I wrote this shortly after Election night 2008, Arizona.
Where were you when…
A man landed on the moon? When Kennedy was shot? When Saigon fell?
When I was ‘one of those young kids’ at CBS News, I heard these questions all the time. Actually, like Jeopardy, you always got the answer first. Some crusty cameraman would be lounging in the Evening News fishbowl on a slow Saturday and start reminiscing about the fall of Saigon, when he was hanging out the back of a Huey, a producer holding on to his jacket so he didn’t fall out of the bird. Someone else would chime in that they were in Hong Kong, waiting for the canisters of yesterday’s film to arrive. And so on and so forth around the room, until they got to me, who was only there to drop off some useless piece of paper from the Foreign Desk.
Some senior producer would look at me with rheumy-eyed amusement and inquire where I had been on April 30th, 1975. And I would be forced to smile and say, with all the twenty-two year old moxie I could summon, that I was “not yet conceived.”
This would set off a chorus of groans, rueful laughter and other variations on the basic “I’m so fucking old” theme. Then I would blush, wave and scoot out of the room as fast as humanly possible.
But as the years went by, I began to accumulate my own list of “where were you when” moments. When JFK Jr’s plane went missing over the Atlantic, I was on the West Side Highway, late to my weekend shift as a desk assistant at CBS News Radio. On Y2K, I was ladling carrot-ginger soup into martini glasses, dinner party hostess to the seven or so people in all of New York City who didn’t make plans that night. (Most were journalists who figured they’d be called in at midnight when the world went to shit, and didn’t want to be stuck in the rafters of Madison Square Garden watching Billy Joel).
Of course, like everyone else in New York, my defining “where were you when” moment arrived bright and early on September 11, 2001. All these years later, it’s still the first thing anyone who’s not from New York asks you, when they find out you used to live there. New Yorkers don’t ask; they just remember.
I left New York soon after September 11th, for a job in the CBS LA Bureau, (but really for a nice guy, and a chance not to be ‘a fucking crazy New Yorker’ for the rest of my life). As an associate producer, I spent most of my time in the field, so I was able to experience more of those memorable “where were you’s.”
When the space shuttle Columbia exploded, I was on vacation in San Francisco with my mom. The morning after a spectacular meal at Chez Panisse, I was awakened at 7am by a 99 mph fastball phone call from my LA bureau chief:
The day before the U.S. invaded Iraq, I got a phone call from my former boss in New York, who told me to get on a plane to come “staff the war.” When the invasion began, I was sitting back in my old spot on the foreign desk, watching green streaks of light across the Baghdad sky. I stayed in New York a month, at which point I was sent home. The war, of course, did not get sent home.
Ninety percent of the time, the unifying theme of these “where were you when” moments is tragedy. The very purpose of the question is to share collective grief, and for those who weren’t there to somehow borrow the pain of someone who was.
Much rarer is the moment of collective joy. A man walked on the moon and a nation rejoiced. The Boston Red Sox won the 2004 World Series and Red Sox Nation wept tears of joy and disbelief.
And then there’s November 4th, 2008. The day Barack Obama defeated John McCain to become the next president of the United States, and the first black president in the history of the country. A “where were you when” moment if there ever was one. But this moment was unique, not only for its historical significance, but because it was as joyful for one half of the country as it was tragic for the other.
From the media coverage that night, (especially the Happy Hyperbolists on MSNBC), you would be hard pressed to say that anyone in the country saw Obama’s victory as anything less than a history-making, wrong-righting, love-fest. Black! White! Young! Old! Gay! Straight! Dead! Alive! And in violation of my journalistic objectivity, I wanted to join the jumping and shouting and crying and hugging.
But I couldn’t.
Because where was I on November 4th, 2008?
In Arizona. With the Republicans.
Aimless in Arizona
I arrived in Phoenix on the evening of November 3rd to ‘cover’ the McCain Election Night headquarters for Dan Rather Reports. Since there was a pool feed of all the televised speeches, I went alone, without a cameraman. There’s nothing worse than being a TV producer unable to produce TV. Mostly I was there ‘just in case’ things didn’t go the way everyone expected them to.
