By Michael E. Ruane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 5, 2008
On a wall next to Harlem's historic Apollo Theater, near a painting of Malcolm X, a new canvas hung last night -- a huge likeness of Barack Obama and the words: "We Made History 2008."
As night fell in the cultural capital of black America, the election of the nation's first black president was hailed as the coming of a savior. "I didn't think I'd see this," said one resident, Antoinette Moore, 40. "I'm seeing it now and I still don't believe it."
But there was jubilation well beyond Harlem, as the Illinois Democrat sealed his momentous and history-making victory. From New York to California to Washington, D.C., tens of thousands of voters wept, cheered and danced in the streets, expressing joy, disbelief and a hard-to-define sense of hope.
"There's something else going on here," said Lois Robson, a 67-year-old nutrition specialist at a senior citizens' recreation center in Santa Monica, Calif. "There's something else going on."
Robson opened and closed her hands while she spoke, as if grasping for what it was.
"It represents a total departure, and a big change," she said. "It will electrify this country, and it will electrify the world. America is reinventing herself again."
"I think a lot of Americans are proud of themselves, that after so many years we can look beyond the color of a man's skin and hear his words," she said. "That's something to be proud of, and I am. I'm proud to be an American."
Several Obama supporters spoke, often emotionally, about how he reminded them of revered Americans of the past -- Martin Luther King Jr., John F. Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy.
"To me, he's like JFK," Joanne Cherkas, a 63-year-old nurse in Scranton, Pa., said of Obama. "JFK didn't have all that much experience, and he was young, but he turned this country around."
In Santa Monica, Claudia Schaffer, 61, said Obama recalled Robert Kennedy. "He's the first person since Bobby Kennedy that makes me feel hopeful," she said.
Yet in Pennsylvania's Lackawanna River valley, Scranton retiree Guy Pelosi, 82, had a different view. "I don't trust Obama," he said. "He has a laundry list this long of things he says he'll do. He ain't going to get it all in."
Even as American voters in vast numbers cast their ballots in one of the nation's most historic elections, they brought to a close a long and contentious campaign, one that leaves behind deep partisan wounds that are likely to trouble the country well into the new presidency.
While there was joy and pride in some quarters, there was dismay and resignation in others. There was also the sense that, for all the campaign rhetoric of reaching across the aisle, many partisan divisions remain -- and may have even hardened.
In Houston last night, the Obama victory produced a picture of gloom in some quarters.
At the Westin Galleria, a luxury hotel in a luxury mall in one of the most reliably red states in the union, a Republican Victory Party was hardly that.
The room was alive with politics. Prosperous-looking men in blue shirts and striped ties milled beside women in elaborate coifs and brittle looks.
"It's going to be very painful," Charles Leff, 81, said of an Obama win. He added: "I never would've believed it. Not in my lifetime."
Pat Well, another Republican, said: "This is a very sad night. I think we made some mistakes over the past eight years. We forgot, I think, whence we came. We came out of nowhere 20 years ago to build a party, and people forgot what it takes to build a party."
"There's a lot of pain out there," she said. "It's like the ship is sinking and all the unwilling passengers are going down with it."
Back in Harlem, as state after state fell Obama Blue, the community erupted in celebration, music and chants of "Yes, we can!"
In bars, in soul food restaurants, in impromptu street gatherings and at Harlem's main plaza in front of the Adam Clayton Powell Jr. State Office Building, residents followed the returns on televisions and a huge outdoor screen.
At Sylvia's Also, a well-known lounge, there was clapping and cheering at 7 p.m. when CNN called Vermont the first state for Obama.
The crowd at Sylvia's Also, like the one at the plaza, was mostly black but mixed with whites, Latinos and Asians -- and many journalists, chronicling the results of this historic election.
When the first big round of state projections came out for Obama at 8, a massive roar went out through the lounge. The disc jockey interrupted the broadcast to play the old Staple Singers song "I'll Take You There."
"I always believed Obama would win," said Rob Owens, 47, the night manager at the Waldorf-Astoria hotel and an early Obama supporter. "I was with him from the very beginning, since Iowa. It was his message that touched me."
As the key state of Pennsylvania went Obama's way, Elton Bates, 46, said, "It's history, no question about it."
Bates said, "We're at a point of time in history when there's a significant portion of the white majority comfortable with electing a black candidate."
