For many people, casting a vote and waiting for the final announcement on election night marked an end to one of the longest and most expensive Presidential contests in U.S. history. For Barack Obama, it could be argued that his race for the White House began on the stage of the Democratic National Convention in Boston in 2004, during the nomination of John Kerry who unsuccessfully ran against George W. Bush. Obama, then running for the U.S. Senate in Illinois, was invited to give the keynote speech. Called “The Audacity of Hope,” the speech generated the kind of buzz that helped launch the Illinois State Senator on to the national political stage, and ultimately into the White House.
For John McCain, it could also be argued his current run for the White House began in the winter of 2000, when he lost a bitterly fought primary race against George W. Bush in South Carolina.
For me as a reporter covering this campaign, the journey begins almost a decade ago, in the bicycle and moped choked streets of Hanoi, Vietnam.
I was on active duty in the U.S. Air Force at the time. As a broadcaster with the Far East Network (FEN) based in Tokyo, Japan, I received one of those assignments of a lifetime. I was asked to produce a series of stories on Joint Task Force Full Accounting (JTFFA) in Southeast Asia. At the time, JTFFA was the organization responsible for accounting for those still missing in action from the Vietnam War.
I spent almost a month traveling throughout Vietnam during the course of the assignment. But it was a visit to once place in particular that left the biggest impression with me. The Hanoi Hilton.
By now, many of us know the story of how John McCain, a Navy pilot shot down on a mission over Hanoi, survived unimaginable torture and pain to emerge from the darkest prison in Vietnam to step into the international spotlight as a Presidential candidate several decades later. But in 1998, I myself knew very little about John McCain. I knew that he was a Senator, that he survived a scandal, and that he survived this place. In Hanoi, he was already somewhat of a celebrity. There is a memorial on the edge of Truc Bach Lake in Hanoi that marks the place where his plane came down. I visited the site, but was not allowed to take pictures of the memorial for reasons that are still not clear to me.
Entrance to the Hanoi Hilton
But to understand what he survived, and what he endured is next to impossible, even while standing on the damp and dark stones that covered the cell John McCain called home for almost six years. I had yet to meet John McCain, but you couldn’t help but feel some kind of connection with the man standing in the place where he nearly lost his life, and where his story might have ended if not for his bravery and his fortitude. There were only a few pictures of John McCain during his imprisonment on display in his cell and throughout the Hanoi Hilton, now a museum. The pictures and displays showed him smiling, and nothing I saw there gave any insight into the true sinister feeling the former prison should embody, save a guillotine left over from the French colonization of Vietnam, who used the prison in much the same manner when they ruled this part of the world.
Conducting a "Standup" outisde the Hanoi Hilton
Because I was a veteran, and because I had stood in John McCain’s cell in Vietnam, I was keenly interested in following his career, and I would have the opportunity to do so in the race for the White House in 2008.
But in the fall of 2006, I was far removed from Asia and the Air Force, working as a correspondent based in New York City for Voice of America. Then Senator Obama was gearing up for a nation-wide book signing tour promoting the release of “The Audacity of Hope,” the book that took it’s name from Obama’s landmark 2004 DNC speech.
I got in line at the Barnes and Noble flagship store at Union Square in Manhattan early in the morning, and purely out of personal interest and not a professional assignment, I waited hours in that line to hear him speak. As book signings go, I had the opportunity to shake his hand and ask him a few questions while he signed some books for me. I told him I was from Illinois, a town called Ottawa, and he indicated he had been to Ottawa in his travels around Illinois and loved it there. It would be our first meeting, but as luck would have it, would not be our last.
I made several attempts to get an interview with Senator Obama for Voice of America prior to the launch of his presidential campaign. His staff turned down my requests. Even so, I had hoped to have the opportunity to cover the launch of Senator Obama’s campaign on the steps of the Old Capitol in Springfield in January of 2007, but assignments on the East Coast kept me from being able to travel to Illinois during that time.