I checked my email. I had signed up for McCain press releases a week prior, and had been deluged with McSpam ever since. It’s interesting, the ‘email philosophy’ of different campaigns. When Hillary ran in the primary, I was bombarded by Hillary updates…here’s what she said, here’s who endorsed her, here’s why Obama is wrong. Some lady named Caroline Adler is still emailing me about how awesome Hillary is, except now, of course, Hillary thinks Obama rocks.
McCain’s email blasts arrived with similarly high frequency. They sent very good press logistics emails, the text of every new ad and speech, and, just in case you missed it, an email entitled ‘Just in Case You Missed it” with the latest nasty Obama-slam. There were at least 20 emails a day.
Now in contrast, the Obama campaign sent one email a day to the non-traveling press corps about the public schedule and then, once in a while, one more, if something really important happened. Maybe there’s a formula:
(X) Desperation + (- Y) Campaign Cash = Lots and Lots of Emails. Of course, the other formula, (Obama = Second Coming of Take Your Pick= Adoring Press = 1 email a day) works too.
But back to those McSpams. I remembered that there was going to be an event in Prescott, AZ on Election Day, and I figured I should earn my money, get up early and go see McCain on the trail one last time. I checked the time… doors open at 9pm…Oh.
It was a midnight rally. I checked to see where Prescott was on the map…at least an hour and a half northwest of Phoenix.
I love to drive, especially to a place I’ve never been. It was about 8pm, so I emailed myself some directions and headed north on I-17, one of Arizona’s two interstates that don’t actually go between states.
I-17 takes you up through the mountains at the northwest edge of the Tonto National Forest. Living in Los Angeles, you see more stars at the Brentwood Country Mart than you do in the sky, so I kept staring up through the windshield at the dense field of light above my head. I even saw a shooting star, and not one of those ‘what was that?’ blips in the corner of your eye, but a fiery rock streaking across the sky directly in front of me the kind that makes me think a) I should go camping way more often and b) I hope the International Space Station’s still in one piece.
I exited on to State Route 69, and realized there were 30 or so more miles until Prescott. This was the moment when I realized that I was going to be up Really Late driving home from the midnight rally. I turned on the radio, only to hear a guy named Michael Savage call Barack Obama a “Socialist, Bolshevik, Hugo Chavez-loving, Castro-loving leftie!”
I turned the radio off.
I arrived in Prescott around 10pm, parked behind a church and made my way to the rally site. A couple thousand people were lined up to go through security, but the line to the press entrance was short and sweet. Bag searched, body mag’d, and I was on my way.
Prescott was founded in 1863, and incorporated in 1883. It served as the capitol of the Arizona territory for a while, and today it’s the Yavapai County seat. It’s one of those classic Old West towns that look exactly like an old Midwestern town. Lots of Victorian houses and a great town square centered on an imposing courthouse complete with a Marty McFly clock tower. Except, since the town is in the Old West, the street on the west side of the courthouse is called Whiskey Row. And it lives up to the name, with about 10 bars on that block alone.
The Yavapai County Courthouse was built in the early 1900s and it’s the same place where Barry Goldwater announced his candidacy for president in 1964. This night, the steps were packed with the McCain faithful.
I wandered about the inside of the square, checking out the imposing courthouse, wishing I had a cameraman, and wondering what I was going to do for the next two hours.
A few days before my arrival in Arizona, I got an email from one of the top production people at HDNet, requesting my photo so they could create an on-air graphic for Dan Rather broadcast. This was how I learned I might be doing phone interviews with Dan “Mr. Election” Rather. No pressure or anything.
So, with this graphic lingering in the back of my mind, I figured I’d better make an attempt to talk to some McCain supporters, so as to have something, anything to say on Election Night.
I worked the front line of the crowd that was crammed against the guard rails surrounding the courthouse. Everybody was feeling cheerful, despite the chill desert air and the chill desert polls. I asked one family how they felt about the fact that polls indicated Arizona was only ‘leaning’ towards McCain, and that some showing McCain with only a 3 point lead in his home state.
An older man, surrounded by his family, looked at me with a knowing smile… “Well, he said, “they didn’t poll us!”
This gentleman had lived in Prescott, AZ since 1958. His family owned one of the bars on Whiskey Row, and most of his family had served in one branch of the military or another. I asked him how he would feel if McCain lost. “I’d feel like the country got robbed of a great man.” This pretty much summed up the mood of the crowd.