Outside Sylvia's Also, a group of ice sculptors was busy carving Obama's name out of huge blocks of ice.
Thousands more Harlemites, other New Yorkers and foreign tourists packed the plaza to watch CNN on a huge screen. When Ohio was called for Obama, there was a roar and a long chant of "O-ba-ma!" and "Yes, we can!" to the beat of bongo drums. The chant quickly turned to "Yes, we did!"
"It's a beautiful affair!" said Andre Griffith, 54, who had spent most of the afternoon and evening at the plaza to watch the returns come in. "People all around the world wanted to see him win."
As evidence, one group held aloft a makeshift banner that said, "France For Obama."
"It's amazing," Griffith said, shaking his head in incredulity. "It's an historic event."
But across the Appalachian Mountains, at Toot's, a roadhouse-style bar south of Nashville in Murfreesboro, Tenn., cheers and boos erupted as the results came in.
Ken Lipham, a 58-year-old home builder and Army veteran, said he and his family had come to the party because "the food's cheap, the beer's cheap and we get to see the election." A McCain supporter, he did not expect the night to end happily.
By the time CBS's Katie Couric called Ohio for Obama, he and his sons, Andy, 32, and Matt, 34, were already resigned to McCain's defeat. "How can we vote someone into office we don't know anything about?" said Andy, who worries Obama may secretly be a Muslim and may not be a U.S. citizen. "I don't trust him, and all the personal relationships he has."
That's when his father -- who said he shared the same doubts about Obama -- broke in with a little perspective. "It doesn't matter who wins the election. Democrat or Republican, it's still America," he said. "You have to be supportive of the U.S."
In rainy North Carolina last night, there were sullen faces and a bit of pouting at a sparse GOP party in the grand ballroom of the North Raleigh Hilton.
"Are you going to stay much longer?" one young woman sipping white wine asked her friend soon after television stations called the state's U.S. Senate race for Democrat Kay Hagan, who ousted Republican Sen. Elizabeth Dole.
McCain worker Amy Crowe, 21, a college senior, said of Obama: "All of his policies are just reaching into my pocket. I just don't trust him. I don't think he has nearly enough experience. I know he picked an experienced vice presidential candidate, but that's not enough. I question his patriotism and, honestly, his political motives. He just came on the scene from nowhere. He hasn't proven to me that he is presidential material."
Carol Bennett, 65, a Republican candidate for a local state Senate seat, said Obama worries her. "Lawyers are trained to say what they have to say to get what they want," she said. "Is he sincere? I don't know. I don't think he will be all that effective because he will be lost in the woods."
Voters in Scranton cast their ballots under gray skies, symbolic of the city's political divisions.
In Whistle's Pub, on a downtown street of boarded-up storefronts, as results last night showed Pennsylvania swing toward Obama, Larry Falduto, 47, a McCain supporter, remarked: "It can't be true. I'm going home now." Then he walked out the door.
Sean Frost, 23, another disgruntled McCain supporter, said, "They elected a terrorist."
Earlier in the day, Paul Fuller, 48, a laborer and musician, said he initially supported Democrat Hillary Rodham Clinton but switched to McCain.
"I grew up here, in an Italian-Irish neighborhood, and I'm Scottish-Irish," Fuller said. "There are not many African Americans in this section of town. I started thinking, 'If there's blacks voting for Obama just because he's black, I'll vote for McCain just because he's white.' But I always try to be educated and learn just what their visions are."
McCain backer Mary Salamone, 86, a lifelong Democrat, said she voted for a Republican for president for the first time. "I have nothing against the colored people, they're very nice," she said. "It's him I don't trust."
Brad Burgess, a college professor who said he was "passionately pro-life," said that in the event of an Obama victory, he planned to pray for the president daily. "He's our president and leader," Burgess said. "He makes decisions that affect us all."
As the evening closed in the Tennessee roadhouse, the mood seemed to change. Beer mugs were raised to the new president.
At one table, students Kirk Sudeuth and Courtney Rynd sat with their friends. Sudeuth had voted for McCain; Rynd for independent candidate Ralph Nader. But both acknowledged that something historic had just happened in the country.
"I'm interested to see what'll happen in the next few years," Sudeuth said. "I'll be in full support of the president. I'm all about a unified country."
"This is the most excited I've been in a long time," Rynd said. "I'm excited to be a part of this."