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Yes We Can

What a difference four years makes.

Like many people I am still processing the historic events of last night.  What comes to mind is the road traveled and the comparative experiences of watching elections in 2004 and 2008.

In 2004, New Englanders were coming off one of the greatest comebacks in sports history and the exorcism of an 86 year old curse. We were Red Sox obsessed.  After the election, I heard people say that it was a tradeoff.  Bush/Red Sox? Bush/Red Sox? Perhaps, we just didn’t think that the country could reelect George W. Bush.

I spent Election Night 2004 at friends of my roommate in Providence, Rhode Island.  Everybody was either an engineer or medical student.  Working for a non-profit arts organization I was a bit of an outsider.

After the Presidential Election was called for Bush, I left.  Someone said to me that people in American would riot and revolt.

She was wrong.  They didn’t riot and revolt.  They became organized.

Election Night 2008 was different.  I was at home with my roommates and friends and friends-of-friends.  The room was fulled with law students, former union organizers, and activists.  Some had been up in New Hampshire that very day helping bring people to the polls.  Others had been canvassing over the weekend.  I had made calls from home using the Obama Campaign’s website.  Every little bit counts.  We were all invested in the results.  We all wanted it.  Badly. So very badly.

The night after the election in 2004, I went to a Celtics vs. Sixers game.  It was my other roommates’ idea, and he had scored three tickets for $15 each.  There were plenty available.

How times have changed!

That night we were riding home on the Green Line and two of us gave up our seats for an elderly couple.  They were so appreciative and remarked that we must be Democrats because were so nice.  They told us what it meant to live in Massachusetts.  They talked of resiliency and hope.  They were returning home after seeing the opera.  They had gone to a BosTix booth that afternoon to find discounted tickets.

They wanted distraction.  Just like us.

Tonight I need no distraction.

The past few days have been an emotional rollercoaster.  It started out with this brooding feeling on Monday.   A colleague told me that she felt like a large snow storm was coming.

By the evening we all had learned of the passing of Barack Obama’s grandmother. The speeches.  The tributes.

After midnight, we learned of Dixville Notch’s results.  Raised in New Hampshire, I had a teacher whose daughter lived in Dixville Notch.  Presidential politics is serious business.  In New Hampshire it is a matter of civic pride and community obligation.

Dixville Notch made it all real. The voting had begun.  Anxiety rolled in.

I watched Obama’s concession speech from the New Hampshire primary, “A More Perfect Union”.  I remember watching it with tears of hope rolling down my face last January.   I watched the wil.i.am music video.

I went to FiveThirtyEight.com and saw that Sean Quinn had keep on with his thread of quotes from On The Road and dedicated William Shakespeare’s “Saint Crispian’s Day” speech to the volunteers and organizers.

Familiar in his mouth as household words-
Harry the King, Bedford and Exeter,
Warwick and Talbot, Salisbury and Gloucester-
Be in their flowing cups freshly rememb’red.
This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remembered-
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother;

A colleague’s Facebook status changed to “fired up and ready to go.”  I watched Obama’s campaign speech from that night.  I was, too.  I knew it would be hard to sleep that night.

Tuesday went by so quick and before I knew it I was home awaiting guests.  Throughout the night I was on the phone with my parents and old friends in Ohio.  One had emailed me after the 2004 Election telling me that he was going to move because he didn’t want his children raised in a red state.

He doesn’t have to move anymore.  But, I would welcome him to New England anyway.

Two laptops, cell phone reports, and channel flipping helped us all feel busy.  It kept us occupied.  It kept us moving towards the moment.

When 278 was reached joyful tears filled the room.  Emotions.  We all stayed there.  Waiting for the speeches.  Captivated.  Witnessing history.

“America, we have come so far. We have seen so much. But there is so much more to do. So tonight, let us ask ourselves – if our children should live to see the next century; if my daughters should be so lucky to live as long as Ann Nixon Cooper, what change will they see? What progress will we have made?

“This is our chance to answer that call. This is our moment. This is our time – to put our people back to work and open doors of opportunity for our kids; to restore prosperity and promote the cause of peace; to reclaim the American Dream and reaffirm that fundamental truth – that out of many, we are one; that while we breathe, we hope, and where we are met with cynicism, and doubt, and those who tell us that we can’t, we will respond with that timeless creed that sums up the spirit of a people:

“Yes We Can.”

- President-Elect Barack Obama’s prepared remarks, Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Now the work begins.  We haven’t a moment to lose.