“McCain supporters support McCain! News at 11!” Not much news there.
A while later, a family in the front row yelled at me to pass them a chair from inside the press area. Turns out their 82 year old grandmother was feeling a bit faint. She was kneeling on the ground, head in hands. We got her into the chair. There was no water on my side of the divide, so I asked her family if perhaps she wanted some coffee, (the only warm beverage available). One of the family members looked at me disdainfully. “Caffeine would kill her…she has a pacemaker!” ‘So what’s she doing on a cold night in the middle of a packed rally standing on her feet for four hours?’ (Note: I did not say this aloud). The 82 year old woman claimed she was fine, but as one of the nice ladies in the crowd whispered to me, “You can’t believe them at that age…they always say they’re fine and then they drop dead.”
So another journalist and I ran and got the Secret Service. He adjusted his ear-noodle, whispered into his sleeve and moments later an ambulance pulled slowly through the crowd outside the square. As the medics checked her blood pressure, several members of the media came over and started taking pictures and asking questions, preparing for the “Old Lady Croaks at McCain Rally” news story….
Symbolic? Yes. Newsworthy? Dubious.
She was outta there before midnight, and I hope she’s okay. The traveling press corps arrived shortly after and descended on the chili and coffee being handed out by the fine ladies of Prescott.
Hank Williams, Jr. arrived, and played some songs on the courthouse steps, including that immortal country western classic “Are You Ready for Some Football?” Then at around 12:30am on Election Day morning, John McCain, Cindy McCain and Joe Lieberman McCain took the stage.
McCain was tired but energetic. Both he and Cindy got a little choked up during their speeches. They were both glad to be back in Arizona. McCain gave a stump speech and he was outta there.
It took me a little longer. I didn’t get back to my hotel until 3am. Hell, I thought, I can sleep late, it’s not like I have anything to do until 5pm…
7:30am, Election Day.
It was Wayne, my boss at Dan Rather Reports.
“What’s up, Wayne?” I said, trying to focus.
“Oh,” he said, “my phone called you by accident.”
Since I was up, I debated going to watch McCain vote. The campaign hadn’t sent an email about it, so I figured they didn’t actually want press showing up. And, with no cameraman, really, what was the point? When I finally saw the coverage, I realized I’d made the right decision. Cameras were not allowed inside the polling place, so 20 guys with gear jostled each other to get a shot through one narrow door as John and Cindy McCain voted. Each cable network aired their own wobbly sea-sickness inducing shot of their cameraman shooting other cameramen. Glad I stayed in bed.
A few errands and one fitful nap later, it was off to McCain’s Election night HQ. The Arizona Biltmore Spa and Resort is called “the Jewel of the Desert.” Every president since Herbert Hoover has stayed there (Hoover, huh? More great symbolism.) The hotel was designed by a student of Frank Lloyd Wright, so the hotel had lots of those nifty Wright influenced pre-formed concrete blocks, and gilded walls. Taliesin West, one of Wright’s studio, is in Scottsdale, AZ, so there’s a lot of Wright-inspired architecture here.
There’s a lot of Wright’s original architecture in Chicago too, where Barack Obama celebrated his election night victory. Symbolism? Still workin’ on it.
The hotel was packed with media and Republicans. I toured the Frank Lloyd Wright ballroom, where the ‘victory’ party would be held. Except that the actual ‘victory’ speech would not be given there, but rather on the Squaw Peak Lawn in the center of the hotel complex. Why make it simple when you can make the press spend More Money on More Camera Crews.
On the lawn, there were more gigantic risers full of press, a small stage and podium adrift in the middle of the giant circular lawn, and behind the stage, a Gi-normous American flag. Behind the flag was Camelback Mountain (cuz, you know, it looks like the back of a camel). The whole tiny podium, giant flag setup was straight out of Citizen (John Mc)Kane.
In between the lawn and the ballroom was a Press Filing Center. For $695 you got power, wireless and little sandwiches. If you didn’t pay, you didn’t go in, and they had armed security enforcing this rule. And the journalists whose companies didn’t want to pay for the PFC? They sat on the ground, fighting over A/C outlets and praying the hotel wireless didn’t crash.
