America: Where All Things Are Possible

Dec 302008

By Vernon Davidson

“Think about it,” Alethia Lambert and Fern Whyte insisted after I told them I would choose one of my reporters to send on the U.S. State Department’s Election 2008 Visiting Journalists Program.

Lambert and Whyte, both employed at the United States Embassy’s Office of Public Affairs in Kingston, had suggested that I should agree for them to nominate me as Jamaica’s candidate for the program.

Eventually, after accepting the exciting fact that I was being given a front row seat to history — whichever way the election turned out — I yielded and told both ladies I would be happy to accept the assignment, if chosen.

I was. And amidst the joy expressed by Lambert and Whyte, I immediately started updating myself about the U.S. electoral process.

My decision, though belated, turned out to be one of the best I have ever made. For the 2008 election will no doubt be remembered, not only for its vibrancy, but for the fact that it represented a defining moment in the history of the United States and was a demonstration of democracy at work.

The overwhelming positive reaction worldwide to Senator Barack Obama’s victory in the presidential race is an indication of global acceptance of the fact that, as Obama said on the night of November 4, “America is a place where all things are possible”.

Because there he stood on a stage in Grant Park in Chicago — the first black man ever to be elected president of the United States — before a crowd of more than 200,000 cheering supporters from different races, giving one of the greatest speeches I have ever heard; a speech that not only spoke to the hope that America offers each resident, but which signaled to a world largely disappointed with the actions of Washington over the last eight years that (Obama’s words again) “change had come to America”.

Obama’s victory speech was a superb ending to a bruising campaign that I joined as a ‘member’ of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reporting ‘staff’ after spending four days in Washington, D.C., with officials of the International Center for Journalists, the U.S. Foreign Press Center, and an impressive range of political and journalism experts who shared their knowledge of U.S. politics and media with me and 49 other foreign journalists participating in the program.

I had thought Washington, D.C., was cold until my second day in Pittsburgh. By then — October 27 — Zoya Mazaoui, head of the Lifestyle Department at Al-Balad newspaper in Lebanon, and I had met our host, Greg Victor, Post-Gazette editorial page editor, who had taken us to the newspaper, introduced us to staff and given us desks.

That day, Obama staged a rally at the Mellon Arena in Pittsburgh, and with the help of our colleagues at the Post-Gazette we were accredited. “Electrifying” best sums up the atmosphere inside the 17,000- capacity arena, as the Democratic Party candidate’s supporters demonstrated the campaign’s rallying call, “Fired up! Ready to go!” The fact that hundreds of people were still lined up outside in 40-degree temperature amazed me, but signaled that Obama’s message of change was gaining traction.

That the rally was officially opened with a prayer, followed by the American National Anthem, then the Pledge of Allegiance impressed me. It seemed to be a feature of the Obama rallies, as I experienced it again a few days later when former president Bill Clinton spoke at Washington Jefferson College in Washington County, Pennsylvania. In stark contrast, the only McCain/Palin rally I attended in Greensburg didn’t observe that format. It simply started with a speaker encouraging the crowd to go out and vote.

Of course, when he took the stage at 5:26 pm inside the Mellon Arena, Obama was in fine oratorical form, generating shouts of support from his audience of mainly white Americans.

“We believe in you!” shouted one white man; “We’re gonna do it!” said another; “We love you!” screamed yet another white man in the crowd standing at the side of the stage.

There was no doubt that people left that rally energized, and the vendors on the outside selling souvenir T-shirts, buttons and other campaign merchandise felt that energy in their sales.

One vendor, who gave his name only as Keith, and who said he was from Nashville, Tennessee, revealed that T-shirts with images of Obama, priced at $15, were snapped up more quickly than the other items. According to Keith, his sales totaled $16,000 in four hours the day before when Obama spoke to a crowd of more 100,000 in Denver.

The energy was no less intense at the McCain/Palin rallies, as freezing temperatures didn’t prevent their supporters from packing into an unheated hangar at the Arnold Palmer Airport in Greensburg a few days later to hear Sarah Palin speak.

Throughout my stay in Pittsburgh I found most people willing to express their views about the election and they were most open about for whom they would vote on November 4. One Republican taxi driver told me a few days before the election that he was 89 per cent leaning toward McCain.

What was causing him doubt? “I’m not too sure about this Palin woman,” he said. “I’ve got to do some more research on her first.” He eventually voted for McCain.

Others who indicated they would vote for Obama said they preferred his tax plan, views on the economy, and were turned off his opponents by their constant attacks on the Democrat. The media, I noticed, carried precious little outside of the campaign. But given the intensity, importance and historic nature of the race they cannot be faulted.

I must admit that on the night of November 4, as I sat in the Post-Gazette newsroom monitoring the election results, a feeling of immense pride and joy overcame me on hearing CNN’s Wolf Blitzer call the election for Obama. I fought hard to hold back the tears, but couldn’t, because, like many blacks around the world, I had lived to see a moment that most of us never thought possible in our lifetime.

My being posted in a battleground state made the experience even richer, as I got a closer look at the dynamics of the campaign, voters’ reactions to the candidates and the issues on which the election was decided.

The writer is executive editor/ publications of the Jamaica Observer.