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Reality Suspended, Until It Prevailed

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

PHOENIX, Nov. 4 "We never hide from history," John McCain told his dejected supporters Tuesday night.

But for a few hours, they sure did try.

As the election returns pointed to an overwhelming victory for Barack Obama, those at McCain's election-night headquarters in the Biltmore hotel ballroom here engaged in a mass exercise in denial. For most of the night, organizers hid the news broadcasts from supporters in the ballroom, instead entertaining them with country music. Every few minutes, the master of ceremonies, former Louisiana governor Buddy Roemer, came to the microphone to announce another triumph for McCain.

"We've got two additional states, and we can add them to our column, West Virginia and South Carolina," Roemer crowed. They cheered.

At 9:10 p.m. Eastern time -- after the crucial state of Pennsylvania had been called for Obama -- Roemer returned. "I have two additional states officially in the McCain column -- North Dakota and Wyoming!" he exulted. They waved red pompons.

On cable news, the electoral-vote tally stood at 163 to 81 in Obama's favor, but those in the ballroom didn't see that. The McCain campaign put up its own tally, showing McCain leading, 69 to 59.

By 9:45, Ohio had fallen to Obama, and the election was, essentially, over. Roemer returned to the microphone. "We have another state in the John McCain category," he announced. "It's the great state of Louisiana!"

Even when McCain delivered his concession speech on the Biltmore lawn just after 11 p.m., the denial lingered. "I had the honor of calling Senator Barack Obama to congratulate him," McCain said.

The audience responded with boos, obscenities and shouts of "No!"

"Please," McCain upbraided his supporters.

McCain spoke of the need "to bridge our differences."

The crowd answered with shouts of "No!" and "No way!"

The speech was generous and healing, but the supporters were having none of it. When McCain got to "Senator Obama and my old friend Senator Joe Biden," the crowd erupted in boos.

"Please, please," McCain urged.

To those outside the Biltmore ballroom, already remote hopes for a McCain victory ended quickly. At 8 p.m., the networks had begun to call Pennsylvania -- the keystone to McCain's slim hope of victory -- for Obama. In the Biltmore ballroom, where a band was playing "Anything You Want," organizers turned off the television news coverage and started playing McCain campaign ads. Next, they brought out the Phoenix Boys Choir.

The next hour brought word of Obama victories in Wisconsin and Minnesota, but in the ballroom, "Celebrate Good Times" was being piped in instead of the news. After Roemer appeared to announce more evidence of a McCain triumph, the music changed to "Cheeseburger in Paradise." On the festive ballroom floor, a woman showed off her strapless dress made from a McCain campaign banner.

At about the time McCain was arriving at the Biltmore's Goldwater Suite to prepare for his concession speech, Hank Williams Jr. took the stage in the ballroom to play "America Will Survive." McCain supporters consulted their BlackBerrys for election news, and the grim tidings began to spread.

Those controlling the television screens in the room left on CBS long enough for the revelers to see that Obama had 206 electoral votes to McCain's 135. "Fox! Fox! Fox!" they demanded, waving their pompons. Quickly, CBS and CNN were replaced on screen by Fox News's Carl Cameron, and a cheer arose. But Fox's count was even worse: McCain was down 207 to 129.

It was time for more happy talk from Roemer. "It takes 270 votes to be president-elect, and no one has that yet," he said, encouraging the revelers to "stay around and celebrate this victory." Singer John Rich took the stage and asked: "Who's drinkin'?" A weak cheer answered him. He asked them to "sing along" to Johnny Cash's "I Walk the Line." They didn't. Undaunted, Rich called McCain "an American badass" and sang his song "Raising McCain."

As 10:30 approached, Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) took a turn at reality suspension. "We lost one state that we wanted to win," he said, but "nothing else . . . would preclude John and Sarah from winning this race."

"It's not yet decided! It's close!" Roemer chimed in. "The popular vote is almost dead even. . . . Stay with me until this election is over."

But even the MC couldn't keep hiding from history. Five minutes later, he returned to the microphone to announce that the ballroom party was over and supporters were welcome to walk out to the Biltmore lawn for what would be McCain's concession speech. One man, catching a glimpse of a television after emerging from the ballroom, shouted in disbelief, "Why is Fox calling it for Obama?"

Half an hour later, McCain explained why. "The American people have spoken, and they have spoken clearly," he said in concession.

McCain's words were lyrical: "Today, I was a candidate for the highest office in the country I love so much, and tonight, I remain her servant." The gracious loser celebrated the first African American president: "Let there be no reason now for any American to fail to cherish their citizenship in this, the greatest nation on Earth."

The groans and protests from the crowd on the Biltmore lawn suggested some were still hiding from history. But McCain would have none of that. "This," he said, "is an historic election."

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