D.C. We knew that we might never experience something like this again in our lives, and we sure as hell weren’t going to miss out.

As we approached the corner of 17th and Pennsylvania, we started to hear it — horns honking wildly, people whooping and hollering. You’ve heard the accounts by now, of course, of jubilant revelers screaming and cheering, high-fiving and hugging strangers. The closest thing I’ve personally experienced was being in downtown Cleveland when the Cavaliers beat the Detroit Pistons in the 2007 National Basketball Association Eastern Conference finals. That night was euphoric for me as a sports fan and a Clevelander, and this night carried the same palpable feeling of catharsis — a release that was a long time coming. But the scene in Cleveland was simply the scene of a sports victory. Election night in D.C. was something bigger.

We made our way through the crowd on Pennsylvania Avenue with no real destination, taking it all in as we not so much walked but were carried by the current in an ocean of people comprising college-age blacks and whites, baby boomers, the BlackBerry crowd and even a handful of vocal supporters for Sen. John McCain — diverse and complex, a crowd of Washingtonians. Some swayed the crowd with bongo drum beats. A saxophonist attracted a small gathering. Cardboard cutouts of now President-elect Obama surfed the crowd, and celebratory cigars were lit. Everyone held cameras high, wildly snapping away, eager to capture what they could of the moment. Chants of “Yes we did!” echoed through Lafayette Square. The noise reached such a level that had anyone actually been trying to sleep at the White House, it would have been impossible. A crowd nearby spontaneously burst into the “Star Spangled Banner.” Two miles away, masses spilled out onto U Street, a street that burned to the ground forty years ago in the wake of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination. And there I was belting out the national anthem in front of a building built with the help of slave labor on the night the first black president of the United States was elected. As the crowd reached a crescendo, the exterior lights illuminating the White House went dark with a chilling air of finality. It was a moment that will stay with me forever, and I knew there was no place I’d rather be.

I got home late that night, around 2:30 a.m., and didn’t fall asleep for a while. Instead, I began to try to process what it all meant. Thousands of thoughts raced through my head, paired with the scenes I had witnessed earlier and the teary-eyed, weathered faces I’d seen on TV. I’m an admittedly cynical person, typically jaded by the course of American politics over the past decade plus. But Obama transcends — he means something to me that I can’t describe, and what he means to those that lived through the struggle for civil rights I can’t even begin to comprehend. He is the embodiment of the American Dream, growing up in a single-parent household and working like a dog to get through the toughest schools, all with the sincere passion for helping others that is seemingly non-existent in this day. “Yes We Can” was not just a cheap election slogan. It is a new American mantra, a standing vote of confidence in the will and strength of the American people and their ability to do extraordinary things in difficult times. Obama is living proof.

Barack Obama will be the 44th president of the United States of America, and November 4th, 2008 will be remembered as a defining moment in American history. Washington, D.C. was reborn that night, fear and tumult turned to hope and triumph. To be there was to understand that this wasn’t a culmination, but rather a commencement.

(For another take on the results of the election, please see: "Election 2008: A Generational Change")

*Phil Kehres is one of the authors of Excuse Me, Is That Your Blog?

(The photo is © copyright Phil Kehres and is used with permission.)

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