The End of Optimism
A golden Tuesday followed by a black Wednesday.
Thursday, November 4, 2004
A friend called from Big Sur early Tuesday morning. When he asked how I was doing I said something like: “Worried. Hopeful. Scared.”
He sounded cheerful: “I’m predicting a Kerry landslide.”
It was the start of a day marked by a strange optimism. I was totally unprepared for that. My friend’s chirpy tone left me confused, but also a little bit elated.
All day, I was confronted by people I knew to be ardent Democrats confidently displaying their blue “I Voted” buttons. People at work, avowed Bush-haters, flashed the thumbs-up. “Big day,” they said.
This was weird. I didn’t know what to make of it.
Practically everyone I know has been outraged and enraged for years. The stolen election, the war, the Patriot Act; the broken treaties and the rollback of environmental laws; the pious, hypocritical religiosity, etc., have left them practically sputtering mad. Even my mother, a 77-year-old devout Catholic who has voted for every Republican since Dwight D. Eisenhower, hisses when she sees her president’s visage on the tube.
Over the past several months, over the course of the presidential campaign, the mood among my friends and acquaintances had changed. Among some, the anger morphed into fear, and finally cooled into depression; I think they felt deep doubts about the future of the republic. Others developed an almost desperate need to believe that John Kerry could beat George W. Bush, thus rescuing history from a retreat into the Dark Ages.
I did not succumb to either of these reactions. I just waited. In the face of important future events, I tend to maintain a kind of strident emotional neutrality. I am lousy at crystal-ball gazing. Whenever I hear a prediction, or feel inclined to make one, my mind automatically throws up counter-arguments. So I float in brow-furrowed limbo until whatever is going to happen happens.
In other words, I have been in denial.
The optimism finally got to me around 4pm. That’s when I called my friend Danny Baum in Boulder. Danny and his wife, Meg Knox, are the Keepers of The Jar. Since 1988, whenever any of the Knox-Baums’ friends (almost all of whom are journalists, professors, political activists, or artists of some kind) casts a political opinion that sounds like a prediction, Dan issues a challenge: “Are you going to The Jar?” On Election Day, after all of the ballots have been counted, Dan opens The Jar. Mostly we all end up looking like idiots.
I don’t go to The Jar often. But Tuesday something happened to me. Maybe it was the golden Autumnal glow pouring in the tiny window of my cell-like office. Maybe it was the late-afternoon exit polls I was trackingon Slate.
Having spent the better part of the day scouring Web sites and talking to friends and family and co-workers, all of whom were similarly obsessing, I ran a final scenario on the NewYorkTimes.com’s handy interactive electoral vote map. I decided that Kerry had a lock on Ohio, Wisconsin, and New Mexico, and that even though Bush would probably take Florida, Kerry had the win. I went to The Jar: Kerry 295, Bush 243. And I thought: Hallelujah! And I felt glad.
It now seems insane or stupid that I let myself do this.
Later, Dan reminded me of Election Day 2000, when his daughter Rosa, then seven, ran downstairs yelling to Meg, who was in the shower: “Mom! Mom! CNN just called Florida for Gore!”
The Knox-Baums—a strange family—still keep the paper map Rosa had been coloring all night long with her red and blue crayons. Florida has been papered-over three times. By the end of the night it was huge. Huge and red.
This year, the Knox-Baums went to bed with Ohio still white—but they had given up hope.