We Were All ThereBarack Obama ’79 Makes History on Election Night 2008
By Kehaulani Lum '79, parent of Kanani D'Angelo '15
Photos by David Katz/Obama for America. Licensed under Creative Commons.
The boulevard which winds its way from my family's Michigan Avenue apartment to Hutchinson Field, the Chicago green where Barack Obama made history this November, runs just shy of a mile. I've traversed it frequently in the 20 years since I made Chicago my part-time home: For exercise; to get to a Chicago Bears game; or, to watch the famous runners of Kenya chart record times in the city's world-class marathon. In springtime, the park is draped with the heady perfume of lilacs. In winter, the ground lies dormant, frozen and still.
During President Bill Clinton's term, it was decided that Hutchinson would be the perfect place to land his behemoth helicopters on visits to the Windy City, a practice continued during the Bush White House. It was only fitting, therefore, that on the night of this historic election, Chicago's adopted son would make the spot his own.
On that spirited autumn evening, my journey to Barack's election-night rally felt extraordinary. In a sea of some 240,000 revelers of diverse age, culture, fashion, and fame, I entered the park named for the U.S. Civil War General Ulysses S. Grant, to await the election of a man whose candidacy neither the good general, nor his President, Abraham Lincoln, could ever have imagined.
Waves of celebrants poured in and around the 300-acre park, many as early as eight hours before the gates were even scheduled to open. Onlookers, hoping to get a glimpse of the candidate, lined up for at least a half-mile, three deep, each wanting to bear witness to this once-in-a-lifetime moment with three important words: "I was there."
The city of Chicago was decked in its most magnificent finery. To the west of the park, Metropolitan Tower's famous blue light, used by boaters for decades as a beacon of safe harbor, shone bright. Only four years earlier, Obama had orchestrated his serendipitous bid for the U.S. Senate from that very site. Behind it, the 44-story CNA headquarter was lit with an image of the American flag. While, to the north, the Blue Cross-Blue Shield Tower heralded the historic event with the letters "USA."
Dozens of enterprising vendors hawked their election-night treasures on the sidewalks of the park. I settled on a $5 sketch of Martin Luther King Jr. and Barack Obama standing side by side. Only 40 years earlier, the legendary civil rights leader had entered the Windy City to protest the discriminatory housing practices that had relegated blacks to poverty-stricken neighborhoods. Someone hit the reverend on the head with a brick during his peaceful march. On the night of his assassination, angry Chicagoans rioted neighborhoods on the city's West Side, leaving fire-scarred swaths in their wake, some of which still lie fallow today. Six thousand National Guard and 5,000 U.S. Army troops were eventually brought in to quell the disaster. The Chicago of 2008 had certainly come a long way.
In the park, we patiently queued before passing through the airport-like security screens. The man ahead of us told me that invitations like ours were selling on eBay for a thousand dollars apiece. As though we would have ever given them up!
Inside the party, hot cocoa and gourmet food boxes were available for purchase, along with remainders of Barack's campaign shop: pink T-shirts, white baseball hats, buttons, magnets and posters.
We joined the jubilant throng in a section fronting the stage and watched returns roll in on the giant TV screens. Every time another state was called for Obama, a rousing chorus of voices soared through the crowd.
One didn't have to gaze too far before spotting someone famous. "Brad Pitt is here," I heard someone squeal. "Oprah Winfrey and Spike Lee, too." Barely two feet in front of me, the Grammy Award-winning singer, Will.i.am, whose legendary "Yes We Can" video inspired YouTube-generation voters to head to the polls, dazzled a circle of giggly fans. A young college student who seconds earlier had told me that she wanted to become a serious journalist nearly melted after being photographed with him.
The Far Journey
While awaiting the final results, we fluttered about nervously, embracing old friends and making new ones, filling the empty spaces around us with an unbridled energy that would have lit up the city.
I was thrilled when a familiar face, in the form of fellow '79er, Colleen Sullivan, entered the space. Our paths had parted at graduation, nearly 30 years earlier, but tonight, we were magically reconnected by the lifelong thread that binds us all to Punahou. We wondered if there were any other Hawai‘i people in the audience, hoping to share the exciting occasion with those who knew just how far Barack's journey had come from the corner of Punahou and Beretania Streets.
When the results from Virginia, a state that has not voted for a Democratic president since 1964, announced Barack's win, I knew that he had it. I remember going airborne when these words flashed on the large screen: "Barack Obama Elected President." A deafening scream pierced the night sky, amidst arms outstretched and shouts of "Yes We Did! Yes We Did!" I hugged my husband, then, the stranger next to me, and the next, and the next. I don't recall taking a breath. The African-American couple standing to my right huddled closely, as the woman cried uncontrollably. A father hoisted his young son onto his shoulders, allowing him to wave his special flag high above the crowd. While a group of young men in colorful ties and black suits (campaign staffers, perhaps?), with the energy of ponies, playfully jumped on each other's backs, before tumbling to the ground.
Exactly what happened in the minutes after the announcement was made is a whirring blur of color, laughter, flashing lights, crying, fist-lifting and chest-thumping power. The moment was surreal, and I was in shock. My Punahou classmate, my friend, my candidate had done the unimaginable, bearing the hopes and desires of people across the nation.
Barack's Punahou buddies, Greg Orme and Bobby Titcomb, attired dashingly in business suits, entered the space from a special area behind the stage and sweetened the moment even more for me, with "catch-up" conversation and intimate reflections of their friend.
Before Barack appeared on stage, a pastor delivered a heartfelt prayer of celebration, wisdom, and protection, a soul sister belted her stirring rendition of "The Star-Spangled Banner," and voters young and old put hand to heart as they recited the Pledge of Allegiance with a renewed sense of pride.
The Road Ahead
Thunderous applause welcomed Obama as he set foot from behind the blue curtain onto the flag-festooned stage. Whoops of "OBAMA! OBAMA!" and, "Yes We Did! Yes We Did!" electrified the clear night air. This transformative moment, 47 years in the making, that propelled a young man from the center of the Pacific Ocean to the Presidency of the United States had finally arrived.
"If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible," Obama began, "who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time, who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer."
This is the mighty, powerful audacity of hope.
The cobbled road that winds its way from Grant Park to my front door is a short span. But, today, it is long on history, forever marked with the tears, sweat, calloused hands and hope of millions.
"The road ahead will be long," Barack cautioned us. "Our climb will be steep. We may not get there in one year or even one term, but America - I have never been more hopeful than I am tonight that we will get there. I promise you - we as a people will get there."
On November 4, 2008, change did indeed come to America.
And, we were all there.