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Obama vs. McCain, Debate Night at the Brattle Theatre

Last night the Harvard Bookstore hosted a panel discussion and a debate party at the Brattle Theatre. Unfortunately, I missed the discussion beforehand but was fortunate enough to make it inside.

As a self-proclaimed political junkie, just the idea of a movie theatre-sized debate party was intriguing, exciting, and thrilling to me.  I’ve been watching the debates with friends and family members, but watching it in a dark theatre with a room full of strangers was going to be a different experience.

It’s October 2008, and it’s, once again, the nexus point for two events that I watch closely: A Presidential Election and October baseball.  Back in 2004 when asked, a member of the theatre community said the best theatre of 2004 was the Red Sox versus the Yankees in the American League Championship Series.  You really couldn’t get a better script than that.  If you’re a New Englander, that is.

I’ve found sports and politics to have the same type of entertainment appeal to me.  Baseball players are playing a game–the same game they did as children–for an exorbitant amount of money.  We should all be so fortunate, right?

These days, most political events are heavily scripted with carefully constructed talking points.  Occasionally, the script is interrupted with off the cuff reactions or gaffes.  We watch the debates for these moments just like a Sox fan watches for the sheer thrill of seeing David Ortiz launch one into the Boston night.

Last night, the Brattle was packed.  The audience was surprisingly diverse.  No age group appeared to dominate the crowd. The younger people weren’t necessarily students either.  No obvious, simple demographics.  I was pleasantly surprised.

The Harvard Bookstore served pizza and sodas while the transition was made from the panel to the movie setup.  You could feel the excitement in the theatre.  There was a sense of freedom and, perhaps even curious, anticipatory fun.

The Brattle Theatre is in the heart of Harvard Square in Cambridge, Massachusetts.  Given those facts, you can imagine the political profile of the crowd.  For full disclosure, include me in that group, too.  Any candidate who has an Arts Plan (pdf) is a friend of someone who has worked for non-profit arts organizations for the past seven years.

I didn’t know what to expect. I had watched all the other debates on CNN. On HDTV there were the pundit scorecards along with what Bill Maher termed the “candidates life force.” Uncommitted Ohio voters weighed in with their instant approval or lack thereof.  Watching previous debates on CNN, many opportunities existed to instantly learn how other people were reacting.  Now that I’ve spent time on news sites like Talking Points Memo, I see that CNN had a split screen view so viewers could see how the other candidate reacted as they listened to their opponent’s responses.

To me, pre and post debate chatter is a lot about listening to what mass media experts are feeding the uncommitted voter.  At all the small debate parties I’ve been to, once the candidates stop talking my companions and I do.  Later on, I go to my favorite blogs, Twitter searches as well as their Election site, and the mainstream media sites for a roundup.  After the first debate, a friend dubbed me the “Human RSS Reader”.

My friends and I were surprised the Brattle was showing PBS’ coverage of the debate through New Hampshire Public Television rather than a mass media outlet.

Soon after the debate started, the lights were turned out just like a movie.  The candidates were announced and the crowd reacted with applause.  People were fairly active and vocal with hoots, hollers, clapping, and laughing, so much that one section started hushing others so we could all hear the answers.

Cheers broke out with relative frequency after Obama’s responses.  And, not to be a completely one-sided group, there was some scattered applause and cheers for McCain.  A friend assured me that it was just one person.

I don’t know if there’s a comparable experience I have had in a movie theatre.  The only one that comes to mind is when I saw Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 911.  The audience at that one seemed more homogeneous because everybody was aware of the narrative.

During the debate I was having a collective experience with strangers in a dark room.  The audience was, of course, well informed.  Everybody knew the subjects that may come up (William Ayers and ACORN) but, of course, there were surprises, too, like John McCain introducing America to “Joe the Plumber.”

I’ve spent a good deal of my professional life contemplating audiences who gather in dark rooms for live performances.  Just like this time, I’ve watched the splitscreen shots of the carefully selected uncommitted voters from swing states on television as they watch the debate as a group.

I’ve seen great drama on stage.

I’ve been riveted by cinematic experiences.

I’ve seen heroes like Bob Dylan close in intimate venues.

I’ve seen the Red Sox come back against the Yankees at Fenway Park.

This was something completely different: A shared experience with total strangers, a moderately-scripted theatrical event with potential for sparks and spontaneity.  This event along with others had and has the potential to change the present course of our country, our economy, our world, and our lives.

Thank you to the Harvard Bookstore and the Brattle Theatre for creating such an experience.  It is a true public service.

Yes, indeed.  I am a political junkie.  And, I do love great theatre, too.

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