US President-elect Barack Obama and his wife Michelle leave Spiaggia restaurant in Chicago, Illinois. (STAN HONDA/AFP/Getty Images)
CHICAGO, Illinois (CNN)– The leavetaking begins today.
It’s a pretty good time to be in Chicago if your name is Barack Obama, but today he and his wife depart for their visit to the White House, and the countdown to the president-elect’s real farewell has already begun.
Over the weekend people on North Michigan Avenue were pausing in the frigid air at the corner where it intersects with Oak Street, and were staring up at the windows of a restaurant that has been there for many years, yet has never been the object of this kind of general curiosity.
It is a fixture on the corner– Spiaggia is its name, and although it sounds like an import from old Europe, it was opened not by a famous chef from Naples, Italy, but by Larry Levy from Ladue, Missouri, by way of Northwestern University– and the reason it was receiving long gazes was that Barack and Michelle Obama had dined there Saturday night.
Those who have also eaten there in the past were wondering aloud: Did Senator and Mrs. Obama sit in the main restaurant, or the more casual café down the hallway? Early news reports varied. But the fact that there even were news reports about the dinner– news reports sent with some urgency around the world– was a sign that Chicago, at least until January 20, has at this late point in its long civic history become a center of international attention in a way it has not quite seen before, and it has seen a lot.
And if this feels bizarre for the city, think how it must feel for the family in the middle of all of it. Across the Atlantic Ocean, political analysts over the weekend were deciphering what it signified that British prime minister Gordon Brown spent ten minutes on the phone with Obama, while French President Nicolas Sarkozy got a reported 30 minutes. Was there meaning in this? Could it be attributed only to the language difference, and the possible need for translation? As recently as 2004 Obama was hanging around downstate Springfield, Illinois, as one of 177 state legislators, and now the political giants of Europe were competing for bragging rights over how much phone time he allotted to them.
STAN HONDA/AFP/Getty Images
CHICAGO, Illinois (CNN)– For President-elect Barack Obama, there are four transitions going on at once.
If you listened closely, you could hear each of them touched upon at his press conference here as the week ended.
The first transition is the traditional one– the changeover from an old administration to a new one.
“Now, the United States has only one government and one president at a time,” Obama said to the gathered reporters. “And until January 20th of next year, that government is the current administration. I have spoken to President Bush. . . .”
But it is the other three transitions– the ones specific to Obama– that carry the most potential fascination.
There is the transition from Obama, the candidate whom the world had gotten to know during the campaign, to Obama, the man who will be president of the United States.
The same human being fills both roles. But there is– there has to be– at least the slightest tonal difference.
His Nancy Reagan/séance comment at the news conference is the example everyone is talking about this weekend. Had Obama the candidate said the same words, those words might have floated into the air and quickly evaporated. But when the 44th president of the United States says them. . . Well. You saw.
Yet there were less dramatic, but equally telling, instances of this. As Obama began the news conference, he said:
“This morning we woke up to more sobering news about the state of our economy.”
It was the “we” that made the difference.
Photo by Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images
CHICAGO, Illinois (CNN)– Quite a week. Here are ten pieces of supporting evidence:
1. If my reading of statistics is correct– never a certainty when my favorite truck-stop dining companion of 2008, Bill Schneider, is off the bus– Barack Obama did something perhaps even more impressive this week than becoming the first African-American to win the presidency.
He also became the person who, in the entire history of the United States, won the most number of popular votes in a presidential election.
Granted, the population grows between each election year, thereby increasing the total possible number of votes. But still. No one has ever received more votes than Obama did this week.
2. To put the above into a little perspective:
In 2000, the year the man whom Obama is replacing as president, George W. Bush, was elected, Obama was defeated in a congressional primary– a primary– by Bobby Rush, who first came to local prominence in the 1960s as a founder of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party.
Eight years later, not only is Obama president-elect, but no one– not Lyndon Johnson, not Ronald Reagan, not Bill Clinton– has ever received more votes on an Election Night.
Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
CHICAGO, Illinois (CNN)– There was a moment last night– this was just before Barack Obama and his family walked onto the stage in Grant Park for his first public appearance as president-elect– when the throngs of people in the park fell almost completely silent.
In one respect this was a product of an explicable glitch in the proceedings. During the long campaign, the timing of Obama’s entrances at rallies was meticulously coordinated– the preliminary orators (usually local government officials and candidates) spoke, the music and its pacing built up with the intention of quickening the pulses of the crowds, and then, at exactly the right moment, Obama, the candidate, would make his entrance.
But by late last night Obama was no longer a candidate, and there was no need to pump up the sense of anticipation, and the evening’s events– the concession call from John McCain, the congratulatory call from President Bush– were being dealt with as they rapidly occurred on a timetable Obama’s staff could not control. So there was some dead time in the park before Obama appeared on the stage.
And the crowd, for just those brief few moments, became all but mute. They weren’t certain what was going to happen next.
What happened next, in the crisp and clear night, was the Obama family suddenly coming into sight. Then, the cheers reached the sky. But in the quiet that preceded...
In that quiet there was the recognition:
Here comes the part of this drama that is unknown and unknowable.
Photo by Michal Czerwonka/Getty Images
CHICAGO, Illinois (CNN)– City of the big shoulders, Carl Sandburg called it, and the phrase has become part of the national lexicon.
But the strangest thing is going on in Chicago tonight:
In Grant Park, uncounted thousands of people, with more pouring in by the minute, are staring at a giant television screen above the stage where, at some point tonight, Barack Obama will stand.
And behind the people– behind their backs, wrapping around the park– the high-rise buildings appear to be looking over their shoulders, gazing at the huge screen. It’s an illusion, but that’s the appearance of it– that kind neck-craning civic anticipation.
Political preferences aside, something is going on here tonight. Everyone– and seemingly everything– is stretching to get a good view.
There are beams from Hollywood-style Klieg lights shooting toward the blackness of the sky– a little out of place in the capital of the Midwest, but this is no ordinary night– and a crescent moon peers down upon security helicopters buzzing the field.
It’s hard to guess what passengers in jets heading right now for O’Hare or Midway airports must make of this– unless they realize that what they’re seeing is a gathering for Obama, they might wonder why such a churning crowd has gathered for a concert at which there is no performer up on the stage.
They’ll undoubtedly look down from those airliners in the November sky: just more people peering over the shoulders of a city on a night like none seen here before.
Josh Rubin (CNN)
CHICAGO, Illinois (CNN)– Because there have been so many unpredictable things during this presidential election year, the feeling in the Chicago air tonight is just one more surprise.
Not the feeling of anticipation among the Barack Obama supporters who have gathered in Grant Park– they are excited and encouraged, but the official declaration of a winning candidate is still some time away.
The air itself, though– the November 4 nighttime air in the city– is unlike most November nights that Chicagoans, over the generations, have come to expect.
It feels like a September football Friday night in small-town America– a little cool, but far from cold; crisp; overcoats optional. It was shirtsleeve weather here during the day, but right now, in Grant Park, you half-expect to see the parents of members of the school marching band carrying cardboard containers bearing hot chocolate and caramel apples up into the stands.
But then you look over the heads of the people gathered on the grass, and you see the Sears Tower in one direction, the Prudential Building, the brawny towers that provide a steel-and-glass barrier wall to the west of Lake Michigan.
The lawn of Grant Park is illuminated by highest-intensity-white portable lights, making it considerably brighter than the sidewalks of most Chicago neighborhoods; the night air is pitch-black but crystal-clear, giving the illusion that you can see to infinity. There is no candidate here yet– just television screens informing the people in the park of the projected results state-by-state.
The cheers begin on the floor of the park and the echoes roll toward the streets of the city, as if signifying yearned-for touchdowns.
CHICAGO, Illinois (CNN)– They could not vote in today’s election.
