US Election

I just got back to my little pad on Liliom utca, after watching the inauguration at Central European University with a few fellow Fulbrighters. Similar to the day after the election, I have that kid-on-the-day-after-Christmas feel: surprised the “big moment” has passed, but still glowing with happiness.

I teared up a little … but not when I expected it. I thought the waterworks might turn on when I saw Obama take the oath of office… but the little bit of fumble he made while repeating from Chief Justice Roberts got a chuckle. And then, like that, it was over. It kind of reminded me of the first time I went to a Protestant wedding (hey, with a last name like “Russo” and more cousins that I can count, is it any surprise that any wedding I was dragged to as a child was Catholic?): a bunch of lead-up for something that passes so quickly. A few words, and eight years of political embarrassment ended. What did make my throat catch was the sweeping shots of the streets of Washington, as the motorcade passed. I didn’t realize how well I knew them until I saw them blown-up on the screen — I could see my home, all decked out and packed up with people. I saw the places I used to walk, used to take runs, flash by. Then, the shots of the Mall, so vast and crowded with people waving flags and jumping up and down that it looked like one massive pile of confetti. Don’t let Fox News tell you differently: it did NOT look a thing like that at either Bush inauguration. This was bigger, and happier than anything I had ever seen … and watching it, six time zones and thousands of miles away from the familiar scene, well, that was enough to get me.

Alice Walker reminded people that we “elected a president, not a magician,” and Obama’s speech today — which I found less heartstring-tugging, but more serious and true than his happy concert speech Sunday — made the issues America faces clear time and time again. And though the words “tolerance” and “unity” and “peace” flew through the air with abandon, one need only cross into Anacostia — so close from the shining white Capitol building, so far away in equality — to know that today wasn’t a cure all. Certainly, I had an interesting reminder that tolerance and love are at danger internationally as well: on my way to C.E.U., I saw a huge table set up, with young Hungarians (who looked not so different than the type of go-getter college kids who campaigned in “hope” and “change” T-shirts for Obama) handing out infomation on the far-right Jobbik party, a political organization that might, perhaps, represent the furthest thing from tolerance and inclusion (these people protest Hanukah. Yup. Even tried to do it once in front of the Dohany Street syangogue.)

But, then, on the way home, I met a (rather wine-sodden) old German man, who randomly hugged me (before needing propped up on the wall so I could explain how he could get to Moskva ter). There is hate in the world. But there is also the love Obama spoke about. Thus far, the course of human history has shown that the majority of the time, when life is difficult — financially, politically — human beings have a tendency to show our worst side. Thus far, suffering and intolerance and inequality have engendered more of the same instead of compassion.  Obama asked this of us … and by “us,” I do mean not just Americans, but everyone:

“Let it be said by our children’s children that when we were tested, we refused to let this journey end, that we did not turn back.”

Thus far, history has show that such an outcome is unlikely. But, as someone — and who would it be? — once said, … in the unlikely story that is America, there has never been anything false about hope.” Unlikely, yes. But possible, too.


Today, I find myself truly missing my homes for the first time since I arrived here.

I say “homes” because I do consider myself having two: Pittsburgh and Washington, D.C (cities just 5 hours of interstate apart, but in such decidedly different cultures, I often feel I ought to have a passport to go between them).

Pittsburgh is missed because the lovely Pittsburgh Steelers defeated the Baltimore Ravens on Sunday night, and hence will go on to play in the Superbowl. The last time this happened, in 2006, I was working as a reporter at The Beaver County Times … and I can’t say I’ll miss having my workday being 100% dedicated to every (and any) possible way of saying something about Steelers and Steeler love. I literally had to write stories about Ben Roethlisberger’s beard. No, I am not kidding. In fact, to be perfectly honest, I wrote another one. Yup — two stories, taking up valuable news space. About facial hair. (Perhaps you recall my earlier annoyance at the American press’s general neglect of the Russia-Ukraine gas crisis? Well, Russia and the Ukraine could both be wiped off the map and it likely wouldn’t even merit an inch of newsprint in a Pittsburgh region paper until after the Superbowl.) But, now that it isn’t my job to come up with the newest approach to Terrible Towel use, I will certainly miss the excitement and the way sports victory can briefly throw otherwise unrelated people together in one happy ball of Pittsburgh-love (Perhaps nobody has explained this feeling better than fellow former-‘burgher/now DC-ist Howard Fineman in a 2005 MSNBC column, although his account came after a playoff loss.)

Yet, of course, far more missed by this ex-pat today is the festivities blooming on the National Mall for the Inauguration of Barack Hussein Obama as the 44th President of the United States!!!!.

For eight years, I have grown more and more weary of a President who appeared to care about neither the interests of other countries, nor those in his own country who didn’t fit his strict ideals of “real” Americans (which must have meant rich, white, straight, male and so on, judging by the policy he made). For my entire adult voting life, I have listened to the word “intellectual” be used as a slur, and watched the leader of the free world bumble through the English language, basking in his own stupidity as a badge of what made him “real” (and, if to be like him was to be a real American, what does that mean he is saying about us as a country?) For my past trips and time abroad, I have hidden my nationality — “Si, sono olandese” I responded to many an Italian’s query back in 2002, because, since our reputation was so low abroad the Italians seemed to believe anyone who spoke Italian (even bad Italian) couldn’t be from that exceptionalist America, and they picked Dutch as the most likely place for my paler-faced self.

But today, I’m going out to do my errands and take my Hungarian classes and sit in my new favorite cafe wearing an Obama shirt, boldly addressing postcards with “U.S.A” as the last address line.

Because today … YES WE CAN!

And, so, today, I am missing the great big party that is erupting in my home of Washington, D.C. It’s ironic, to say the least, that I suffered the limo-clogged streets and back Metro service through two inaugurations of Mr. Bush, “celebrations” that, for me, felt more like times to mourn.

