DES MOINES, Iowa (CNN)– On this journey we stay in a lot of hotels near interstate highways, the kind that serve free breakfasts in the lobby. And at adjacent tables at breakfast one day during the past week, there was a person crying at one table, and people laughing at the next.
We have been in West Virginia and Indiana and Kentucky and Ohio and Missouri and now here in Iowa in recent days, and the stops tend to blur into each other, but this stood out. The woman crying at the one breakfast table was in the town for a funeral; I could overhear the conversation as family members tried to comfort her. She was weeping softly; if the people raucously laughing at the next table over had been aware of her grief, I like to think that they would have toned it down. But they were facing away from her, they didn’t hear or see her, so their laughter continued, as did her quiet tears.
Many times, it’s like that in daily life– the worst day you’ve ever had is, somewhere in the world, if not at the next table, the best day someone you’ve never met has ever had. And on Tuesday night, as happens on a Tuesday night in November every four years, at least 40 percent of the country, probably considerably more than that, is going to have an evening of sadness, while more than 50 percent of the country is going to be elated. Then, on Wednesday morning, we’re all going to be expected to wake up and live together as a nation in harmony.
It’s not so much the four people at the center of this who will be the test cases of how genuine that harmony is; John McCain and Barack Obama and Sarah Palin and Joe Biden are professional politicians, and they know, at any rate, how to lose and then carry on.
But this has been an especially lengthy presidential campaign, nowhere more so than here in Iowa, the site of an Obama rally today. The campaign has been with all of us for such a long time that, when it’s suddenly over and there is one winning ticket and one losing ticket, the American atmosphere itself, the air around us, will abruptly feel very different and more than a little strange.
I think of those two breakfast tables.
“If John McCain loses, I will feel very bad," said Monica Stutzman, of Granger, Iowa. “On a personal level."
Her concern, she said, is visceral: “I don’t think he can keep our country safe. Obama is too easily persuaded, too easily swayed. I won’t rest as easily at night.”
Regardless of who wins next week, that’s the kind of quandary the United States may be facing; it was probably inevitable, after a campaign as protracted and angry as this one, that the two sides are not necessarily ready to shake hands and walk off the field with their arms over each others’ shoulders. The candidates may or may not say all the proper things about each other at the end of next Tuesday night, but it appears far less than certain that their supporters will be as quick to say: a fair fight has been won.
The distrust runs both ways: “If McCain wins a close race, I’m going to be more than a little suspicious,” said Paul Hannan, 56, of Des Moines, who is a supporter of Obama. “I’m going to want to know the exact story of how the electoral votes, from what states, put him over. If McCain were to somehow win in a landslide, that would be one thing. But if it’s close, all I’m going to be able to think about is what happened in Florida in 2000. I’d be a little bit frightened."
There will, of course, be people who will readily, if not happily, accept the outcome of the election, even if their preferred candidate loses. “I’m for Obama, but anybody’s better than what we’ve got now," said Duane Miller, 60, of Urbandale, Iowa. “I want Obama to win, but I can live with either one of them– McCain couldn’t possibly be any worse than George W.”
And Kari Traver, 26, of West Des Moines, who will vote for Obama, said: “If he doesn’t win, and McCain does win, I can’t say that I will feel that bad. Tomorrow’s another day. If McCain is president, I’ll still fall asleep at night with peace of mind. We’re in Des Moines, Iowa. We’re going to be all right."
But then, in almost the next breath, she said there was something that did worry her:
“I’m very nervous for Obama. Not if he loses. But if he wins. If he becomes president."
“His safety,” she said.
In that place by the highway where we stayed on our way here, there was laughter at the one table and tears at the next, because someone’s joyful morning is always someone else’s terrible dawn. Not that you can do anything about it– it’s just the way the world has always been.
And as riveting as the outcome on Tuesday night is going to be, Wednesday’s sunrise will bring its own kind of fascination.