So much for the lessons of election night 2000 and all the restraint it was supposed to teach us.
"This is the best election night in history," says Terry McAuliffe, the Democratic National Committee chairman and designated carnival barker. It is just before 8 p.m., which may be recalled as the high point of the evening for John Kerry. McAuliffe is bounding into the lobby of the Fairmont Copley Plaza, home to the Kerry-Edwards "victory" celebration and a mob of Kerry lovers -- or, more to the point, Bush haters. They are ecstatic, even though no network has called any battleground state for anyone, exit polls have fluctuated all day and no responsible neutral party is predicting anything.
But this is no incubator of neutral parties. It's all giddiness here, albeit based on minimal hard data -- data that will turn messy for them in a matter of hours. "I know we're gonna win because the gods are restless for change," says Jeanne ("like the hurricane") Sauro, who has concluded this about the gods and their restlessness based on a rainstorm that began just before 9 p.m. She is wearing a Kerry-Edwards button the size of a hubcap and waiting in a bottleneck of people trying to enter a "victory" rally in front of the Boston Public Library in Copley Square. Jon Bon Jovi will perform here later, as will James Taylor and Carole King, among others. John Kerry will perform, too, so the plan goes. He will deliver a rousing victory speech (so the plan goes), say something gracious about President Bush and bask in the moment he has worked two years -- some say 60 years -- to enjoy.
Unless he loses, and doesn't come out at all. Or unless the evening drags on, as it did four years ago, and some surrogate -- a Kerry version of Al Gore's Bill Daley -- tells everyone it's time to go home. At 9:30 p.m., all of these scenarios -- win, lose or deadlock -- are plausible, and Tom Brokaw is looming over Copley Square on a big screen, telling everyone how close it all looks. And here we go again, maybe.
Kerry had begun his day in Wisconsin before returning to Boston to vote and eat lunch -- per his Election Day custom -- at Faneuil Hall's Union Oyster House. He ate a dozen clams and drank a dark ale. On the campaign plane, Kerry gave custom-made "Real Deal Express" jackets to reporters who had covered him on the stump for months. He also gave engraved silver bowls to his staffers, many of whom were tearful. On several occasions, in public and in private, Kerry has mentioned the "magical ride" he was concluding and how, win or lose, he would never forget it.
By 11:15 p.m. at the party, a majority of rallygoers are predicting the third scenario -- deadlock. The rain has given way to cold, the earlier giddiness has succumbed to nerves, resignation and shivers. "I'm very scared at this point," says Molly Shaffer, milling around a grassy area near a row of riot police and portable toilets. The crowd is fixated on the massive TV, which someone switches among NBC, ABC and CNN. The Black Eyed Peas and James Taylor come and go, performing for about 20 minutes each. When CNN's Jeff Greenfield says it could be "fatal" to Bush if he loses the midwestern battlegrounds, the crowd roars, then hushes, hanging on his next word.
"Zogby has Kerry up in Ohio," a man tells a crowd of strangers, relaying word from his cell phone.
"I've been nervous all day," says Jeanne Greenberg, just off the phone with her mother in Ohio. "Then I got excited being around all these Kerry people. Now I'm a nervous wreck again." She squints at the TV, which is showing fresh New Hampshire numbers but cuts abruptly to a shot of former senator Max Cleland, who has just taken the stage. "I'm Max Cleland, and I'm reporting for duty," says the Georgia Democrat, and Greenberg rolls her eyes. "It was a good line the first time," she says, but now she's cold and eager for results.
Instead she gets Sheryl Crow, now onstage and filling the big screen, singing her hit song "A Change Would Do You Good." Crow asks if everyone is energized (gets a lukewarm "yesss"), and if everyone is "positive and upbeat" ("yesss"). She says it's time to party. Which, at midnight, is a tough sell.
At 12:30 a.m. it is raining again, a chilled, pelting drizzle. Florida is gone, and so are several hundred Kerryphiles, who are gridlocked at the exits, trying to leave.
"It's a bummer if Bush wins," says April Duckworth, of Brighton, Mass. She is holding an umbrella, looking prepared for a bummer, if not resigned to one. She has questions about Ohio. Everyone does. Provisional ballots, absentee ballots, recount scenarios. She's confused, frankly. But not leaving. "This is the place to be for a party," she says. "In case Kerry wins."
"Ohio, Ohio, Ohio," NBC's David Gregory is saying on a screen overhead. Brokaw is saying that both Kerry and Bush have run great races. "Who knows" is still the motto of the evening, he says.
There are lines at the portable toilets and grass has turned to mud. It's like Woodstock after the novelty wore off. Several people look as though they're crying, but it could be the rain.
A brief cheer goes up, and people waiting to leave turn around to look at the screen. But there is no miracle call for Kerry in Ohio, or Wisconsin or Minnesota. The cheering is for Barack Obama, who won his U.S. Senate race in Illinois.
Jen Jackson, who is in from New York and waiting to leave, is asked by a reporter if she's optimistic or pessimistic. "Optimistic or pessimistic?" she says. "Let's just say I'm wet."