Dan Balz's Take
At the End of an Extraordinary Ride
By Dan Balz
CHICAGO -- It was just after midnight when Barack Obama walked back into the press section of the chartered airplane that has carried him back and forth across the country so many times over so many months He appeared subdued, not celebratory.
On a day when it was possible that he could etch his name in the history books by winning the presidency, he was also grieving of the death of his grandmother, Madelyn Dunham. He came back not to answer reporter's questions, nor to offer many words of any kind. He came to say thanks to the reporters, photographers, TV camera crews and others in the media who had followed him on the long journey, some from almost the very beginning.
"Whatever happens tomorrow, it's extraordinary," he said.
He then shook hands with everyone, accepting condolences over his grandmother's passing from many aboard as he walked to the back of the 757. When he was done he said simply, "Okay, guys, let's go home," and then, as he headed back to the big swivel seat in the front cabin, he offered one parting thought. "It will be fun," he said, "to see how the story ends."
By the time Obama was saying his thank yous to the press, which came after one last rally before an estimated 90,000 people in Northern Virginia, the first votes of the 2008 election had already been tallied.
In tiny Dixville Notch, N.H., where the polls open at midnight and close minutes later, Obama won 15 votes to six for John McCain, the first time since 1968 that a Democrat has carried that precinct. Whether that was a good omen or a jinx would not be known for many hours. Obama could only wait.
Election Day is always a moment of great anticipation, as long months of campaigning give way to the power of individual citizens and the candidates step back to await the judgment of the people. This Election Day might be among the most anticipated as any in memory.
Campaign 2008 has been the longest and costliest in U.S. history, but it has been much more than just that. As it comes to an end, it's safe to say we might not see one like this again. Obama adviser David Axelrod calls it "the ride of a lifetime."
Campaign 2008 set records for intensity and involvement. I remember traveling with John Edwards on the day he announced his candidacy in late December 2006. He began in New Orleans, in the storm-ravaged Ninth Ward and from there flew to Des Moines for an obligatory stop in the state with the first caucuses. It was during the Christmas holidays, a year from the caucuses and nearly two years from the presidential election itself. When Edwards arrived at the Iowa Historical Museum for his evening rally, more than a thousand people were waiting to see him.
That turned out not to be an anomaly but the beginning of a pattern. Everywhere the candidates went, particularly those seeking the Democratic nomination, people turned out. They attended rallies and town hall meetings, they followed the race on the Internet and on cable television and in newspapers and on blogs. They gave money, particularly to Obama. They were engaged.
Although it was surprising at times to see the intensity, there were reasons. When the campaign began, the nation had been at war in Afghanistan since October 2001 and in Iraq since March 2003. People began the campaign weary of the war in Iraq and dubious of the wisdom of ever invading.
They were weary, too, of President Bush, who had come to office with his own great expectations, but whose presidency foundered over war, divisive politics (of which he was not solely responsible) and, eventually, the economy. Every candidate knew this was a change election, though it was Obama who more than anyone in the early stages built his message around that theme.
The candidates put on a remarkable show for the voters. No one has ever seen a Democratic nomination battle like the one Obama waged against Hillary Clinton. No one could have seen the grit and determination that brought John McCain from dead man walking in the late summer of 2007 to Republican nominee by February 2008. No one had a script for the arrival of Sarah Palin onto the national stage. She revived both the Republican base and "Saturday Night Live." Who else could have done that?
The candidates campaigned against the backdrop of a country convulsed by crisis and doubt. Big issues, not small ones, dominated this election cycle. That, too, is a change from many of our campaigns. By the time the campaign was ending, the war had faded as an issue, though it will be on the next president's desk in January. It was replaced by deep economic anxieties that have shaken the country's confidence.
The financial crisis of September and October may be remembered with as much significance as the outcome of Tuesday's election. Whether that is the case, it made McCain's quest inestimably more difficult, and whoever is the next president will find his first term shaped, dominated, by the consequences of this economic shock to the system.
If the candidates put on a good show, the voters may have done them one better. The long lines of early voters the past few days speak of an electorate concerned about the problems the country faces but eager to be part of shaping whatever comes next. Young voters have played an important role. Enthusiasm among African American voters has been at historic levels. Joe the Plumber, symbolically at least, spoke to another constituency that has shaped the campaign. Clinton and Palin highlighted the strides women have made, and the limits.
Voters have done much more than mark a ballot. At McCain and Obama offices across the country, thousands and thousands and thousands of Americans gave up time to help make phone calls, knock on doors, drive vans, make dinners, provide sleeping quarters and in countless other ways help their candidate. Two old friends whom I've known since childhood in the Midwest sent e-mails in the early morning hours Tuesday to say they would be volunteering Tuesday in behalf of their candidate.
In Obama and McCain, the country found two worthy presidential nominees. Not every moment of this campaign has been noble or uplifting. But after such a long and hard-fought campaign in a year with so much at stake and with a historic transfer of power possible, the fact that both are seen positively by the electorate speaks to the character and values people see in them.
With their votes Tuesday, Americans will begin writing the next great chapter in the story of the nation. They will also put a final exclamation point on this remarkable campaign, and everyone might miss it when it's gone. As Obama put it, whatever happens, it's been extraordinary.
Posted at 10:25 AM ET on Nov 4, 2008
Dan Balz's Take
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