Is there anything in the world more forlorn than a victory party on a losing night?by Erik Tarloff / December 18, 2004 / Leave a comment
My wife and I were in Boston, Massachusetts, on election night. Massachusetts is the quintessential blue state, overwhelmingly Democratic: the only state to be carried by George McGovern back in 1972, routinely derided by Republicans as out of touch and elitist, home to Ted Kennedy and gay marriage. Its capital, and John Kerry’s hometown, Boston, is an old-fashioned Democratic stronghold, a city of muscular trade unionists, angry ethnics and more university students per square inch than any other US city of comparable size. Because my wife, Laura Tyson, had been advising the Kerry campaign on domestic issues, we had been invited to join the official festivities. It seemed the right place to be. We were staying with friends across the Charles river in Cambridge, a town rivalled only by our own home of Berkeley, California, for its left-wing purity. In such a place, with Kerry lawn signs ubiquitous, you could almost let yourself believe a Kerry landslide was inevitable – if your heart hadn’t been broken repeatedly in the past.
Our election night turned out to be like Gaul, divisible into three parts. The first was a valedictory conclave of the issues advisers, held in an elegant suite in that slightly faded dowager of Boston hotels, the Ritz Carlton; the second was a small gathering of social democrat types at the Cambridge home of our friends Robert Reich and Clare Dalton, made up largely of friends of Bob who had supported his unsuccessful (but I need to add valiant, since he’s a Prospect subscriber and might read this) race for governor of Massachusetts; and the third was a party for major donors and high party muckety-mucks at the Westin Hotel, back across the Charles river in Boston proper. We crossed the Charles more times that night than events warranted. George Washington’s crossing of the Delaware might have been more arduous, but at least he went on to win the battle.
In the event, of course, we were sucker-punched. Early exit polling indicated a huge Kerry victory. This early data was backed up by the internal polling of both the Kerry and Bush campaigns. By late afternoon, most knowledgeable observers thought they knew the name of the next president, and it wasn’t Bush. As my son and I walked towards the Ritz Carlton that afternoon, we bumped into Tom Oliphant, respected reporter for the Boston Globe. “I hear the news is promising,” I said. “It’s better than that,” he answered.
Inside, we found a virtual victory party. People were excitedly sharing the latest exit poll news; it kept getting better and better. (Only Roger Altman, the shrewd Kerry strategist, remained resolutely cautious, not to say dour: “It’s too early and too small a sampling for me to take comfort from it,” he growled in my direction when I mentioned it to him.) There were predictions of a rout, guesses about which red states Kerry would manage to carry: Nevada maybe, or even Colorado? And speculation about what a Kerry cabinet might look like: could he tempt Robert Rubin back? Did Joe Biden have the edge over Richard Holbrooke for secretary of state? A number of people asked my wife what job she would prefer in a Kerry administration. She wisely declined to answer. The excitement was palpable, and the speeches, when they came, thanking the various participants in the campaign, implicitly suggested that bigger things were around the corner.
Later, back at the Reiches, we were in jeans-and-flannels progressive-politics heaven. As we ate quiche (yes, we really did, we had become unapologetic clichés, grotesque fodder for Republican stereotyping) and drank domestic wine, we contentedly relished the prospect of a Democratic restoration. Big win in New Jersey, there it was, flashing on the television screen, and an early lead in Florida. Florida! That great bone in every Democrat’s craw, but this time we were savouring righteous retribution: the mill of justice grinds slow but exceedingly fine. Meanwhile, I was dashing back to the Reiches’ computer every few minutes, checking in with left-wing websites, and they seemed to be telling the same story: fabulous turnout, energetic get-out-the-vote effort, a swelling tide of Democratic enthusiasm.
Except, as the returns continued to dribble in, the triumphal march seemed to be slowing, and then coming to an unscheduled halt. Nevertheless, we were all silently assuring ourselves that this was merely a sign of isolated Republican precincts being counted, and that the natural order of things would soon be re-established. Until, that is, my son suddenly said, “I don’t think we’re winning any more.” As soon as he said it, I knew it was true, knew I had been thinking the same thing myself for quite some time without putting it into words. We weren’t winning any more. In fact, we were doing the opposite of winning. You know the word I mean.
The Cambridge liberals around us wouldn’t hear of it. Wait till Ohio, they said. Just look at Iowa. But I could see in Bob Reich’s eyes that he too knew different. The thing had slipped away and it wasn’t coming back.
Our third stop of the night was at the victory party back in Boston. It would have been ungracious not to go, although that was the more appealing choice now. Is there anything in the world more forlorn than a victory party on a losing night? The crowd had already begun to thin out by the time we arrived. Guests were slumped at tables, not talking, occasionally glancing at the televisions in the room, or standing in small clumps, not quite sustaining conversation. We ran into a fellow who had been among the most buoyant guests at the issues party earlier in the day. He insisted he was still optimistic, but conceded that the Kerry total wasn’t as large as he had expected. And a few minutes later, I ran into a friend on Kerry’s foreign policy team. “It’s a little troubling,” he said. “Still, I’d rather be where we are than where they are.” As far as I was concerned, where they were seemed like the place to be.
We hopped a cab back to Cambridge where we found the guests at the Reich house looking subdued. Defeat has an extraordinary effect on people’s posture. I’d never noticed that until this election. Not that it was official – it wouldn’t be until midday the next day – but no doubt remained. George W Bush, despite his manifest failures, had been convincingly re-elected.
My wife and I were in New York on 9/11. We had walked the city streets the afternoon after the destruction of the twin towers. Walking the streets of Cambridge the day after this election we found an eerily similar atmosphere. There were fewer people out than normally, and they were walking quietly, unsmilingly, looking shell-shocked, heads down, grim and preoccupied.
When we stopped to buy a paper at a newsstand in Harvard Square, the proprietor must have recognised the expression on our faces, and mentioned that Kerry was conceding the election at this very moment, and that a shop two doors down had a television where we could watch. Without exchanging a word, just a quick glance, we agreed not to. Four years earlier, the election had been stolen by the Bush team, and our reaction had been one of outrage. This year, the election had been lost, lost fair and square to a presidency that was altering the fundamental nature of the American republic. The only possible response was despair.