Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Now What?

At the end of the movie "The Candidate," after Robert Redford's character (Joe McKay? Mike McKay? Something like that) pulls off a huge upset and gets elected to the U.S. Senate from California, he turns to his handlers and asks, "Now what?"

We might well ask ourselves the same question right now. About President-elect Barack Obama, about the near-term fate of our economy and our country, and even, in my case, about my blog and the Sovern Nation website.

It's only taken me a week to get around to sharing my post-election thoughts. Election Night was a wee-hour blur of pizza slices and spreadsheet numbers and Twitter messages. The next two days were spent doing election postmortems, both on the radio and at a California Historical Society panel. I spent part of the Morning After in downtown Oakland, getting the reaction of older African Americans to the historic election of a black president. Then I knocked off our final parody song of the campaign, to the tune of "American Pie," with the as-usual off-key help of my newsroom buddies, Mark and Angela. And I've been really busy buying a house and planning my wedding - so no, I haven't had a chance for that post-election vacation just yet!

But now I do have a few moments to reflect on what we've all been through, and what it all means.

(Before I do that, though, a few quick housekeeping notes: The Election Night Live Blog was a great success, with 242 different people taking part in the online conversation. And I don't think more than five or six of them were related to me. Thanks to everyone who joined the fun! If you'd like to hear the audio recap of the general election campaign, a two-minute special sound piece I did that aired Election Morning, click here. You can hear the story about elderly African Americans reacting to the election here, and you can hear "Bye Bye to the Republican Guy" here - our biggest hit campaign song ever, with many complimentary emails and a couple dozen requests for copies).

So. Barack Obama beat John McCain. I know that I said he would, in my last blog, but that didn't reassure a lot of the anxious Democrats I know. They were, to put it mildly, freaking out. But this election just wasn't that close. I was way off on the Electoral College, but I did do pretty well on that popular vote prediction. I said Obama would win with 52.5% of the vote, and that McCain would get 46.5%, a six-point spread. The not-quite final numbers? Obama has 52.6%, and McCain has 46.1. That's as good as I've ever done at these things.

But I really didn't think Obama would roll up such a huge win in the Electoral College. I was sure the Republicans would pull out some of those too-close-to-call swing states, but instead they all went for Obama - except Missouri, which still isn't decided. McCain is winning the Show Me State by 5000 votes right now, but they still have thousands of absentee ballots to count.

Obama won North Carolina and Indiana by a single point each, Florida by two, Ohio by four. He carried Pennsylvania, New Mexico and Nevada in double-digit landslides. In most states, either the polls were right, or they understated Obama's support. There was no Bradley Effect. The racist vote was swamped by the turnout of young people and black voters, and by the huge gender gap American women gave the Democrats. In retrospect, probably any Democratic nominee could have beaten John McCain, given the tattered economy and all the built-in disadvantages for the GOP. If she had beaten Obama in the primary, Hillary Clinton would be president-elect right now. In many ways, the Democratic primary was like one of those conference championship games in football that people call "the REAL Super Bowl," matching two top teams for the right to play a lesser-regarded one from the other conference. McCain was the weak sister from the patsy conference, and the Democrats the elite powerhouse.

It's no mystery how Obama won. He ran a first-rate campaign, the most disciplined and best-organized I've ever seen, avoided serious missteps, and stayed positive, upbeat and hopeful. When the economy collapsed, and McCain thrashed about, Obama remained cool, calm and collected. He reaped the benefit of the enormous antipathy the electorate feels toward the Republican Party in general, and President Bush in particular. And when he got the lead, he sat on the ball and ran out the clock, to borrow another football metaphor.

And now we will have our first African American president.

That still feels like an extraordinary thing to say. After a few months, when he's screwed up a couple of things and the economy is still sputtering and our troops are still in Iraq, people may start to forget that Barack Obama is a Black President, and will treat him just like any other beleaguered chief executive, and that is as it should be (of course I hope nothing at all goes wrong, but let's be realistic here!). But right now, Obama's election feels so deep and visceral and earth-shaking. I went out the next morning and saw people running for the bus, and rushing to catch their trains, and I thought, what are these people doing? Don't they know how different everything is today? How can they go about their everyday lives when something so profound has taken place?

Of course, in our day-to-day lives, maybe it's not that profound. If you didn't have a job a week ago, you probably still don't. If you were going broke last week, Obama's election didn't magically replenish your bank account. The president doesn't really have that much impact on us individually; your mayor or governor probably affects you much more.

