Dateline Chicago: The Very End of the Obama Campaign

CHICAGO—On the night before Election Day, Barack Obama’s Hyde Park neighborhood was dead.

Concrete barriers and a couple of cops prevented the rare pedestrian from walking past the stately houses and manicured lawns and red and yellow leaves falling on Obama’s street. A couple of blocks away, the lights were on in the living room of Bill Ayers, the Chicago education advocate and former member of the 60s radical group the Weather Underground to whom the McCain campaign pinned its last ditch hopes of bringing down Obama. The room had an exposed brick wall, wood furniture that looked like it could have been purchased in a set from West Elm, unlighted candles, and a ceramic plate inscribed with the names of Ayers and his wife. Except for some yellow police tape entwined in a fence down the block, it hardly seemed special, and also seemed an odd thing to hang a campaign on.

Nearby, on 53rd street, strains of someone playing blues leaked out from the Checkerboard Lounge. The last, straggling diners finished their meals at the Calypso Café, where the salt and pepper comes in little Corona bottles and where the Obamas liked to grab dinner sometimes. Facing the back of the restaurant was the small glass storefront of State Senator Kwame Raoul, an office that was once held by another unusually named state senator who, less than 24 hours later, would be elected the 44th president of the United States.

But by noon the next morning, downtown Chicago started buzzing. Seemingly everyone walking along Michigan Avenue wore an Obama shirt or an Obama hat or an Obama button. Street vendors sold drawings of Mr. Obama and stickers on mailboxes showed his face or advertised his slogans. One man wore a shirt that said “I was there.” People took pictures of everything: the street, each other, the building crowds and called friends and said “you should hear the helicopters.” Over by campaign headquarters, opposite the Carbide & Carbon building, campaign workers stressed and chatted and killed time at the chain restaurant Cosi, which sat conveniently at the foot of the escalator under their offices. Some spokesmen showed up to lunches at the Gage, the Obama haunt down Michigan Avenue, bearing all the stress expected in the last hours of a momentous presidential campaign. Other campaign staffers ate their sandwiches and sipped their sodas and talked easily, as if they didn’t have a worry in the world.

At the Grand Hyatt nearby, coveted “Election Night Chicago” credentials were distributed at desks labeled “Obama Guests,” “Political Guests,” “Illinois Political Finance Tickets,” “General Media” “Purchased Credential Packages” and “Biden Guests.” Outside, one campaign donor told the friends she walked to lunch with that “Michelle sat on my board for 11 years” and “I mean, we’re not best friends with the Obamas but we all know each other.”

By around 6 p.m., most of the accredited media and VIPs had arrived at Grant Park, where the Obama Victory Party would take place. Oprah Winfrey showed up and said the evening was a “culmination of a world of dreams.”

The reporters inside the filing center ate a soupy mixture of dark meat and noodles described by servers as “chicken pot pie without the pie” and watched election returns on two large screens tuned to CNN. There was barely a whiff of suspense. Mostly everyone worked on stories that had Obama winning so they could hit the button when the election was inevitably called for him.

It happened earlier than most of them expected.

Pennsylvania and New Hampshire went to Obama, blocking any hope McCain had of stealing a Democratic state. Then Ohio and Virginia slid Obama’s way too, and the election was called.

Outside the press file, the massive crowd at Grant Park cheered and hugged and waved American flags and posters with Obama’s face over their heads. Many people cried. The jumbo screens set up next to the stage showed McCain’s unreservedly gracious concession speech in which he congratulated Obama on his victory, recognizing “the special significance it has for African Americans” and appealing to Americans to “come together” and “find the necessary compromises to bridge our differences.” When he concluded, the Obama supporters clapped politely.

Dateline Chicago: The Very End of the Obama Campaign