November 29, 2020

Barack Obama on the moment he won the presidency – exclusive extract

In this excerpt from A Promised Land, the former president remembers the anxious run-up to the 2008 election. Scroll down to hear a clip of him reading from it

More than anything campaign-related, it was news out of Hawaii that tempered my mood in October’s waning days. My sister Maya called, saying the doctors didn’t think Toot [Obama’s grandmother] would last much longer, perhaps no more than a week. She was now confined to a rented hospital bed in the living room of her apartment, under the care of a hospice nurse and on palliative drugs. Although she had startled my sister with a sudden burst of lucidity the previous evening, asking for the latest campaign news along with a glass of wine and a cigarette, she was now slipping in and out of consciousness.

And so, 12 days before the election, I made a 36-hour trip to Honolulu to say goodbye. Maya was waiting for me when I arrived at Toot’s apartment; I saw that she had been sitting on the couch with a couple of shoeboxes of old photographs and letters. “I thought you might want to take some back with you,” she said. I picked up a few photos from the coffee table. My grandparents and my eight-year-old mother, laughing in a grassy field at Yosemite. Me at the age of four or five, riding on Gramps’s shoulders as waves splashed around us. The four of us with Maya, still a toddler, smiling in front of a Christmas tree.

Taking the chair beside the bed, I held my grandmother’s hand in mine. Her body had wasted away and her breathing was labored. Every so often, she’d be shaken by a violent, metallic cough that sounded like a grinding of gears. A few times, she murmured softly, although the words, if any, escaped me.

What dreams might she be having? I wondered if she’d been able to look back and take stock, or whether she’d consider that too much of an indulgence. I wanted to think that she did look back; that she’d reveled in the memory of a long-ago lover or a perfect, sunlit day in her youth when she’d experienced a bit of good fortune and the world had revealed itself to be big and full of promise.

I thought back to a conversation I’d had with her when I was in high school, around the time that her chronic back problems began making it difficult for her to walk for long stretches.

“The thing about getting old, Bar,” Toot had told me, “is that you’re the same person inside.” I remember her eyes studying me through her thick bifocals, as if to make sure I was paying attention. “You’re trapped in this doggone contraption that starts falling apart. But it’s still you. You understand?”

I did now.

For the next hour or so, I sat talking to Maya about her work and her family, all the while stroking Toot’s dry, bony hand. But eventually the room felt too crowded with memories – colliding, merging, refracting, like images in a kaleidoscope – and I told Maya I wanted to take a quick walk outside. After consulting with Gibbs [communications director Robert Gibbs] and my Secret Service detail, it was agreed that the press pool downstairs would not be informed, and I took the elevator to the basement level and went out through the garage, turning left down the narrow street that ran behind my grandparents’ apartment building.

The street had barely changed in 35 years. I passed the rear of a small Shinto temple and community center, then rows of wooden homes broken up by the occasional three-story concrete apartment building. I had bounced my first basketball – a gift from my father when I was 10 years old – down this street, dribbling the length of the uneven sidewalk on my way to and from the courts at the nearby elementary school. Toot used to say that she always knew when I was coming home for dinner because she could hear that darn ball bouncing from 10 stories up. I had run down this street to the supermarket to buy her cigarettes, motivated by her promise that I could buy a candy bar with the change if I was back in 10 minutes. Later, when I was 15, I’d walk this same street home from a shift at my first job, scooping ice-cream at the Baskin-Robbins around the corner, Toot laughing heartily when I grumbled to her about my paltry paycheck.

Another time. Another life. Modest and without consequence to the rest of the world. But one that had given me love. Once Toot was gone, there would be no one left who remembered that life, or remembered me in it.

I heard a stampede of feet behind me; the press pool had somehow gotten wind of my unscheduled excursion and were gathering on the sidewalk across the street, cameramen jostling to set up their shots, reporters with microphones looking at me awkwardly, clearly conflicted about shouting a question. They were decent about it, really just doing their jobs, and anyway I had barely traveled four blocks. I gave the press a quick wave and turned around to go back to the garage. There was no point in going farther, I realized; what I was looking for was no longer there.