But then there was the young black man who told me he's going to go back to college, because if Obama can win the White House, he can certainly get those last few credits. There was the middle-aged black woman who is suddenly inspired to finally start her own business. There was the 60-something Oakland street vendor, originally from Louisiana, who said "I finally feel like I have a place in society, that all of us matter, not just white folk."

In my neighborhood, there are only two people who routinely fly American flags from their houses on the Fourth of July, or Flag Day. When I went out last Wednesday morning to walk the dog, a few hours after Barack Obama was elected president, I counted six American flags fluttering in the November breeze on my street alone. Brand new flags, flown proudly, saluting the country that wasn't too afraid to take such a bold and giant step. I can't possibly feel what an African American must feel right now, looking at the handsome black face that will represent America to the world. But I can think back on three centuries of oppression, slavery and racial hatred, and marvel at how far we've come. Yes, we have a long way to go, but as Martin Luther King Jr. famously declared on the steps of the Montgomery County Courthouse in 1965, "the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice."

I can still remember asking my mother and stepfather in early 1968 whether Rev. King was going to be the next president. I had only known one, name of Lyndon Baines Johnson, but King was making as much news as any of the presidential candidates - McCarthy, Humphrey, Kennedy, Wallace - and a speech I'd seen him deliver on TV had given me goosebumps. I guess I was too young to understand that the White House was the exclusive province of white men. My eternally optimistic mom gave me a diplomatic answer, something along the lines of "I really don't think so, but you never know!" It was left to my much blunter stepfather to deliver the crushing blow: "What are you talking about? Quit your daydreaming. America will never elect a black president." A few weeks later, King was dead. We cried at school. There were riots in the streets. He was right, I thought.

It only took 40 more years, but I'm happy, for all our sake, to be able to say, finally, that he was wrong.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Obama Beats McCain

There you have it - tomorrow's headline today. KCBS - where we report the news before it even happens.

I am going out on a not very precarious limb with my quadrennial presidential prediction. This is my 69th, and final, pre-election blog posting (I will be blogging live on Election Night, but that's another matter).

If I'm wrong, John McCain can wave my words in the air and crow with glee, but something tells me he'll have much bigger media fish to fry if he pulls off one of the biggest upsets in history and beats Barack Obama.

I've been predicting presidential results since 1972. Yes, I was only 11 years old, but somehow, something told me that Nixon would wallop McGovern. Maybe it was Walter Cronkite. Maybe it was my dad. Maybe it was Thomas Eagleton's shock therapist. I simply can't remember.

I have a pretty good track record - I've gotten seven elections right and only two wrong. But I have to warn all you anxious Obama backers that it's the last two in a row that I've blown. In 2000, I detected the weirdness in the air but I read it exactly backwards: I predicted that George W. Bush would win the popular vote but that Al Gore would capture the Electoral College. Oops. And then in 2004, I really believed that John Kerry would win Ohio, and thus the presidency, but it didn't happen that way. So maybe you'd better take my prognostication with a big rock of salt.

This time though, I can back up my prediction with some actual returns, even before most of us go to the polls. As is the tradition, the voters of Dixville Notch, New Hampshire have already voted and announced the results. Have you ever been to Dixville Notch? It's a tiny hamlet way up there in the Great North Woods of northern New Hampshire, where most of the town's 75 residents run a beautiful White Mountains resort called The Balsams. I went to camp not too far from there - which brings me to another Nixon reference, oddly enough. I still vividly remember August 8, 1974. The owner of the camp summoned all the older boys to his cabin. President Nixon was announcing his resignation on television, and the camp director thought at least some of his campers should experience this historic moment. As we boys quietly exulted in the end of the Nixon presidency, I looked over at the camp's owner - whose name has quietly faded from my aging brain - and was stunned to see him sobbing. Tears rolled down his cheeks as he watched his beloved president leave office in shame. "This is a sad day for America, boys," he kept murmuring. "Such a sad day."

Suffice to say, Dixville and environs are Republican strongholds, even to this day. The good people of the Notch almost always vote GOP. In fact, since 1960, only one Democrat has carried Dixville Notch, and that was Hubert Humphrey, who beat Nixon narrowly there in 1968 (I think our camp director votes in a different township).

Until today. Ladies and gentlemen, I bring you the first returns of the 2008 presidential election: in Dixville Notch, the vote, just past midnight, was: Barack Obama, 15; John McCain, 6; Ralph Nader, 1.

Now Dixville is no bellwether. As I said, it almost always votes Republican, with the exceptions of 1960 and 1968, which means in the last dozen elections the town has picked the winner seven times, and went with the loser the other five. But if Obama can win a landslide in the Notch, it doesn't bode well for McCain's chances across the Granite State.

