Growing talk of the 2012 American electoral race draws me back to November 2008 when, full of Obama-fever, I travelled to New York to witness the elections.
I should state that I had no official reason to be there. No one had commissioned me to record the event, nor was the US political system in any way a part of my BA in English Language, Linguistics and History. Instead, too many evenings in my dull Mortlake flat had been spent in the company of John McCain, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton which, accompanied by repeated readings of journalist Hunter S. Thompson’s 1970s election race dispatches, had fused my belly and brain into a mess of American election obsessions.
Having followed proceedings from an early stage, I was dazed by how Obama, who had begun the campaign as the sexy, anti-establishment, liberal choice of students and semi-intellectuals, had succeeded in becoming the Democratic candidate. Unlike voting Green in Britain, backing Obama had really worked.
This was the American Dream and I wanted to be a part of it.
Confession: I got to New York in November through lying. My travelling mate, Amy, had a terrorist-fearing mother who did not want her girl in New York during the elections. By deliberately remaining vague about the exact date –both to conceal the true level of my Obama fixation and to get around the maternal voice – my dream to be on US soil when the race ended came true.
Our first few days in the city before November 4th were spent doing typical New York activities. Which means mainly shopping in everywhere from Saks 5th Avenue to all the vintage stores of the Lower East Side. We also went to see Wicked. This was my part of the deal. If I got to watch the elections, Amy got to see a musical. Musicals are in my room 101.
However, even if I hadn’t been harbouring election indigestion it would have been hard to avoid what was taking place. All of New York was peppered with politics that week. Union Square was filled with stalls selling t-shirts, posters and endless badges with fantastically tacky slogans such as ‘Obama: Our light to lead!’ emblazoned across them. It is undeniable that American politics is far more exciting than the British equivalent. Can you imagine devising a similar slogan for Ed Miliband, let alone wearing it?
In fact, out of my personal collection, the only one I would still consider wearing is a small ‘We love Michelle’ design. Thus proving that policy lets us down, but fashion never does.
On the night itself, I decided to begin watching the results coming in on the hotel television. This sounds like a boring decision. However, as with all important sporting events I needed to be somewhere where my listening would not be interrupted by other voices or heads blocking the screen. So I flipped between various US news channels and Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show.
The story with American politics is that on the map, the middle votes Red and the left and right vote Blue and this never really changes. What was so exciting about the 2008 race was that this did change. In fact, nine states that had previously voted Republican changed to Democrat and watching this on the little virtual map was hideously mesmeric. It was during a period when I was tuned into my beloved Jon Stewart that the confirmation came in. He went silent and so did I.
In the days previous, it had been increasingly likely that Obama would win, yet the final result was still left me dumbfounded. Someone new, young, unexpected and black was the President of America. Change we can believe in? In that instant, I certainly did.
Amy and I ran up to Times Square and joined the hoards of Americans celebrating in their own curiously American way. This mainly involved jumping up and down on the spot. As an English person my first thought was: where is the alcohol? A national celebration and not one bottle, not one can on the streets. People actually obeyed drinking laws: the second shock of the night.
Flashing screens showing the same pictures of the Obama family multiplied and danced through my vision. It is an odd, but addictive, sensation to be both a part of something and, as foreign visitor, a dislocated observer.
The next day I hunted manically for a New York Times, but none remained. Finally I stole one from a Starbucks and upon returning to my new Bethnal Green home – another example of wanting to be where the excitement was – blu tacked the front page to my wall. It stayed above my bed all that year, a reminder of those lovely words: I was there.