CHICAGO, Illinois (CNN)– There were a couple of groups of guys in Chicago during the last seven days, all while the Barack Obama transition efforts were taking shape in a federal office building downtown.
One group of guys was gathered in room 1101 in the Sofitel Hotel near Rush Street. Their names were Charles Shenk, Bob Sirkus and Michael Stern; men in their early 60s, they were in town with their wives for a wedding, but the wives had gone out to lunch and had then gone shopping, whatever shopping now constitutes in this economy. The men weren’t budging from room 1101.
None of the three are political professionals, but all had been intensely, even passionately, interested in the presidential campaign; one of the men, utterly indifferent in past years to the electoral process, had surprised himself and his wife when, watching the Grant Park Election Night speech on television back in central Ohio, he began to cry because of the emotion of the historic moment.
On this day, in room 1101, he looked as if he might cry again. “Don’t drop it!” he wailed as an Ohio State receiver bobbled a pass attempt. He and his two friends– along with CNN Election Express producer Josh Rubin and I– were watching the Ohio State-Illinois football game together, and every time Josh and I attempted to discuss presidential transition team developments, the men shot us looks that made us think that if they could hit a “mute” button and silence us, they would.
The other group of men in Chicago during the last seven days was Barack Obama and John McCain. McCain had come to town for his post-election courtesy call/peace-and-strategy session, and outsiders allowed into the room briefly to take photographs were not able to hear much of what the two men were saying.
Some of what they could hear was this:
“I noticed that yesterday’s football game. . . " McCain said to Obama.
“Oh, see there. . . " Obama began to reply.
Obama’s team, the Chicago Bears, had not done well against the Green Bay Packers; McCain’s team, the Arizona Cardinals, with quarterback Kurt Warner, had defeated the Seattle Seahawks.
“. . was not greeted with. . . .” McCain said.
“I tell you what,” Obama said, “Arizona’s. . .they’ve got a real– Warner’s turned out to be unbelievable.”
“Turned out to be quite a performer,” McCain said. “Let’s hope for all of us. . . .”
Now. . .one of the reasons, perhaps the primary reason, that Obama and McCain were talking about football while the reporters and cameras were in the room was that as long as they were talking about sports, they wouldn’t have to answer any sensitive political questions. It was a time-honored photo-opportunity filibuster.
But it is Obama’s good fortune that his temporary athletic interests that day were right in tune with the interests of the men in room 1101 of the Sofitel, and countless others across the nation. One of the things about these weeks before the inauguration– you can call it a honeymoon if you want, but its meaning exceeds that– is that Americans are quite willing to leave the day-to-day dramas of the long election campaign behind, and to gratefully think about other matters. The who's-going-to-win-and-who’s-going-to-lose aspect, a daily political stock market of its own for more than a year, was resolved on schedule, and suddenly the nation has its attention span back.
“Was his foot in bounds?” Bob Sirkus said heatedly in room 1101 of the Sofitel.
This is one more piece of grand good luck for Obama: he has the luxury of building his cabinet and staff while the country is eager to look the other way. Sure, people will pay attention when the cabinet members are formally announced. But the explanations in today’s newspapers that Penny Pritzker has taken herself out of consideration for U.S. secretary of commerce are destined to barely register with football fans who are already concentrating on tomorrow’s Ohio State-Michigan, or Texas Tech-Oklahoma, or Penn State-Michigan State games, or with movie-ticket-holders who are excited about the opening weekend of “Twilight."
Thanksgiving dinners are about to be planned, purchased and cooked; families will soon be gathering for an economy-challenged Christmas; in the weeks leading up to Inauguration Day the college Bowl games will be played, and the contenders for Super Bowl teams will emerge from the pack in the NFL.
All of this is a good thing for Obama and his staff. Any distraction, right now, is a blessing. During the election season, distractions that lured the eyes and ears of America away from the campaigning were lamented– if people were going to the movies or out to dinner on a Wednesday night in October, then they weren’t going to be watching a presidential debate. A political sales call, hoping to close the deal, was being wasted, at least in that one home.
Now that the contest has a winner, President-elect Obama knows that the nation will give him its full attention only when and if something goes wrong. That’s honeymoon enough; that’s enough breathing room to try to get some work begun.
“Warner’s turned out to be unbelievable,” he said to McCain.
“Turned out to be quite a performer," McCain said– two men, like the rest of the United States, in a different place now than they were a month ago.