I left Hawaii and went back to work. Eight days later, on the eve of the election, Maya called to say Toot had died. It was my last day of campaigning. We were scheduled to be in North Carolina that evening, before flying to Virginia for our final event. Before heading to the venue, Axe [chief campaign strategist David Axelrod] asked me gently if I needed help writing a topper to my usual campaign remarks, to briefly acknowledge my grandmother’s death. I thanked him and said no. I knew what I wanted to say.

It was a beautiful night, cool with a light rain. Standing on the outdoor stage, after the music and cheers and chants had died down, I spent a few minutes telling the crowd about Toot – how she’d grown up during the Depression and worked on an assembly line while Gramps was away in the war, what she had meant to our family, what she might mean to them.

“She was one of those quiet heroes that we have all across America,” I said. “They’re not famous. Their names aren’t in the newspapers. But each and every day they work hard. They look after their families. They sacrifice for their children and their grandchildren. They aren’t seeking the limelight – all they try to do is just do the right thing.

“And in this crowd, there are a lot of quiet heroes like that – mothers and fathers, grandparents, who have worked hard and sacrificed all their lives. And the satisfaction that they get is seeing that their children and maybe their grandchildren or their great-grandchildren live a better life than they did.

“That’s what America’s about. That’s what we’re fighting for.”

It was as good a closing argument for the campaign as I felt that I could give.

***

If you’re the candidate, Election Day brings a surprising stillness. There are no more rallies or town halls. TV and radio ads no longer matter; newscasts have nothing of substance to report. Campaign offices empty as staff and volunteers hit the streets to help turn out voters. Across the country millions of strangers step behind a black curtain to register their policy preferences and private instincts, as some mysterious collective alchemy determines the country’s fate – and your own. The realization is obvious but also profound: it’s out of your hands now. Pretty much all you can do is wait.

Plouffe [campaign manager David Plouffe] and Axe were driven crazy by the helplessness, passing hours on their BlackBerrys scrounging for field reports, rumors, bad weather – anything that might be taken as a data point. I took the opposite tack, giving myself over to uncertainty as one might lie back and float over a wave. I did start the morning by calling into a round of drive-time radio shows, mostly at Black stations, reminding people to get out and vote. Around 7.30, Michelle and I cast our votes at the Beulah Shoesmith elementary school, a few blocks from our home in Hyde Park, bringing Malia and Sasha with us and sending them on to school after that.

I then made a quick trip to Indianapolis to visit a field office and shake hands with voters. Later, I played basketball (a superstition Reggie [personal aide Reggie Love] and I had developed after we played the morning of the Iowa caucus but failed to play the day of the New Hampshire primary) with Michelle’s brother Craig, some old buddies and a handful of my friends’ sons who were fast and strong enough to keep us all working hard. It was a competitive game, filled with the usual good-natured trash talk, although I noticed an absence of hard fouls. This was per Craig’s orders, I learned later, since he knew his sister would hold him accountable if I came home with a black eye.

Gibbs, meanwhile, was tracking news from the battleground states, reporting that turnout appeared to be shattering records across the country, creating problems in some polling places as voters waited four or five hours to cast their ballots. Broadcasts from the scenes, Gibbs said, showed people more jubilant than frustrated, with seniors in lawn chairs and volunteers passing out refreshments as if they were all at a neighborhood block party.

I spent the rest of the afternoon at home, puttering around uselessly while Michelle and the girls got their hair done. Alone in my study, I made a point of editing the drafts of both my victory and concession speeches. Around 8pm, Axe called to say that the networks had called Pennsylvania in our favor, and Marvin [trip director Marvin Nicholson] said we should start heading to the downtown hotel where we’d be watching the returns before moving over to the public gathering at Grant Park.