Senator McCain and his family watched the returns in the Barry Goldwater Presidential Suite. (Symbolism? Not great for someone who actually wants to WIN the presidency).
I figured the ball room would be the best place to watch returns come in, and former Louisiana Governor Buddy Roemer was in charge of giving the crowd the electoral vote update. Somehow, in these updates, McCain was always in the lead. How did they manage that?
As the night went on, and the wireless in the ballroom failed, and Gov. Buddy appeared on stage less and less, I found myself farther and farther removed from the reality of what was happening vote-wise in America. I also found myself realizing that there was no way in hell I was ever going to be talking to Dan Rather on air.
“Well, Dan, the mood here in Arizona is…uninformed.” How can you describe people’s reactions to the news that their candidate is losing if the campaign isn’t telling people their candidate actually is? Guess they didn’t want people to flee the ballroom. The only person who fed me accurate and up to date information all night was my fiancé Matt, via text message. Steve Futterman of CBS News Radio was getting text updates from his niece.
The biggest cheer of the night wasn’t for any particular electoral call, but when CNN showed footage of Sarah Palin’s plane landing at the Phoenix airport. “She’s here!” I heard one woman yell.
As the night progressed, my sole form of amusement was watching the representatives of the McCain campaign address the ballroom crowd. From around 8–9pm ‘we’re gonna win it’ bluster was still in effect. From 9 to 10pm “It’s gonna be a long night!” was the rallying cry the still pumped up crowd. After 10pm, the speakers stopped giving any electoral updates at all, and started talking about what a ‘great man’ McCain was. Hmm…
I decided to wander around and talk to more people. I exited the back of the ballroom, and walked through the narrow hallway until I found a woman slumped down in a chair hand over her eyes. I smiled at her and asked her how she was feeling about the election results tonight.
“I have sciatica,” she said, “that’s why I’m sitting.”
OK, then. After reassuring her several times that I wasn’t taping the conversation, the 50-something homemaker agreed to chat further.
I asked her, “How will you feel in the event of a potential Obama administration?”
“Petrified,” she said, “just petrified.”
I asked why.
“I just feel that he was born and bred for this.”
“You know, he was born in Indonesia.”
“So,” I asked politely, “you think he’s some kind of Manchurian candidate?”
“If I told you what I really thought,” she said darkly, “you wouldn’t believe it.”
No, I thought, I’d just go find one of those noodle-ear guys and have them cart you off to the funny farm.
We continued to chat for a while, and then, as graciously as possible, I fled.
Around 10pm, I sent this email to the folks at Dan Rather Reports, just to show that I was still alive and working.
To: People who are actually working
Subject: 10pm Update.
Long faces in the ballroom, long lines at the bar.
And that pretty much summed it up.
At around 10:30pm EST, Gov. Buddy came out and asked people with tickets to the ‘lawn’ to head there now. People without tickets to the lawn grumbled, apparently unamused by the idea that they would have to watch their candidate speak on the big screen in the ballroom.
I guess the word got out, because at 10:45pm (15 minutes until polls closed on the West Coast), Gov. Buddy told the remaining audience in the ballroom that they too could go to the lawn, tickets or not. Thus began the Last Dash of the Republican Faithful.
I got onto the lawn around 11pm EST, and despite the fact that there were 3 full risers of press assembled, there was absolutely no information available there either.
So where was I when Barack Obama became the next president of the United States?
I was wandering around a giant lawn filled with the grim-faced Republican faithful, most of us blissfully unaware that at 11:01pm EST, MSNBC and many other networks called the election for the democratic nominee.
Even my faithful text messaging fiancé was off the grid, busy sneaking into the Obama victory celebration in Los Angeles. He got in just in time to see the victory call. As he shed tears of joy, a weeping black grandmother pulled him to her enormous bosom for a Victory Hug. Now that sounds like a good way to celebrate history.
Back in the Land of White Republicans, no one in the audience quite knew who to expect at the podium…would Sarah Palin come out and rally the faithful one last time? Would John McCain come out and tell them it wasn’t all decided just yet? Certainly the press folks on the riser knew that it would be a concession speech, because the AP reported it. But the vast majority of the folks on the lawn were not up to speed, since no one had a TV monitor any where nearby.
