At 7 p.m., with election results still the stuff of dreams, Matthew Clair pitched in to inflate balloons at the Cambridge Queen’s Head at Loker Commons. The Dunster House senior, whose Brentwood, Tenn., family, he said, was the only one in town with an Obama sign on the front lawn, is president of the Harvard Black Pre-Law Association — one of two College groups that had rented the Memorial Hall pub for the night ahead.
Tim Turner ’09, president of the Harvard Black Students Association and an Obama supporter, doodled on his computer, putting out a mix of music to fill in for television that had nothing yet to say. “A little light hip-hop,” he said. “And later, a little celebratory music — hopefully.”
Just getting to election night was enough, said Clair, his red tie askew. He recounted a conversation with his father, a Nashville cardiologist who was born in the Jim Crow era. “Look how far we’ve come. Look how far America has come,” the older man said. “I’m almost drawn to tears already.”
All four television screens — one the size of a picture window — flash onto an image of CNN. Flickering images war with the hip-hop. Then the TV sound goes up and the music goes down. The first election glimmerings roll in. “I want to know,” said Clair, “and I don’t know.”
On-screen, early signposts of a historic election flash past. As the time ticks by, Obama is leading in more and more contests.
Turner taps on a mic, intones over the noise, “This is definitely a historical night in American history. I feel privileged and blessed to spend it with you.”
It’s the last time the mic gets used. The crowd takes over, milling in clusters before the big screens. A pool table in one corner, the scene of a languid game a few minutes earlier, is taken over by students who use it for laptops — little screens skirmishing with the big ones and cell phone cameras starting to pop.
At 8:37 p.m., Malcolm Rivers ’09 paces past the pool table, his back to the big screen. He sums up the energy running through the room. “I hate waiting.”
Two minutes later, CNN calls Pennsylvania for Obama. Wild cheers, and, “We’ve got him on the ropes,” said Rivers, a Dunster House senior. The crowd thickening around him, Rivers compares the pub night so far to “watching all my favorite teams play at once.”
Some local news appears: Incumbent Republican New Hampshire Sen. John Sununu falls to challenger Jeanne Shaheen, who until recently was director of the Institute of Politics at the Harvard Kennedy School.
Not long after 9 p.m., the Democrat shoots ahead — 174 Electoral College votes to 69. Just after 9:30, CNN puts Ohio into his electoral column — setting off an ear-splitting round of screams.
A life-size Obama cutout, leaning near the door earlier, gets handed around. It spins and bobs around the room like a dance partner. Rivers catches up to the cutout, slings one arm around it, and with the other holds out a fist.
Candance Samuel ’12, a Georgia native and Obama supporter, slides into a far booth, taking a minute away from the hubbub. “It’s definitely one of the best moments of my life,” she said. “It’s definitely Top 10.” Pandemonium grows as Obama barrels past one state after another. CNN graphics flash like starbursts.
A few minutes past 10 p.m., CNN commentator David Gergen, director of HKS’s Center for Public Leadership, predicts Obama’s electoral tally will “sail past 300.”
More and more people stream in through the pub doors. The crowd swells to to well over 200. They are electric. Cell phones flash to ears, laptop screens shine like glass, a woman walks past with the T-shirt of the night: “Barack and Roll.”
At 10:40, the lights dim, and the pub din goes up an octave. Like a shimmering dream, hip-hop artist Will.i.am appears as a hologram on CNN, in conversation with Anderson Cooper. Around the room’s four screens, the crowd presses in. A chant goes up: O-ba-ma. O-ba-ma. A watch party in Kenya flashes on the screen, African children bobbing in white shirts an ocean away.
Minutes from 11, Gergen said, “This could be it. This could be the bewitching hour.”
And it was. CNN calls it for Obama.
At the Queen’s Head, a bedlam rises up — piercing screams, shouting, hopping high-fives, daps, chanting, and hugs. It’s a moon landing, the end of World War II, a hundred New Year’s Eves.
At one table, Roshane Campbell ’12 slumps in tears. A minute later — jumping, jumping, jumping — he cuts through the crowd in zigs and zags, and grabs one friend. “Oh my God, dude. It’s real.”
At 11:18, the energy at the pub goes down a notch or two, then dies to a hush as John McCain makes his concession speech. From somewhere in the pub comes this: “It’s the best speech he’s given.”
At one minute to midnight, with a long wait over in pubs and living rooms nationwide, Obama strides out onto an outdoor stage in Chicago.