In the next four years Democrats will look back on the heady afternoon of Nov. 2, 2004, with the kind of nostalgia they used to reserve for their honeymoons. It was a buoyant, sunny afternoon of the new Kerry administration and it felt as light and airy as it must for the women of Afghanistan when they first throw off their burqas.
The clarity of the Democrats' victory was what made it so serene. President Kerry, secure in his surge, could immediately afford to do that thing we have been hearing all year: reach across the aisle. You could close your eyes and imagine him doing it right now. That tall, grave figure leaning over with his big hand extended graciously to pump a clenched Republican paw.
The gratifying nobility of this idea, of course, competed only with the even greater delight in the image of its opposite. Everyone had a favorite daydream -- Karl Rove's porcine face flushed with chagrined miscalculation, scuttling back into his "bat cave" to pack up his laptop, for example. The lifting of the secrecy and darkness that has characterized the Bush administration would be like a gust of fresh air. New Yorkers don't want to live in a republic of fear.
Round about lunchtime, if you weren't at the office, it had become impossible to stay home. Having expected so long for Kerry to be, if not defeated, then litigating for his life, the constant flow of mounting good news for the Democrats was too much to take. Even the nocturnal obsessives who'd been glued around the clock to dueling blogs started to roam the Starbuckses and the restaurants of Manhattan looking for affirmation. In Michael's, the midtown media haunt, a corner table of power gals was more focused on their BlackBerrys than their chicken paillard. Actress Sarah Jessica Parker was getting minute-by-minute updates from Democratic get-out-the-vote wranglers in Ohio. One exquisite detail that emerged from this table was the news that Newt Gingrich -- who, according to one BlackBerry, was at that moment part of a boys' lunch group at the Palm -- was busy ruminating over the makeup of the Kerry cabinet.
As the first exit polls continued to predict a strong win for the Dems it was possible to view familiar TV shows like "Crossfire" against the backlight of the new Kerry era. There they were, Democratic flamethrower James Carville scowling theatrically at Republican scamp Tucker Carlson in his reactionary bow tie. How quaint they suddenly looked. All the overheated rhetoric of the Bush-era cable wars -- remember that? That passe old pachyderm Bob Novak wheezing out his sound bites on CNN. See you at Karl Rove's goodbye party, Bob. All that bloggers' diarrhea from both sides. Go to bed, guys. Those long, snaking lines at the polls in Ohio were ribbons of victory for democracy.
"I told you not to believe it!" The wails began at 9 p.m., as a new social chasm opened in America. The one between husbands and wives and friends and colleagues, between those who had believed the exit polls and allowed themselves to rejoice and those who had been skeptical and drank their coffee and waited. The most mundane reporting details sounded suddenly tragic. NBC'S Kelly O'Donnell: "The rain is falling in Boston now. No glimpse of Senator Kerry at the window."
When Florida went to Bush the festive Manhattan election-watch I attended at the Palm hosted by Miramax co-chairman Harvey Weinstein and Georgette Mosbacher became a bedraggled wake with the inexorability of milk to yogurt. Unless you are one of the youth vote -- like my friend's 21-year-old son, who instantly decided he was going off to Sudan to slay the Janjaweed -- it was the night when the cliche of two Americas stopped being only a concept and was finally internalized by the side that lost.
We've heard so much in this election about the disconnected, out-of-touch media elite, the chattering classes, the commentariat, the Yale professors who wouldn't know their heartland from their leather-patched elbows.
This gathering with its hacks and actors and anchors and producers was certainly supposed to be that kind of room. But those values we're not supposed to share -- when did it become true? The mothers of the classmates of my eighth-grade daughter and my 18-year-old son gather at school functions, where we talk obsessively about how much we worry and strategize and push back against the tsunami of pop culture sleaze that seeps into our kids' psyches. Who among us, as poor John Kerry would say, is not sick and tired of hearing the Cialis ad discuss four-hour erections while we're sitting there trying to watch TV with the kids?
It's not so much a culture war as a culture chasm developing between the heartland and the coasts. And yet in this world of all communication all the time, the coasts are not really a place anymore. They are rooms full of mothers and fathers, like the ones looking stunned on Tuesday night, who work in the entertainment and media business but individually voice just as much anxiety for their kids' emotional welfare as the Other America declared it did at the polls.
On Wednesday morning, even the gay editors of liberal upscale magazines were prepared to tell you that if there's one person who should get a big bouquet from Karl Rove it's Massachusetts Chief Justice Margaret Marshall, aka Mrs. Anthony Lewis, who forced her state to authorize gay marriage. That was the trade-off for 45 million Americans without health care. President Bush won the biggest popular vote in presidential history by running on everything except his record. In the halls of the "media elite" there was only self-communion. And silence.
©2004, Tina Brown