Then Senator John McCain took to the stage and gave a truly gracious, patriotic concession speech. And yes, the crowd booed. But I have to admit, I think that was less a reflection of the actual mood of the crowd and more a reflection of poor ‘crowd preparation.’ All night long, the Republicans had been gearing these people to ‘never give up’, to ‘fight through the long night’ for their candidate. Then suddenly, before half of the people in the room were aware that their candidate had conceded, there he was giving away the store. I firmly believe that if someone had come out before hand and said, ‘ok folks, we lost, but we’re ok with it, and you should be gracious about it too’ they would have behaved much better.”
By this point I was sitting down in the comfortable rattan chairs on the patio behind the press risers. I had been dismissed by my show for obvious reasons. I mean, why would you need a reporter in the crowd to tell you what the losers were feeling? They were feeling like losers!
So I sat and listened to the booing. And I worried. Is this what it’s going to be like for the next four to eight years? One half of the country in rapturous love with their president and the other half booing every move he makes?
The speech ended, and the Rich White Republicans streamed towards the exit like Dodger fans in the 7th inning. Off they went to their claim their Mercedes and their Lexus and drive off in to the post-Apocalyptic desert night.
Across from me sat a woman in her 30s with a depressed look on her face. In my last gasp of reportorial duty, I asked her how she was feeling, fully expecting her to say she was considering whether to go down into her Obama-bunker that night or wait until he was inaugurated.
And then, on this of all nights, a Republican surprised me.
“I can’t believe these people,” she said glumly. “I can’t believe they booed.”
And that’s when I knew there was some hope for us all.
12am est Nov. 5th
So where was I when Barack Obama became the next president of the United States?
I was in the doorway of the press filing center munching on a big Italian meat sandwich and a swigging a Pepsi, watching Barack Obama’s historic acceptance speech. I was standing in the doorway because, despite the fact that it was all over at the Biltmore, the security guards were STILL not letting anyone into the press filing center if they hadn’t paid for it.
So I watched Obama’s acceptance from the sidelines, straining to hear history as other journalists battled the implacable security guard at the door.
“It’s been a long time coming, but tonight…
“But I just need to pick up my gear!”
“I’m sorry, you don’t have a pass!”
…defining moment change has come to America.”
“But I just need to pick up my gear!”
“I’m sorry ma’am, I cannot allow you access, I’m just doing my job, ma’am.”
Early next morning…
So, after spending this historic, once in a lifetime kind of night amongst the least enthusiastic people in the country, fearing to even smile for fear of being roundly attacked as the biased media person I so clearly was at that moment, I really needed alcohol.
I made plans to meet my friend Mary at Houston’s for a celebratory clink and drink. But Houston’s was closed, as was McCormick and Schmick’s, as was the Capitol Grille. All the places where rich white people drink in the richest whitest Phoenix neighborhood had closed hours ago.
Then, on the corner of 24th and Camelback, I spotted a raging party. I scoped out the name of the bar. Oscar Taylor’s. The original Oscar Taylor’s restaurant was 1980’s era power-lunch location for rich white Phoenix republicans. It folded a couple of times then came back as OT’s, a hipper incarnation.
In the city of Freeport, Illinois there is another Oscar Taylor’s. It’s not a restaurant, but rather the estate of a rich businessman who made his home an important stop on the Underground Railroad during the Civil War. Dunno if they named this restaurant after that guy, but on election night in 2008 it seemed perfectly appropriate, because the clientele of Oscar Taylor’s restaurant in Phoenix was 100% African American.
We ordered drinks at the bar. A group of black men were jumping up and down behind us, hugging each other and yelling at the top of their lungs, “We have a black president! We have a black president!”
So where was I when Barack Obama became the first African-American president of the United States? I was at Oscar Taylor’s, watching people for whom history was so often something to be overcome, now overcome by joy and elation in the early hours of the first morning of the rest of their lives.
Now that’s more like it.
So…what can 2016 Jennie learn from 2008 Jennie?
If you look back at this most recent election, you could replay this scene almost the same, only this time it was sobbing millennials instead of fearful Arizonans on the losing end. Is there are way forward? Or are we just doomed to flip the scene every four to eight years, all sound and fury and Twitter rants, which in the end signify nothing?
Maybe I should just go to bed, and let you leave your ideas below.