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A generation later, a look back at the election of 2008

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Barack Obama, 2008, INVESCO Field.
Photo: John Katsilometes

It is a generation beyond the administration of President Barack Obama. The questioner is a grade-schooler studying U.S. history. He wants answers to questions not found in the official, recorded account of American politics. He starts asking …

“You saw him, didn’t you?”

“Yes, when he campaigned in 2008, the first time. I heard him speak a few times during that campaign.”

“Where?”

“Once in a ballroom at the Paris hotel in Las Vegas, on what we called, ‘The Strip,’ before our politicians sold the naming rights to the Strip to Toyota/Coca-Cola. It wasn’t the Toyota/Coke Las Vegas Strip then, just the Strip, and he’d just had a debate with the other Democrats running for president. Vice-president Joe Biden – he was great that night, so sharp and informed and funny – was one of them. Hillary Clinton was running then, too.”

“Justice Clinton? We learned about her -- she was on the Supreme Court, right?”

“One and the same. She was the front-runner for the Democratic nomination, actually.”

“No waaaaaay!”

“Oh yeah. Obama was not the biggest figure on the stage that night, just one of seven candidates. Clinton – she was amazing. The hall was packed with her supporters. It seemed like she would be the one to make history that year, the first woman to be elected president. That seemed like her destiny.”

“Even with President Obama there?”

“He wasn’t president yet. He was a young first-term senator from Illinois. You know, we had a term back then for someone who was slapped down by a better opponent: ‘Punked.’ Clinton sort of punked Obama in that debate. He tried to take after her for being on the board of Wal-Mart, this gigantic chain of cut-rate stores that flamed out a long time ago, and some of the crowd actually booed him.”

“The Democrats booed Barack Obama?”

“It wasn’t his best night. I thought he looked really unsteady, even intimidated. Afterward, every candidate gave short speeches to the crowd in the ballroom.”

“I’ll bet he was great then, huh?”

“Not really. He was sort of flat. But Clinton rocked the room – ‘Turn up the heat!’ was her thing. I really thought, that night, it was over for Obama. But something amazing happened when I was walking out …”

“What was that?”

“This huge throng of Obama supporters had holed up in the hallway. They were younger, rowdy, chanting, ‘Fired Up! Ready to go!’ and ‘O-Bam-A!’ holding these blue Obama signs. I thought, ‘This guy can really inspire a crowd.’ No kidding, huh? Clinton went on to win the Nevada caucus; she was so tough. But he stayed on course. His people never let up that whole primary. It was an absolute war. He had to fight for every delegate. He got into it with President Clinton. ‘This whole thing is the biggest fairy tale I’ve ever seen,’ was one of his famous quotes …”

“This was before he was the leader of the U.N.?”

“Secretary-general, yeah. It was years before then. He was sort of a global ambassador-at-large in 2008, but he really wanted Hillary in the White House. He wanted some sort of vindication, I think, after Al Gore – that’s the Gore who developed the solar-powered GoreJet Airways commercial airplanes – lost that bitter 2000 election. Obama was running against both the Clintons, it seemed. That race was probably tougher than the general election against John McCain.”

“The guy who was shot down and tortured? Who was played by Ed Harris in that famous war movie?”

“Won an Oscar for that, yep. One and the same.”

“When did you see Obama next?”

“I went with a buddy, another journalist, on a road trip to Denver. It took forever – this was before ElectiCars, and we had to stop every few hundred miles to fill my Mazda with gasoline. This car was enormous by today’s standards, four wheels, four doors, and could seat five adults. Gasoline cost $4 a gallon -- a fortune! More than bottled water, even, was the joke.”

“You did this at Electro-Charger stations?”

“A lot like that, yeah, except you had to actually get out of the car and manually pump liquid gasoline into the car through a rubber hose. It was common to do that – everyone had to check their gas gauges regularly to make sure they would not run out of fuel. We had it rough, then, kid. Anyway, we drove to Denver, to the football stadium where the Denver Broncos played. INVESCO Field at Mile High was the place.”

“Didn’t they implode that a few years ago.”

“Yep, not a moment too soon. But it was considered a really advanced piece of architecture in 2008, even though it had actual natural turf and those old, hard-plastic, non-heated/non-cooled stadium seats. The only big screens were placed around the rim of the stadium – we didn’t have the personal entertainment units built into the every seat like we have now. No audio headsets or LED video eyewear or any of that. It was really antique by today’s standards, but Obama filled that stadium to give his speech.”

“Just for a speech?”

“It was some speech. The one word I’ll always remember was, ‘Enough!’ We’d really had enough by then. A lot of us were desperate for change after eight years of President Bush, who was the second President Bush we’d had.”

“Was he the same Bush who became baseball commissioner?”

“One and the same, yep. I give him credit for getting rid of baseball’s steroid problem. Turns out Guantanamo Bay did serve a valuable purpose, as a big rehab facility. Bush was a better baseball commissioner than president, no question.”

“Obama walloped McCain, huh?”

“At the end, yeah, but the campaign was pretty rugged. Obama raised something like $750 million. That summer, I received about 200 email messages from his campaign – that was before we all had C-Chips, communi-chips, implanted in our skulls so we could communicate without having to use computers. They nickel-and-dimed their way to this huge financial advantage so they could run ads in every available medium. I’ll tell you, if we had C-Chips back then, our heads would have been smoking from all the Obama requests for cash. But he got a break when McCain chose Sarah Palin as his vice-presidential nominee.”

“Wait, Sarah Palin from, Late Night With Sarah Palin?

“One and the same.”

“She was a politician?”

“Yep, before she was on late-night TV for, what, 25 years? She was governor of Alaska then, long before she was a comic.”

“Was she funny then?”

“Oh yeah. Not always on purpose, though. But she found her calling. Learning ventriloquism was a really good move. Juggling, too. She really became a great entertainer. Call up the name Carol Burnett on the C-Chip sometime; Palin was in her class. She turned out to be a lot better as host of a talk show, giving interviews instead of being interviewed.”

“So what was election night like?”

“Exhausting. It was the end of a really long campaign. There was a lot of discussion – real, in-person discussion, not C-Chipping – about whether America was really ready for an African-American president.”

“Really? Wow.”

“Remember, this was before Jesse Jackson Jr. became president, and before Oprah’s election, of course.”

“So it was like, a shock?”

“More like a relief. The country was in pretty sad shape at that time. We’d been fighting this war on terror for several years, in Afghanistan and Iraq. Lots of death, destruction, wounded kids – even today, you see old-timers with missing limbs, old Operation Desert Storm veterans. And the word we were using for our economy was ‘crater.’ We were in a crater. But Obama was such a passionate individual, smart and dedicated. In his acceptance speech, he kept up the refrain, ‘Yes We Can.’ ”

“That was it?”

“We believed it. You should have been around in 2008, kid. But that night, wow. I couldn’t sleep – I followed all the coverage on the old television and laptop computer, not wanting to miss out on any of the history. It was chilling, thrilling, and a great night to be an American.”

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