Memories of Obama’s victory rally
Eight people share their thoughts on the 2008 rally, Obama’s performance today and what the future may hold.
Claire Busler, 20, La Grange Park, student at Loyola University
On Election Day 2008 High-school junior at Nazareth Academy
LOOKING BACK One of my friends lives by Grant Park, and he was texting me, “Dude, we have to go. It’s crazy down here. Even if he doesn’t win, this rally is—just, the energy down here is great.” I knew I didn’t want to drive because parking was just ridiculous. So I’m like, “Mom, I feel like I need to go down there. I need to see what’s happening.” She was a little hesitant at first, but then she was all on board, and she and I were driving downtown.
[At the rally,] everybody was just so excited about the future. We saw a few guys with obama shaved on their heads. Everybody was waving American flags, running around. The police did a very good job of keeping everyone going and getting to their destination. I just remember it being very loud, but in a good way.
WHAT’S CHANGED? I just registered to vote two weeks ago. This will be my first voting election. I’m very excited. A lot of my friends don’t think it matters, especially living in Illinois: “It’s a Democratic state. It doesn’t really matter what I do.” And I’m like, “Your voice still matters. You should vote.”…Growing up [in Oak Park], everybody’s liberal. But then you go out into the real world and you see that it really is 50-50 and you really have to fight for what you think is right or else you might not like the result on November 6, you know?
[Obama’s promise of] change definitely meant a more equal nation, where men and women are equal, and it didn’t matter what your sexual orientation was. And I think that we did come a ways, but there’s still a lot that needs to be done. And in terms of women’s rights, specifically, I think that the only way to make sure we keep going up is that Obama gets re-elected.
Michael Mahaffy, 22, Lawndale Gardens, student
On Election Day 2008 High-school senior at Hyde Park Career Academy
LOOKING BACK It was amazing to see how many people there was. People filling up the streets, filling up the whole park. It didn’t even look like a park anymore. There were streets full of people—literally, you couldn’t see the street.
The moment [Obama won] had weight, and I think I might have shed a tear. But the real moment was when we first got there and he was up so much. It was like, “This is really about to happen. Like, this is really about to happen!”
WHAT’S CHANGED? I didn’t expect a big change over the next four years. The big change was that people felt like anything was possible. People felt Obama’s story. Just the fact that he won, the way he came up. It was like, “Okay, if you can do it, we can do it.” Or, “If you can do it, my son, grandson, whatever, can do it.”
The change would be that the traditional presidential candidate no longer exists. The next candidate could be anybody, you know?… He doesn’t have to be 65 years [old], blond hair, blue eyes. [Laughs] That’s a big change to me. You think about the last hundreds of years doing the same thing, over and over. Every four years, it’s pretty much the same thing. And that’s different now.
Carly Pearlman, 28, Loop, associate design director at Obama for America
On Election Day 2008 A member of Obama’s graphic design team
LOOKING BACK My first memory of the day is that it was beautiful and 70 degrees and just kind of magical and crazy. We had done all of the signage for Grant Park, and we were just ready to watch results come in. A lot of us didn’t think we’d be able to leave the office. We thought we were just going to have to wait and update the site as numbers came in. But at 9:45 [my bosses] said, “Let’s go. We’re all leaving.” We were escorted down Lake Shore Drive by Secret Service in trolleys, probably one of the coolest things [I’ve done] in my entire life. [Laughs]
We pulled up at about 10, whenever they were just announcing the President-elect. We were running onto the back end of the fields as it came over the screens. There was a pit they roped off for staff, and we all just kind of dove into this area crying and screaming.
[The messages of] “hope” and “change” for me weren’t like I was looking at what we were going to do in Washington. I was young, naive and just doing what I thought was right. I was looking for a chance to make something that people would listen to. And I saw that. I saw that I made [campaign materials] and people went and voted. For me that was hope.
WHAT’S CHANGED? [The changes that mean the most are] the end of the war in Iraq. Repealing Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. The Lilly Ledbetter Act [which extends the statute of limitations on equal-pay lawsuits]. Equal rights—things like that across the board. That’s what I see as change.
Kevin Lawson, 42, New Jersey, lighting director
On Election Day 2008 Lighting programmer at Grant Park
LOOKING BACK As far as a lighting gig, it wasn’t all that complicated. I’ve done a couple Super Bowls, I’ve done the MTV VMAs, shows with 300, 400 moving lights. This was kind of smallish. From a television perspective, it’s an easy shot: a guy at a podium. Now, that’s without adding any of the significance to the guy at the podium [Laughs], but from a technical standpoint, you have to light the guy at the podium, light the crowd, light the blue walls, light the flags.
When [Obama] came out, I was white-knuckle nervous. It was very emotional for me, being there for the election of the first black President, but I was also just scared that somehow I was going to mess this up. [Laughs] I was able to hold it together and do my job, but it was hard.
WHAT’S CHANGED? Part of the hope and the change is, for me, the fact that we elected an African-American President. That, fundamentally, is a vast change for the United States. I thought based on this sea of optimism that maybe [Washington] would change a little bit. That’s my biggest disappointment, and it’s not with the President. It’s with the system of government—it seems like they can’t get anything done.
