In the end, it really was a fairytale. A story of hope conquering belief. The journey few believed would be completed. One man — aided by the most advanced viral campaign in history, and carried along on a mantra breathtaking in both its simplicity and its boldness: ‘Never gonna give you up never gonna let you down never gonna run around, desert you’. With that one lyric — indeed I am hard pushed to think of a single other — Rick Astley ran off with the much coveted MTV award for Best Ever Act, sending his reputation as ‘naff Eighties pop crooner’ into the stratosphere. His loyal fan base admitted to ‘rickrolling’ — a practice whereby millions of internet users were duped into voting for him by the click of a mouse. Even Rick himself sounded rather sheepish after the event.
But if that was democracy at its dirtiest, then perhaps what I witnessed, 4,000 miles away in Chicago the same week, was democracy at its purest. Not a landslide, as some had predicted, but a moment nonetheless of national catharsis, free of chads — hanging, dimpled or otherwise. It was the electoral equivalent of a country scrubbing its bodily stains with soap — as the man who once described himself as the ‘skinny kid with the funny name’ became President-elect.
Arriving at O’Hare airport, in November, with armfuls of thermal skiwear, the ugliest of ugg boots and a puffa jacket that will have future taxonomists stuffing me one draw down from the Michelin Man, I soon realise that even the elements have called it for Obama. It’s about 70°F and anything more than a T-shirt seems rather overstated.
By 7 p.m. the roads into downtown Chicago are satisfyingly gridlocked. The one-way stream of people — 240,000 in all — down to Grant Park is already underway. I drop my bags at the hotel and head straight out. The queues are full of young white faces and young black faces — and I am about to write the crowd scene off as rock-chick chic when my eye is caught by the older faces: the grannies, the greying men who have come to witness this moment they never thought they’d live to see. The ones the night really belongs to.
The next day, as I broadcast, I am musing on those encounters. The people in the crowd who tell me they’ve waited hours. And the people who have clearly waited years.
‘Centuries!’ bellows a voice at my side, and I find myself enveloped, live on air, in a kind of bear hug. The voice belongs to the film director Spike Lee whom I proceed to interview for BBC news. It is one of his films — Do The Right Thing — that provided the backdrop to the first date for Barack and Michelle (yet-to-be) Obama. And if this really is, as some would have it, the beginning of a post-racial age — who better to pass comment than the man who made America’s race relations box-office viewing for over two decades.
I have barely recovered from my Hollywood clinch, but already I find myself looking straight into the eyes of the man whom we last saw tearstained and shaken in the crowds. One Jesse Jackson — civil rights activist and friend of Martin Luther King Jr. His properly wet face has already come to be The Shot of election night — so I am stunned to see him at our camera point at 6.30 the following morning. Has he had any sleep at all? I ask him. But sleep, clearly, is for another time. Perhaps he fears that if he closes his eyes, the result will not be the same once they reopen.
That day in Chicago — that started for me at 2 a.m. and will not end until I am on the plane home at ten that night — feels like one iconoclastic encounter after another. And indeed, my next interview is with a certain Andrew Neil of this parish who wants to talk to me for his Daily Politics Show. Andrew, as many of you know, is not a man to mince words. As history is being made in America, he cuts straight to the chase. Have they, or have they not, he asks, found a name for ‘that White House puppy’ yet. Clearly, it’s going to be a long day.
After the event, it is hard to remember you could ever have seen it any other way. But we did. I did. I was in Minneapolis when Sarah Palin made her maiden speech to the Republican party faithful. And it was red meat to ravenous lions. She has been called many things during the course of this election campaign but perhaps none rings truer than the words of the Daily Show’s John Stewart, darling of the liberal media, who called her a ‘gift from God’. I’m not sure he meant in the creationist sense. More likely a journalist’s dream. We could not have invented her. And even now, I cannot quite get enough of her. I want to watch her origami coiffed hair. I want to be winked at and I want to believe she rules Alaska with one hand while changing five nappies with the other. As someone who works with a relentless phalanx of TV screens throughout my 12-hour shifts, I can put it no more poignantly than this: I turn the sound up when she comes on.
She has not ruled herself out of running next time and a little bit of me — OK, huge great swaths of me — is desperate to see her back. But that’s for another day. Right now, the whistle-stop tour has ended and it’s home to London and real life. On Tuesday I have been invited to a Victorian-themed evening at the Natural History Museum called ‘A Discovery of Charles Darwin’. It’s a long shot, but 2012 is a good way off. Perhaps I should ring Sarah Palin and see — just see — if she cares to discover Darwin with me.