ABOARD THE ELECTION EXPRESS
NASHVILLE, Tennessee (CNN)– West End Avenue is clear again today. Traffic is flowing.
The candidates are gone. The second presidential debate is some kind of history; one more to go.
For 24 hours or so– from the night before the debate until deep into the night the debate was held– West End Avenue looked intermittently like the scene of an action-adventure movie with a predictable and frenzied plot:
Police cars screaming up and down the boulevard, dome lights flaring, sirens wailing. Helicopters whirring overhead. State and local officers on the corners, giving the cold eye to passersby. People pouring out of buildings, to see what the emergency might be.
We in this nation all know that it has been many years since political motorcades have had anything in common with John F. Kennedy waving from an open-top convertible as he and his wife roll merrily down the street. But it is still startling, every time you see it, to encounter what a modern-day motorcade has become.
“Who’s it going to be?” said Derrick Stefford, 32.
We were standing a little after 9 p.m., the night before the debate, outside Mrs. Winner’s, a fast-food chicken restaurant where he works.
“I don’t know,” I said. “It has to be one of them.”
“McCain,“ the cop on the corner, standing a few feet from us, said.
All traffic on West End had been halted, save for the squad cars roaring up and down, as if rehearsing for a dirt-track drive-in feature. The signs in front of the businesses on the street were conventional: Pizza Hut, Renasant Bank, Valentino’s Ristorante, Arby‘s. But it was a street with no cars.
“I was hoping for Obama,” Derrick Stefford said.
On the side streets, every lane of traffic was backed up. No one was getting onto West End. On 19th, the cars extended all the way back to Gigi’s Cupcakes and beyond. The faces of the drivers and their passengers behind the windshields were not placid. It’s a wonder any presidential candidate ever wins a single vote of the people stuck in traffic in the towns where they come to debate.
The goal of the town-hall-style debate in Nashville was to make the candidates’ visit seem as low-key and friendly and close to casual as possible, almost as if they just happened to be passing through the neighborhood. On debate night they would address the questioners in the audience: “Thank you, Oliver, that’s an excellent question.“ “Well, Teresa. . . .“ Not a hint of tension. Nice and easy.
At 9:18 the night before, the candidate, whoever he was, encased inside the motorcade on West End Avenue, came suddenly hurtling by, the purposely dizzying wash of lights and sound and gunning motors causing the people on the street to not really absorb what had happened until it was over.
“It was McCain,” Derrick Stefford said to me.
“It was McCain,” a woman who had gotten out of her boyfriend’s car said.
I couldn’t tell.
And today the traffic on the street is streaming smoothly, as we depart for Hempstead, New York, where, at the final debate next week, the streets will for a brief spell look like this one fleetingly did.
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