The next coverage opportunity for me would come in June of that year, in the cradle of most political campaigns, the state of New Hampshire. There in the city of Manchester, CNN was preparing to broadcast debates between the Democratic candidates, and two days later, a debate between the Republican candidates. As most of us know by now, this election was wide open as no incumbent or vice-president was seeking re-election, something which hasn’t occurred since the 1952 election between former general and war hero Dwight Eisenhower and Illinois governor Adlai Stevenson.
When the debate concluded, and the candidates left the stage at St. Anselm University, they fanned out in Manchester to meet with their supporters. I positioned myself at a local bar and grill where Obama was scheduled to meet with campaign volunteers and supporters. He did show up, and spent almost an hour walking the bar, shaking hands, and talking with voters, including my good friend and New Hampshire resident Dan Millbauer. Obama had just been assigned a Secret Service detail around this time, and his traveling entourage had grown as his popularity was increasing. Nevertheless, I managed to stay next to Senator Obama as he made his way through the crowd, filming him reaching out to his supporters. This went on for about ten minutes. But in an unguarded moment, as I was trying to make sure I was getting good video (for this occasion I was behind the camera), I didn’t realize that Senator Obama was on the move, and as he turned around to reach out to a supporter, he knocked me over and I fell to the ground. He laughed about it, said he was sorry and offered to help me up, but the Secret Service, not happy I got that close, promptly got me up and positioned me away from the Senator. In the end, I got the footage I needed, and did so despite getting knocked down by the man who would become the 44th President. An event he probably doesn’t even remember, but will stick with me for some time to come.
I had little time to reflect on the moment, as Senator John McCain was preparing for one of his trademark town hall meetings in a small town in northern New Hampshire the next morning. It was the sort of environment the candidate seemed to revel in, with no scripted moments and direct access to the people whose support he was trying to win. I managed to get close to him in much the same way I followed Senator Obama the night before, only this time I managed to stay on my feet. I followed him through the swarming crowd after the meeting, filming him shake hands with those young and old. I also managed to record a brief interview with him and several local reporters. The dominant topic at the time was the Iraq War. There was no appropriate moment for me to share with Senator McCain that I had visited his cell in Vietnam, no chance for me to ask the hundreds of questions in my mind that had been brewing since I saw the place that was now a part of his famous biography.
Covering McCain at a town hall meeting in New Hampshire
And as it would happen, these were the only moments during the campaign I would have personal encounters with either candidate, though I continued to have a front row seat on this historic path to the presidency.
I would follow the Obama and McCain campaigns through several more debates, and eventually through several state primary elections, including on site coverage from Indiana. But as Obama emerged as the front-runner for the Democrats, our focus at Voice of America shifted to covering the national political conventions. Now back in Illinois and promoted to Midwest Correspondent, I was tapped to take part in VOA’s coverage of both conventions, and I began preparing for the exciting opportunity of first covering the Democrats in Denver.
But before that could happen, there was an important detour I had to take to Springfield, Illinois, at the Old State Capitol Building. There, Obama announced Delaware Senator Joe Biden as his running mate. Thousands of people, many who traveled a great distance to be there, endured the sweltering August heat, and many I talked to said it was so they could one day tell their children that they witnessed this moment. In spite of the heat, you could feel the excitement of the crowd. It was different here than it was those many months before when I saw Obama meet with supporters in New Hampshire. Here in the crowd in Springfield, you got the sense that this was more than just a campaign, it was a movement. From the cheers of the crowd to the vendors on the streets, Obama was a now a brand that stood for change and hope, two key messages he emphasized just a week later at the Democratic National Convention.
Covering the Obama Biden Springfield Rally
In the following weeks, I would watch as both John McCain and Barack Obama took the stage at their respective political conventions, separated by just a few days, to accept the nomination of their party for President. There were memorable moments at both, which I have documented for this publication and for Voice of America.
And for the next two months, I would find myself in Minnesota, Missouri, Wisconsin, and Iowa, trying to keep up with the relentless campaigning of both candidates and their running mates, at rallies, town hall meetings, and at the Vice Presidential debates.
