Young Mr. Obama - By Edward McClelland



T H E G A T E S T O G R A N T P A R K ’ S Hutchinson Field were thrown open at a quarter past six, over an hour ahead of schedule. The crowd massing against the metal barriers wouldn’t wait any longer. The first of sixty thousand Obama supporters—those lucky enough to score tickets in an Internet lottery—cantered across the softball diamonds, carefree as streakers, racing for a spot near the floodlit stage. It was standing-room-only for the final Obama rally of the 2008 presidential campaign.

They were young, most of them. There was a sense of conquest as they filled the sunken field and raised American flags of all sizes, from desktop squares to bedsheet banners. The last generational shift in American politics had taken place on the same grass they were trampling. The riots at the 1968 Democratic National Convention broke apart the New Deal coalition and began a forty-year-long conservative backlash whose ashes would be blown away by the end of this night. Then, Chicago had stood for dissent and disunion. It was the stage where a nation acted out its angriest divisions since the Civil War. Once again, the whole world was watching Grant Park, but this time, it would represent the values of the man who had chosen this spot, a man who, four years before, on the second-biggest night of his life, had declared, “There’s not a liberal America and a conservative America—there’s a United States of America.”

“It’s the transformative night of my generation,” said a twenty-six-year-old Chicagoan. “Obama is going to be the first post–baby boomer president. He’s getting us past the sixties. All this stuff about Bill Ayers and the racial issue, I don’t give a shit. There’s more important stuff out there, like the economy and alternative energy.”

They came from all over the world. A half dozen Sudanese Lost Boys, all gangly six-footers like the half-African candidate, stood together on a patch of infield dirt. An Irish immigrant wore a faded-looking T-shirt: BARACK OBAMA FOR ILLINOIS STATE SENATE, 13TH DISTRICT ’96. No such campaign memorabilia had ever existed. The T-shirt came from Urban Outfitters. Every few minutes, the young Irishman checked his BlackBerry. His father was texting him with election returns from in front of a TV in Dublin.

No one anticipated Obama’s victory with more satisfaction than Chicago’s African-Americans. They had raised the man to power. Twenty-three years before, he had arrived in this city as a stranger, unsure even of his place in its black community. But he had organized its poorest residents, had gotten his picture in Jet (whose offices overlooked Grant Park) by becoming president of the Harvard Law Review, and then returned to the South Side to marry one of its most beautiful, accomplished daughters and represent his fellow blacks in the state senate. Along the way, some had questioned whether he really was black, or just a deep-down white man whose blackness was only skin deep, an accident of ancestry. But now that he was hours away from winning the most powerful office on Earth, they were eager to claim him, and his triumph, as their own. In the VIP tent sat Jesse Jackson and Oprah Winfrey. Almost as much as Obama, they represented what ambitious African-Americans could achieve in Chicago. Like him, they had arrived in the city in their twenties and risen to worldwide fame.

In the crowd stood Ronnie Wickers, better known as “Ronnie Woo-Woo.” An original Wrigley Field bleacher bum, he had altered his Cubs uniform to read OBAMA 08 and changed his stadium cheer for the candidate.

“Obama! Woo! Obama! Woo! Obama! Woo!” he wheezed, substituting “Obama” for “Cubs.”

“I’m sixty-seven years old,” Wickers said. “Obama’s like Jackie Robinson. An African-American got a chance to play baseball back in the day. Obama, he’s got a chance to prove himself.”

The sunken meadow was walled on three sides by skyscrapers, whose illuminated windows formed constellations for city dwellers. VOTE 2008 spelled out the windows of the Associates Center. The CNA Building was a Lite-Brite Stars and Stripes. Diamond Vision screens, as big as billboards, were flashing CNN’s carnival-colored election maps. Whenever a state turned blue, a hundred thousand voices rose. (The crowd outside the park was just as big as the crowd inside. Those who hadn’t won a golden ticket stood along Michigan Avenue, begging like Deadheads looking for a miracle. “Anyone need a guest?” “I need one. I’m not a scalper.”) When Ohio went for Obama, the roar was as