Outside the front gate of our house, the number of Secret Service agents and vehicles seemed to have doubled over the past few hours. The head of my detail, Jeff Gilbert, shook my hand and pulled me into a brief embrace. It was unseasonably warm for Chicago at that time of year, almost in the mid-60s, and as we drove down Lake Shore Drive, Michelle and I were quiet, staring out the window at Lake Michigan, listening to the girls horsing around in the back seat. Suddenly Malia turned to me and asked, “Daddy, did you win?”

“I think so, sweetie.”

“And we’re supposed to be going to the big party to celebrate?”

“That’s right. Why do you ask?”

“Well, it doesn’t seem like that many people might be coming to the party, ’cause there are no cars on the road.”

I laughed, realizing my daughter was right; save for our motorcade, the six lanes in both directions were completely empty.

Security had changed at the hotel as well, with armed Swat teams deployed in the stairwells. Our family and closest friends were already in the suite, everyone smiling, kids racing around the room, and yet the atmosphere was still strangely muted, as if the reality of what was about to happen hadn’t yet settled in their minds. My mother-in-law, in particular, made no pretense of being relaxed; through the din, I noticed her sitting on the couch, her eyes fixed on the television, her expression one of disbelief. I tried to imagine what she must be thinking, having grown up just a few miles away during a time when there were still many Chicago neighborhoods that Blacks could not even safely enter; a time when office work was out of reach for most Blacks, and her father, unable to get a union card from white-controlled trade unions, had been forced to make do as an itinerant tradesman; a time when the thought of a Black US president would have seemed as far-fetched as a pig taking flight.

I took a seat next to her on the couch. “You OK?” I asked.

Marian shrugged and kept staring at the television. She said, “This is kind of too much.”

“I know.” I took her hand and squeezed it, the two of us sitting in companionable silence for a few minutes. Then suddenly a shot of my face flashed up on the TV screen and ABC News announced that I would be the 44th president of the United States.

The room erupted. Shouts could be heard up and down the hall. Michelle and I kissed, and she pulled back gently to give me the once-over as she laughed and shook her head. Reggie and Marvin rushed in to give everyone big bear hugs. Soon Plouffe, Axe and Gibbs walked in, and I indulged them for several minutes as they rattled off state-by-state results before telling them what I knew to be true – that as much as anything I’d done, it was their skill, hard work, insight, tenacity, loyalty and heart, along with the commitment of the entire team, that had made this moment possible.

The rest of the night is mostly a blur to me now. I remember John McCain’s phone call, which was as gracious as his concession speech. He emphasized how proud America should be of the history that had been made and pledged to help me succeed. There were congratulatory calls from President Bush and several foreign leaders, and a conversation with Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi, both of whose caucuses had had very good nights. I remember meeting Joe Biden’s 91-year-old mother, who took pleasure in telling me how she’d scolded Joe for even considering not being on the ticket.

More than 200,000 people had gathered in Grant Park that night, the stage facing Chicago’s glittering skyline. I can see in my mind even now some of the faces looking up as I walked onstage, men and women and children of every race, some wealthy, some poor, some famous and some not, some smiling ecstatically, others openly weeping. I’ve reread lines from my speech that night and heard accounts from staff and friends of what it felt like to be there.

But I worry that my memories of that night, like so much else that’s happened these past 12 years, are shaded by the images that I’ve seen, the footage of our family walking across the stage, the photographs of the crowds and lights and magnificent backdrops. As beautiful as they are, they don’t always match the lived experience. In fact, my favorite photograph from that night isn’t of Grant Park at all. Rather it’s one I received many years later as a gift, a photograph of the Lincoln Memorial, taken as I was giving my speech in Chicago. It shows a small gathering of people on the stairs, their faces obscured by the darkness, and behind them the giant figure shining brightly, his marble face craggy, his eyes slightly downcast. They’re listening to the radio, I am told, quietly contemplating who we are as a people – and the arc of this thing we call democracy.