The following piece will be published in Saturday's Independent
President Bartlett on The West Wing often said this. Usually at the end of an episode when a thing had been solved or resolved or lost or won and it was, whatever the case, time to move on. We sometimes had spiraling crane shots from above pulling up and away as the mere mortals of government left below continued on their silly work.
The night was pretty nice: Election night in New York City. On Eighth Avenue, from a block away, I heard a roar of a crowd the size and depth you hear in stadiums reserved for moments of historic relevance like World Cup overtime goals or World Series winning home runs or the fall of Max Schmelling from Joe Louis' fists. I reached the digital screen in Times Square to see that California had fallen blue and the fat lady was singing. Along with that lady about a million people joined in, it seemed, singing arias of celebration, crying and laughing and shouting and hugging. Victory.
When New York is celebrating, it is the best.
There is nothing like sharing victory with a million other people.
A lot of hours later I was back in front of a TV. I saw the speech again and the hugging and crying at Grant Park, Chicago; I saw dancing in the streets of Kenya; I saw kids in Indonesia; mobs in Japan; all of them joining the song. Maybe a million was a low guess--more like a billion: A billion happy, singing people.
Earlier that night, election night, I had gotten a phone call from home. My wife and son shouting out a recap of an unlikely story: My son, Gus, had been the hero of the school's football game -- he sacked the quarterback four times and was voted the game's most valuable player. My quiet son was a hero. All season long he had become their dominant force -- their secret weapon without whom they would lose. The other kids gave him a name this day: Madman, Insane Gus, because the other team couldn't stop him at all. My son was on that cloud that people talk about when they run smack into euphoria. I yelled back over the phone: THAT'S MY KID! But then quickly coached him to get ready for the next game, the next challenge -- that things change and don't expect it all to fall your way -- you've got to earn it all over again. My son is special. For him to achieve this thing -- it is special. My son has a thing that separates him from the pack; let's just say he's one of those sensitized souls; the normal ups and downs to the rest of us are clouds and canyons to him. A first day of school is a climb up Mount Everest without a tank of oxygen. To say hello to a girl deserves a Nobel Prize for courage. His victories make me weep. His falls are devastating.
Yesterday I got another call. Gus had been taunted by a kid, this happens to him, and had gotten into a fight and had been suspended from the team for the semifinal game. They needed this win to play for the championship. Son and mother watched as the team, no kidding, in the final 20 seconds, lost by one point. My son feels responsible for rain. Imagine his reaction.
"The thrill of victory and the agony of defeat."
Still euphoric from the night before, I opened the newspaper to soak up the world's reaction to America's triumph. I enjoyed that. Buried on a page deep inside and below the fold was a story of sobering force. A girl, Aisha, thirteen years old had been raped by three men in Somalia . Her parents brought the girl to the authorities to report the crime. The Muslim elders ruled that the girl had committed adultery and should be stoned to death. That happened. On the same day Americans elected as their president a man whose sometimes silent middle name is Hussein, that happened. I stayed stuck reading and rereading this story. Aisha feels like that story you hear or read about the soldier who died after the war was over because word had not yet reached that battlefield. Of course the rest of the world is not as dumb as me. Nor am I really that dumb. Of course Aisha won't be the last. Of course.
It' easy to spoil a good mood: Get a cup of coffee and open the newspaper.
I studied the president-elect that election night. The words were wonderful. The emotion, controlled and siphoned, was real and very deep. He moved from phrase to phrase not lingering or settling on the note but staying ahead of the beat looking for the next melodic shift. There was a purpose to this music. Not just another pretty song.
Have you ever studied the great athletes? There is a common denominator. When Larry Bird made an unlikely three point shot or stole a pass and fed a teammate under the hoop for an easy basket, I watched him. He never lingered; never celebrated but almost before immediately he looked to the next thing, finding his man to guard as he shifted focus at the speed of light; his body quickly following. Joe Louis looking for the opening for the body blow already as the overhand right slipped through on the way to contact with the other guy's head.
My son Gus refused to go to school the next day. He was ashamed and embarrassed and responsible for the end of the world. I told him to move forward; to take it on the chin and walk in, apologize to his teammates for letting them down. I told him that sooner or later you have to move forward -- might as well get it out of the way and make it sooner. He said sometimes it's better to go backwards for a while so you can get a running start. I told him he's smarter than me. He gave the phone to his mom and walked into school.
There are new missiles pointing at us from just over the Poland border. The market dropped another batch of hundreds in points. There is a sense that the test, the first test, will come sooner than later.
"Let us not judge a man for the heights that he reaches but from the depths from which he came." I think of that when I think of my son. I now think of that when I think of my country and the world. We have taken so many steps backward in such a short recent past. But as Gus says, sometimes it is better to get a running start. Perhaps those laws of physics come in handy from time to time. What goes up must come down. And what goes so far down has that kinetic possibility to break new boundaries as it bounces back up.
The president-elect: "And where we are met with cynicism and doubts and those who tell us that we can't, we will respond with that timeless creed that sums up the spirit of a people: Yes, we can."
I watched the president-elect like I watch athletes. I rooted for him like I root for my son. I believed him. He didn't stop or pause or reflect. He was a man ready to move to the next thing. Already looking to all the many things that are next.
A "God Bless America," a "thank you" and this first message as president to be was done. Time to move forward. I saw Larry Bird; I saw Joe Louis; and I saw Gus.
The preceding piece will be published in Saturday's Independent