So when the time had finally come to make my way from Ottawa to Chicago to cover the election results with the Obama campaign, I reflected on the journey I had made following both men on the path that had brought us all to this moment.
From a prison cell in Hanoi, to a small town in New Hampshire. From a book signing to a massive crowd in the heat of an August day in Springfield. I may not have had the kind of exposure or access as other journalists covering this race, but I had my own unique experiences that gave me reason to be proud of what I had watched and personally witnessed for these two long years.
So as the sun began to set on this unusually warm Tuesday, November 4th, I prepared to put myself in front of a TV camera that would soon broadcast the events of the evening throughout the world. I did not have a prepared script in my hand, no teleprompter to feed me lines. The words I was about to say came directly from my head, and from my heart.
Getting ready to report live from Grant Park in Chicago on Election Night
As I stood on a hill overlooking Grant Park, I watched as a crowd of hundreds soon became thousands, and then tens of thousands. As day turned to dusk, and dusk turned to dark, the energy of the night was fueled by the enthusiasm of Obama’s supporters.
VOA's Live coverage on Election Night
On the theater sized screens set up so the audience could watch election returns, history would unfold in real time, creating a wave of human emotion with each state that turned blue for the Democrats.
I took a moment in between my live reports to place myself as close to the crowd as I could. Just after 10:00PM central time, I was making my way down the small hill to talk with someone in the crowd for one of my live radio interviews when all of a sudden there was an eruption.
Right then, as polls closed in California, the networks called the election for Senator Obama. I have never witnessed such a massive outpouring of emotion as I experienced this night. There were hugs, there were tears, and there was resounding applause and uncontrollable excitement. A passerby, presumable another member of the media, reached to give me a high-five and I was caught off guard.
It was in that moment that I stopped to look around, and immediately felt overwhelmed. Though I admit I was excited, it was almost as if I wanted to let out a huge sigh. Because it was over. Because it was historic. Because so many on both sides and throughout our nation’s history had sacrificed and invested so much to bring us all to this point.
It was a moment not lost on the crowd in Chicago, nor for the millions around the world huddled around television, radios, and computers. And certainly not for the man who had once again led a courageous effort to win America’s trust to lead the country, but fell short of his own dreams and aspirations. As I listened to John McCain give his concession speech through my earpiece, I couldn’t help but also feel some sadness. To have endured so much, to have nearly lost everything and returned from the brink on more than one occasion, this was a moment that was taken away from him. He graciously admitted the best man had won, and despite the loss, stated the last two years had been “the greatest honor” of his life.
“He fought long and hard in this campaign, and he's fought even longer and harder for the country he loves,” said President-elect Obama, to the hundreds of thousands in Grant Park in the climactic moment of the evening. “He has endured sacrifices for America that most of us cannot begin to imagine, and we are better off for the service rendered by this brave and selfless leader.”
As I listened to his acceptance speech, my mind trailed off into the distant future, and what I might say when someday, I can tell my children that I was there when history was made in Grant Park.
Two years after this whole journey had started for both candidates. Four years after Barack Obama has the “audacity” to “hope”.
41 years since John McCain crashed in Hanoi, Vietnam and 35 years after he emerged from a prison cell with a broken body but not a broken spirit.
45 years after Martin Luther King Jr. marched on Washington and issued a speech that proclaimed he had a dream.
And 150 years after a man named Abraham Lincoln stood in Washington Park in Ottawa, Illinois, my hometown, and proclaimed that those who supported slavery were “blowing out the moral lights around us.”
Today, from Washington Park to Grant Park, and from a “House Divided” to the White House, the “moral lights around us” shine bright for President-elect Barack Obama. Perhaps it is not just a story we can all tell our children, but an accomplishment we can all be proud of, together.
President-elect Obama said it best as he concluded his acceptance speech.
“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 Obama shakes Vice President-elect Biden's hand after his acceptance speech in Grant Park