Marti Parham, 43, Bronzeville, editorial instructor at True Star magazine
On Election Day 2008 Associate editor at Jet magazine
LOOKING BACK [The rally] felt like a party. Like pockets of parties of people just kicking it, laughing, whatever. Some people weren’t even there for Obama. They were just there to hang out. I remember music being played and people dancing. It was like a big “Kumbaya”-type thing, which really surprised me.
A piece of me was like, “It’s not gonna happen. We’re all down here, and for what?” …As the numbers started rolling in, I’m like, “Wait a minute, this might happen.” When they said his name—you know, “Obama wins”—everybody just busted out screaming. I remember I got this chill that went up my entire body. I think I may have actually shed a tear.
WHAT’S CHANGED? I am not complaining because things are better than they have been.… [But] we’re at this point now where [campaign promises] just need to be fulfilled. People are at a point where it’s like, “Yeah, yeah, that was cute, but now we need to really see it.”
I don’t think [Obama] was unfair [in the expectations he set]. I think that the dude was dreaming. I think that he sincerely had hope that things were going to get better and that he would be the person to make that happen. I don’t see anything wrong with that. It’s kind of like the minister of a church. Everybody looks at him like he’s superhuman, but in the end he’s just a man.
Patricia Jones Blessman, 56, South Loop, clinical psychologist
On Election Day 2008 An Obama fund-raiser
LOOKING BACK It was remarkable to see the broad swath of America right there. The excitement in the air was palpable. It was sweet. Somebody would make an announcement, a certain state would come in, and the crowd would erupt.
If I could describe that moment [when Obama won], it would be like [time] slowed down. I just wanted to savor it. And then it sped back up again because we were right back into it and the crowd was going crazy!
I remember there was one little ugly scene, but even that, when this guy got upset that somebody got in his personal space, the rest of the crowd was like, “That’s not what we’re about today.” I had never seen a crowd get loving with somebody. [Laughs] As opposed to escalating [the conflict], they were decompressing him.
WHAT’S CHANGED? Life as we know it has changed. It has. My grandmother was a kid growing up in the South. I grew up in Cleveland, so I’m a Northern kid. And when I would go home in the summers to visit my grandmother, they had the traditional racial social etiquette of the time. She always used to say, “Don’t get used to this. This is not going to be the world that you will live in.” That was what made November 4, 2008, a really intensely emotional experience. You know, “My life is not the life you’re gonna have. Don’t get used to this.” She was so right.
Peyton Hutchison, 87, Streeterville
On Election Day 2008 Retired
LOOKING BACK The night of the affair, we received two tickets from [a friend]. When I got there, the crowd was exuberant. I was ecstatic, too. My wife didn’t want to wait in the crowd, so I walked over.
It was a great moment. [Smiles, begins tearing up] I saw a number of people crying tears of joy. People my age and older. The feelings of elation that we had that night…I didn’t see an angry person in that crowd. You could have stepped on a man’s toe, and he would have said, “Well, do it again!” [Laughs] At that time, I was, what? 83 years old? I felt like a young kid!
I went back to where my wife was staying, and we were all happy. He is our President. Not just yours. He’s our President. All Americans.
WHAT’S CHANGED? I did not expect that things for us and for black people in particular were going to change overnight. They can’t. Takes time. So the change which occurred in most black people, I think, was psychological. When Mr. Obama became President, people just didn’t rise to the top and say, “I am the boss.” But they saw opportunity if prepared.
But this year, am I enthusiastic? Yes. We’ve made [fund-raising] phone calls this year. But I think that the kind of enthusiasm that we have is not quite the same as it was four years ago.
I’d like to have  repeated. But it can never be recaptured. Being married for the first time is great. Second time? Not as great. [Laughs] The first time is something that cannot be recaptured, in my judgment. But we can try to re-create it. It’s something that we strive for.
Shirley Henderson, 46, Chatham, associate editor at Ebony magazine
On Election Day 2008 Editor at Ebony
LOOKING BACK When we found out that he won, we were inside the Ebony magazine offices [across from Grant Park], and so we went outside on Michigan Avenue and saw people in the street dancing and screaming and blowing their horns.
These strange people came up to hug us, people we’d never met. I just remember this cohesiveness, and this giddiness almost, you know?
WHAT’S CHANGED? I think that [Obama’s presidency] did have a bigger, greater impact on the African-American community as a whole. For the first time, you had an example of an African-American family in the White House. Barack and Michelle, the two kids—they were this all-American family. Not the Cosbys, but a real flesh-and-blood family.
One of the things that hope means to me is something out of a poem that Maya Angelou wrote. “I am the hope and dream of the slaves.” For me, the hope is that we continue to do better and make progress. With the help of the Congress and the House, I think that [Obama] can make more change and fulfill the hope and the dreams of the slaves.
Jack M Silverstein is the author of Our President, a nonfiction collection about Obama's election as seen from the masses.