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The Whole World was Watching

Don’t get me wrong, when it became obvious Obama was winning big, it was fun to be at the Democrats Abroad party at the Slide Nightclub in Darlinghurst, Sydney, waving my pint and shouting as the results came in. It was all the sweeter because it was clear  this was no ordinary victory. To borrow an expression, “we beat them like rented mules.”

But the full significance of this election to the world at large swept over me an hour later, in an ordinary pub where a woman with a chihuahua snuggled in her arms sat outside sunning herself, men in the back played video games, and workmen struggled to install one more table near the door.

Lizanne and I had thought it was too early for McCain to concede, and were sprawled on a couch talking about the events of the day, when a screen-scroll announced that regular programming was preempted.

As Obama strode onto the stage, we stood up. This was for practical reasons — we couldn’t see the screen from where we sat — and yet it somehow felt right for other reasons. We were honoring something much larger than a new president.

The workmen put down their tools.
The bartender stopped wiping glasses.
The woman with the chihuahua walked in and stood with us.
The men in the back left their video games and came forward.
People drifted in off the street and stood quietly, eyes fixed on the screen.

No one sat. Everyone stood for Obama.

As Obama spoke, the pub was pregnant with respectful silence. I wanted to take a picture but my hands were wet from wiping away tears.

Obama finished his speech; then everyone in the pub — all but two of us Australians — cheered and applauded.

Life picked up where it left off. The television resumed its mindless daytime chatter, and soon the workmen were making a tremendous racket. The video-game players wandered to fresher territory. The woman with the chihuahua reestablished her post at the prime outdoor spot in front of the pub, her nervous little dog still tucked in her arms. Everyone else either got a beer and sat down, or stepped back into the sunshine of a Sydney spring day to resume their quotidian tasks.

But I felt, at long last, no longer an American with an asterisk, apologizing for a government at odds with the world.

Posted on this day, other years:

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  1. rcn wrote:

    Wow, Karen. Thanks so much for this eloquent post. It’s just beautiful.

    Wednesday, November 5, 2008 at 2:21 pm | Permalink
  2. Jeff Scott wrote:

    You have really put it in perspective. It’s really amazing.

    Wednesday, November 5, 2008 at 2:30 pm | Permalink
  3. Jan wrote:

    Wow. Powerful post. Thanks so much (from a faithful lurker).

    Wednesday, November 5, 2008 at 3:40 pm | Permalink
  4. necia wrote:

    Thanks, Karen. You expressed it so beautifully.

    Wednesday, November 5, 2008 at 3:53 pm | Permalink
  5. Zeke wrote:

    Instead I think you should consider yourself as a chicken with an asterisk concerning the lack of candor (aka lying) on your resume. When will you admit what you were doing at the University of Michigan. Is it really all that embarrassing to flub a PHD? Free range what?

    Wednesday, November 5, 2008 at 6:09 pm | Permalink
  6. Miriam B. wrote:

    Beautiful post, thanks.

    I have a Canadian friend whose husband has been pretty rude to me for the past several years, as if I was supposed to accept responsibility for Bush’s deeds since I hadn’t singlehandedly launched an armed revolution against him… and That’s All Over.

    (But oh dear, Proposition 8. How can people be so schizophrenic, to vote for change and against rights at the same time.)

    Wednesday, November 5, 2008 at 9:41 pm | Permalink
  7. Emily Lloyd wrote:

    Gorgeous post. Should be published elsewhere, too.

    Thursday, November 6, 2008 at 9:56 am | Permalink
  8. Mary Ellen Petrich wrote:

    For Miriam, consider that in the beautiful city of San Francisco, in a year of record voter turnout, just slightly less than 50% of registered voters voted. Meanwhile in ever so slightly more conservative Contra Costa County 70% of registered voters voted. I’ll go out on a limb and say that young, liberal voters did not happen to make it to the polls on election day. And that is why Prop 8 passed. We have met the enemy and he is us.

    Thursday, November 6, 2008 at 12:32 pm | Permalink
  9. Lisa wrote:

    This is great post, Karen. Thanks for your perspective, as always.

    Thursday, November 6, 2008 at 12:46 pm | Permalink
  10. Amy Ranger wrote:

    You have given me gooseflesh with your words. Not a coincidence that I have Dire Straits playing “Brothers in arms” on the iPod at the moment. Oh, yes we can.

    Thursday, November 6, 2008 at 1:49 pm | Permalink
  11. Yes, Prop 8 and 2 are sad results. More on that later… much more… keep those comments coming.

    Zeke, I’ll respond on the blog… but I didn’t “flub” the PhD, I just dropped out. I think well enough of my performance that I always submit my transcript from UM for jobs, whether it is required or not.

    Thursday, November 6, 2008 at 4:37 pm | Permalink
  12. Andrew Pentecost wrote:


    I attended your excellent presentation at the University of NSW yesterday and felt compelled to have a look at your blog afterwards. Your wonderful post about the election says it all. I was working in New Zealand on the actual election day and can honestly say that the entire ANZ region was moved by the dignity and enormity of this event. I’m so pleased you and Lizanne were able to share it with the people of Sydney.

    Friday, November 7, 2008 at 12:47 am | Permalink
  13. Andrew, thanks, I had a blissfully good time presenting yesterday, and I will remember this election day forever.

    Friday, November 7, 2008 at 4:29 am | Permalink
  14. Alison wrote:

    Karen, What a good day today – thanks!I only wish we weren’t shooed out of SLQ – the slides you slid over looked at least as interesting as the ones you spent time on… I too have spent time on your blog post-presentation and loved your writing, esp about Slide. Hey, this was the first US election result in decades that has inspired conversation in our (Australian) bars and everywhere else!

    Friday, November 7, 2008 at 8:45 am | Permalink
  15. Alison, that was a fun talk though Friday afternoon is a bit of a push … I’d be up for re-doing part or all of my presentation when I’m back home, 7 or 8 p.m. my time, 10 a.m. or so your time. That’s really very easy to do with webinar software. I had a great time yesterday morning and would love to continue the conversations!

    Friday, November 7, 2008 at 4:41 pm | Permalink
  16. Beautiful. Thanks so much for sharing this. :-) It truly was a memorable night!

    Friday, November 7, 2008 at 8:19 pm | Permalink
  17. Andrew Pentecost wrote:

    Jamie Byng, managing director of Canongate Publishing, who brought The Audacity of Hope and Dreams From My Father to Britain last year, ordered an extra 1,200,000 copies of the books on hearing the presidential result. Canongate had already printed 36,000,000 copies, but since sales at some book chains doubled this week, Mr Byng now expects to have ordered at least half a million by the end of the year.

    You can buy them from my company at

    Friday, November 14, 2008 at 8:56 am | Permalink

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    [...] another friend reported a similar reaction from her travels down under, testifying quite literally to the fact that whole world was [...]

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