But in their country, they said, there are no nights like tonight– nights when supporters of opposing presidential candidates gather publicly in huge numbers in the hopes that the person they support will soon lead the nation.
“We came here tonight for pleasure,” said Liuliu Pan, 23, of Chengdu, China. She is in the United States to study neuroscience at Northwestern University’s downtown campus in Chicago.
“We didn’t know how safe it would be to come down here tonight," said her friend, Yiqi Wang, also 23, also of Chengdu. He is in the United States to study finance at the Illinois Institute of Technology, not far south of here in Chicago.
They said they did not know what to expect in Grant Park tonight– this year’s long presidential campaign itself has been quite different from what they are accustomed to at home, and what they had heard, in advance, about the potentially massive gathering in the park made them uncertain about whether to try to attend. Like so many of the people in the park with whom we have been speaking, they have no tickets to the event.
But. . . .
CHICAGO, Illinois (CNN)– “I talked to my grandmother as I was on my way here," said Pamela Conley, 27.
There was something in her voice as she said this– something that sounded like pride.
“My grandmother is 81 years old," she said. “She lives in St. Louis. She told me she stood in line for almost three hours today so that she could vote.
“She told me that she thought she would never live to see this day. She remembers when everywhere she went, there were public restrooms that were labeled ‘White' and ‘Colored.’ ”
Pamela Conley said she has come to Grant Park tonight not just for herself, but for her grandmother, whose name is May Conley.
“I’m scared about what may happen tonight," she said. “I have trouble believing that Barack Obama will really win. It doesn’t seem real.”
But there was no way she was going to be anywhere this evening other than this park. She has no tickets; neither does her friend, James Lewis, 28, who was waiting with her to enter the portion of the park where people without tickets will be permitted to gather.
They won’t see Obama; they know that.
It doesn’t matter to them.
“This is history on so many levels,” Lewis said. “I’m not talking about just if he wins. But for a person like me to say that I have just voted for an African-American to be president of the United States. . . .”
His voice trailed off.
Does he believe that, by the end of tonight, Obama will be the next president?
“I won’t believe it even if he does win,” Lewis said. “I won’t believe he’s president until he is actually inaugurated.”
What does he mean by that?
“Just what it sounds like,” he said. “I worry. I hope he is elected tonight, but I won’t believe he is president until the moment I see him sworn in.”
CHICAGO, Illinois (CNN)– “Welcome to Election Night at Grant Park,” the recorded voice intoned from a loudspeaker system, again and again and again.
“We talked to the boys about safety,” said Catherine Dunn, 36.
“They know not to walk away from us, and to look for a policeman if there’s any trouble," said her husband, Dale Dunn, 38.
They had come downtown to Chicago from suburban Schaumburg tonight, bringing with them their sons: Liam, 5, and Elliot, 4. They had heard all the stories about the huge crowds that are expected– people with tickets, people without tickets– and they are among the latter. But they felt they had to be here tonight.
“We want the boys, some day, to be able to say that they were here," Catherine Dunn said.
She said she will feel that way even if Barack Obama does not win the presidency: “There’s never been a night like this in Chicago,” she said. “It’s going to be an unforgettable experience, no matter what."
“This is an opportunity of a lifetime,” Dale Dunn said. “I want us to be able to talk about this night with our sons when they get older.”
The history of the piece of land to where they were heading is not pristine: this is where the riots at the Democratic National Convention of 1968 unfolded and ended up defining another presidential election season, and where street crime marred the area surrounding the Taste of Chicago festival during the summer just past. Grant Park, historically, has not been a place where one has automatically been able to count on placid and unsullied times.
But the Dunn family believes that nothing that has gone on here before will equal, in the city’s collective memory, what will happen tonight should Obama become president-elect.
“We won’t stay here all night, because the boys have their bedtime," Catherine Dunn said. “But we have to be in the middle of this, if just for a little while." They moved toward the lawn, hoping to be allowed to find a place.