Election Night 2008: In the Wee Small Hours…
Nobody seemed to know whose pickup truck it was—certainly the police didn’t, but they weren’t about to arrest the twenty or so people jammed onto the cargo area. Slowly, imperceptibly, it rolled us down 16th Street as we chanted “Sí se puede!” and “O-BAM-A” and—yes—”U.S.A.!” to the approval of crowds on either side of the road. Flag-waving pedestrians constituted a peaceable but overwhelming force amid the standstill traffic, hollering at the gridlocked cars and asking those of us on the pickup if they could jump on. They could. Horns blared and strangers hugged or high-fived or fist-bumped or made out, and the truck continued its snail’s march toward the White House.
Turning onto H Street, we were joined by a policeman who waved to the six people jammed into the cab of the truck (doors swinging, legs dangling) and helped clear a path for us. Any other night he would have busted us; tonight, the judicious reveler had free rein. A sea of people parted and we picked up speed, jostling each other and clinging together for support.
The whole scene made more sense to me than anything that had come before it. When the election was called, I was at my desk on the deserted third story of the City Paper office with no lights and the admin page of the blog for company. A friend called from China. “I don’t know how to celebrate right now,” he told me. I knew, I thought, how he felt. Later, at a party in Friendship Heights, they played “St. Dominic’s Preview,” a song about what to do once you’ve gotten what you’ve always wanted. After Obama’s acceptance speech, the song made a great deal of sense to me. Nothing outside of it quite did.
…until 2 a.m. when I boarded the pickup truck. That somehow felt right. It was a nice little democratic enterprise, really: everybody allowed onboard, no matter how cramped and impractical things became. The scene outside the White House once we disembarked was perhaps a little bitter for my taste—you can only hear “Move, Bush, get out the way” and “Na na na na, hey hey hey, goodbye” so many times before they start to rankle. I shoved my way to the wire fence separating us from the lawn and raised my eyes to the roof. A sniper stood in full view, watching the sizable crowd, waiting. “Put down your gun and join us!” one guy screamed. “You know you want to!” No response. The crowd launched into a particularly untuneful rendition of “America the Beautiful.” Folks to my left and right were drunk-dialing like it was Mardi Gras. “You won tonight, baby, and I won, and America won. We all won. We finally won.”
At the Lincoln Memorial, a young man began to sing “The Stars and Stripes.” Operatic but not showy, it sounded lovely against the walls of the temple. But before he got past the “perilous fight,” two security guards descended on him, pointing to a sign that said something about quiet and respect. “Are you really going to stop him from singing tonight of all nights?” someone asked them. Yes, was the answer. The night’s carte blanche had expired.