THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Nov. 5 - A vibrating cell phone woke me at 7:21. It was Rick, my friend and former coworker at the Claremont video store where I work part time. Rick texted feels great today, like in Star Wars 3 when Luke Skywalker defeated the Republic and the entire galaxy was celebrating. It took a moment to figure out that I wasn't irritated at being roused, another moment to remember that Barack Obama had been elected president of the United States. The closest emotional template for this feeling would have to be waking on Christmas morning. For those of us not running for First Lady, it seems safe to call it for what it is: Late Onset Patriotism. For the first time in my adult life, I'm actually proud of my country.
There are auxiliary lumps of relief. The end of the victory speech was almost as satisfying as the victory itself; as soon as Obama stepped off the stage at Grant Park, he entered the invisible, vast cloud of presidential protection that makes him exponentially more bullet-proof. He has four more years before having to plunge back into another Dawn Of The Dead crowd of outstretched arms. The two Tennessee skinheads who plotted a shoot-out in tuxedos and top hats will have to content themselves with writing angry letters to the Memphis Daily News. It's over.
This win is doubled by its matching defeat, that harmonious property of zero-sum two-party politics that has a blue line rise as a red line falls, as perfectly symmetrical as trees reflected on a shoreline. Just as important as what we get is what we have been spared; four more years of sadistic fast-food incompetence, grumpy and perky flavored. We will not have to listen to Sarah Palin's voice any more. As the morning wore on, I realized I was in my own cloud, perhaps what sports writer Roger Angell calls the "cloud of smugness" (although he was referring to November 4's direct democratic participation, and not November 5's glorious, sanctimonious gloating).
I tried to remember what I had done four years ago. 11/3/04 was rough, but details are fuzzy. I know I gave myself only twenty-four hours to sulk, that I spent the day frowning at children and giving the thumbs-down to old people, and that at one point I mooned a photo booth as a souvenir for my future self. Should I give myself only one day to feel ecstatic as well? I tried to remember my objections to Obama only a year ago. "Too young", was one. "Younger than Henry Rollins", was another. Hillary Clinton, I felt, was far smarter. That past misjudgment should inform my present euphoria. President Obama (!!) will disappoint all of us. Everyone knows this. But so what?
At one, I drove to Claremont Toyota for a scheduled oil change. I swapped my keys for a pager, similar to those given to waiting customers at Olive Garden, and found an empty table amidst the shiny new Corollas and Tacomas. CT's showroom was large and quiet, like a well-funded library. People sat reading and drinking free coffee. A grand piano rested unused in one corner. Overhead flat screens displayed silent, soothing montages of the previous night's events. I was careful not to glance up for more than a few seconds, lest I get goofy-faced and misty-eyed all over again.
It's a complete coincidence that I started reading Fritz Hirschfeld's George Washington and Slavery right before the election. If 1780's sensibilities seemed barbaric before November 4, they'd lost all meaning on this day. Washington's slaves didn't really have much to say on their own behalf in this book - being slaves, they wrote nothing and left only names, duly noted in GW's prodigious ledgers, and the impressions made on a few visiting notables (Washington's own cloud of presidential protection could be pierced with a simple letter of introduction). At several points, George and Martha complained bitterly at the ingratitude of their runaways, like parents of wayward hippies. It was both a fascinating read and, paradoxically, the kind of thing my southern friend Kelly would call a Snorey Snack. When the showroom chairs grew uncomfortable, I retired to one of the plush sofas hidden in the financing alcove, cracked open my book and promptly fell asleep.
I woke to a vibration. It took a moment to figure out it wasn't the store's pager letting me know my car was ready, but instead someone calling the phone in my pants, waking me for the second time in one day. It was Dennis, my boss at the video store. "It's the economy," Dennis said grimly. "We just can't afford to keep you on." I smiled serenely, remembering that Barack Obama had been elected president of the United States. "Come on in, and we'll cut you a final check," Dennis said. I agreed cheerfully. President Obama!
Early on in this campaign, several cynical Republicans noted that a new terrorist attack would benefit the perceived foreign policy strengths of their candidate. Just this summer, I noted cynically that Hurricane Gustav had the potential to be the opposite of a new terrorist attack, an unforeseen catastrophe with the potential to inflict maximum political damage on the McCain side. Now I understand my faulty math. Yesterday was the opposite of 9/11, almost surely the only such day anyone alive will ever experience. For one night, people across the planet covered their mouths in raw shock - a gesture eerily familiar from 9/11, but tracking to the extreme opposite end of the emotional spectrum. It was as if the Earth team had just won an intergalactic futbol championship. We're in unknown territory. Star Wars 3 ended without showing us who took over the reigns of the empire, much less how they governed.