This campaign has been a long, tiring, thrilling, fascinating, exasperating two-year slog. As Barack Obama said the other day, since this race started, babies have been born who have learned to walk and talk. Some of them have learned more about public policy in that time than Sarah Palin has. The candidates have spent more than a billion dollars, which is obscene. People have given their every ounce of energy for one candidate or the other; the 44-year-old state director of Obama's Nevada campaign collapsed and died of a heart attack yesterday, not long before Obama's own grandmother passed away, hours shy of perhaps seeing her little Barry become president.

For me, this campaign began in late 2006 - I think it was November, but it could have been October - when I interviewed the smart and lanky junior Senator from Illinois while he was on a book tour in San Francisco. Tall, thoughtful, deliberate almost to a fault - that was how I described him to my friends and family. Handsome, charismatic and obviously very intelligent - but damn, he stammers a lot, and seems to take an awfully long time coming up with those beautiful words.

Two years later, he's cut down on the ums and uhs, and he's also cut down every opponent in his path. Less than 24 hours from now, he will cut down the nets, to use a basketball metaphor, as he celebrates his election as President of the United States. He will be one of our youngest presidents. Only the third sitting Senator. Only the third representing Illinois (Lincoln and Grant precede him, although, like Obama, neither was born there; Ronald Reagan was, but ran as a Californian). The first Northerner since Kennedy (counting the first Bush as a Texan, not as the Connecticut Yankee he really was). The first Democratic President without a Southern accent since, again, JFK. The first president who is a graduate of Columbia University! (That's a tough one to believe, but it's true. Both Roosevelts attended Columbia Law School, and there have been quite a few Supreme Court Justices from Columbia, but Obama will be the first Columbia College grad to occupy the Oval Office).

And, of course, he will be the first non-white president. The first biracial, the first black, the first with African blood (as far as we know).

Barack Obama began his unlikely quest for the presidency with talk of hope, and change, and audacity. At times, his campaign has been anything but audacious. Certainly in its closing days he has played it quite safe. But he is going to ride that gale force wind of change right into the White House. We can't possibly exaggerate the social and cultural import of this moment. Tears of joy and pride will flow tonight in black communities across America. People will shake their heads in awe, even some of those who will have voted against him. Others will shake their fists in fear and anger. It will be up to Obama to prove them wrong, to win them over with his deeds, not his words, in the coming years.

Who in the world would want to be president right now? An economy in collapse, a world at war, a health care system run amok, overwhelming challenges in the fields of energy, security and finance.

Barack Hussein Obama, that's who. Someone asked him the other day what keeps him awake at night as the election approaches. "Not winning or losing," he answered with a smile. "Governing."

He's going to get his chance. It says it right here: Barack Obama 52.5%, John McCain 46.5%. Electoral College: Obama 291, McCain, 247.

That's my official prediction. I would give Obama 311, but Ohio has burned me before so I'm leaving it in McCain's column. I think this race has tightened in the closing days, so Obama doesn't get the landslide some are predicting. I think he could actually end up with 367 electoral votes, but that would mean sweeping most of those usually Republican battleground states. The final Gallup Poll predicts a 55%-44% victory for Obama. The final CBS News-New York Times pre-election poll forecasts a nine-point margin for Obama. I say it narrows to six in the end.

We will provide unprecedented resources at KCBS just so you can see if I'm right, or if you are, and what kind of history American voters will make this year (the first black president or the first female vice president? The oldest president? The first Vietnam vet?). Live coverage on the radio, of course, with non-stop results beginning when the first Eastern polls close at 4pm, plus interviews and analysis around the clock. You can listen to us in tinny old AM at 740 or now in lush stereophonic glory at 106.9 FM, or online at KCBS.com. We will have a beautiful red and blue Electoral College map on the website, where we will update the running vote totals once every 60 seconds, along with links to the results from every single county in every single state in America. I will be "live blogging," something I've never done before, on the Sovern Nation home page at www.sovernnation.com. I'll zap off a note or two whenever something meaningful happens, like when the pizza gets delivered to the newsroom or Obama wins Florida. I will post pithy comments from readers and listeners, too. You can follow along with KCBS on Twitter, with the latest delivered right to your cell phone, or however that Twitter thing works. And of course you can listen to any of our Election Night audio on demand on the website, too.

Tune in and hold on tight. It should be an amazing night. It's not often we can guarantee that an election will make history. This will be one you will remember forever.