Whoa. I do love to watch that man speak. Throughout the election, both detractors and supporters worried over his eloquence. What if he is just a bunch of pretty words? they asked, seeming to be frightened of a politician who dared to treat his constituents as if they might have a reading comprehension level above the 5th grade … as if they might possibly understand complex issues. Words are not everything, no. But take it from an English teacher: words matter. Stories can be the beginning of something that changes lives (ask the female abolitionist writers of 19th century America, whose poems began a freedom movement, or anyone who was around hear the words of Martin Luther King, Jr.) I just wish I could see him say them in person … and, since Bono and Springsteen were in my old backyard, to walk down to see them, too.

I think if I was back there, I’d be so giddy on it all, I might even be nice to the tourists who stand on the left of the Metro escalator.

Yes, I miss D.C. today. One of the things that annoyed me the most during the past campaign season — and this came from both colors, Red and Blue — was the demonizing of urban life in Washington and New York. We suddenly became cities that weren’t “real America.”  We became the scapegoat for everyone else’s frustrations. Every politico and his or her supporters used rhetoric making of Washington into some sort of devil’s den (and even those areas which touched Washington, like my last residence, Northern Virginia, which was forever touted as not being “real Virginia” … and, hence, not “real America.”) Well,


OK, OK: I really will start putting up more posts that are actually about Hungary and teaching and get off of my political spree, but my happiness hangover hasn’t quite worn off yet.

Hungarian free commuter paper. Headline reads "The President"

Hungarian free commuter paper. Headline read: "The President".

Yesterday, all the Fulbrighters had our monthly meeting. We visited my school, Pázmány Péter University, then crossed the border for a nice group lunch in a village in Slovakia, where the head of the Fulbright Commission in Hungary, Dr. Huba Bruckner, delivered a very short — but touching — speech to toast President-elect Obama. He noted, as so many people here have, that the change marks an era of hope not just for America, but for his country and for everyone.  A Hungarian man addressing a bunch of Americans from all over the country (we literally span from New York to California, hitting everywhere from Kentucky to Pennsylvania in between) while standing withing the borders of Slovakia, and all were happy about the same thing: a wide-reaching sense of hope indeed.

Oh and one more note: I will be traveling with the Commission and several Fulbrighters to Veszprém, a smaller city in Hungary, where we will discuss American education and our own projects here in Hungary … and, where we will visit the American Corner to talk about the elections. Then head of this office, Judit, e-mailed me and asked if I thought I’d be able to talk about the topic. Able to talk? I asked. The bigger problem is able to shut up about it — they’re going to need one of those big canes from vaudeville days to pull me offstage…

I know I once mentioned that I was going to try to avoid being all politic-y on this blog … my attempt to distance myself from spending 7+ years — nearly all of my adult life — in Washington, D.C. and fearing I was developing a Beltway-bounded,constantly caffienated, Hill-jargon peppered mindset.

But I can’t help it. I woke up this morning like a kid on Christmas: happy but too groggy to figure out why at first, then remembering why and leaping out of bed (or Ikea futon, as the case may be) even happier. It’s like a happiness hangover… the excitement of watching that map turn blue, of seeing places Ohio (OHIO?!?!) and Indiana, where my one of my favorite DCists has been living for more than a year, working on getting that state to go blue for the first time in god knows when (YAY Ian! Wonderful work!).

My usual Wednesday schoolwork-day was spent instead glued to my computer, inhaling news (lesson plans? eh, they can be done on the weekend. Even I can’t concentrate on feminist literature right now.) I’ve watched the acceptance speech on replay, crying several times, and then watched all the New York Times and Washington Post videos. One of my favorites shows the celebrations on U Street in D.C., one of the historically black neighborhoods in the city, which has experienced rapid gentrification, leading to a sometimes tense mix of old residents with young white urbanites looking to be “hip” and buying up overpriced lofts. But they all looked pretty happy and loose here.  Sure, I get it: this doesn’t dissolve the racial tensions America still has or the inequality it still has or fix the fact that most places … and the capital city of Washington, certainly among them … are divided sharply on color lines; yet, it is still a moment, however fleeting, of living up to the ideals. It makes me miss D.C. a bit — I know I would have been dancing on down to the White House as well — and I do find it ironic to be away from D.C. now, after living there through the last two elections (the only other two during which I was old enough to vote), since there will finally be an inauguration where I would go to celebrate, not protest. 

But it is also very cool to be abroad at this historic moment: I was thinking about how some of the last people left at 4 a.m. Hungarian time at our election party actually weren’t even American. A group of Brits (or Aussies? I can’t always distinguish the accent) cheered as loud as we did as the blue swept through Pennsylvania and a table of young Hungarians covered themselves with Obama stickers in the lead up to the calling of Ohio. Yesterday, in line at the post office, a Hungarian woman saw “USA” address written on my postcards and gave me a thumbs-up. This morning, my colleague at the Fulbright office, Csanád, walked in and hugged me, all teary-eyed as he explained how much the Obama win meant for his country as well.  Students who came to my afternoon writing workshop literally bubbled over with excitment, with two saying they stayed up all night, as I did, to see Obama win, which one said might “…help all of us with ending prejudice.”  As the New York Times puts it, despite all the troubles my country still faces, “…from far away, this is how it looks: There is a country out there where tens of millions of white Christians, voting freely, select as their leader a black man of modest origin, the son of a Muslim. There is a place on Earth — call it America — where such a thing happens. Never, in my lifetime, have I seen this reaction to politics, to the country I come from — I’m fine with letting the happiness hang over a bit longer before coming back to reality.

CNN International called the election around 5:00 a.m. Hungarian time. And it still hasn’t sunk in. Maybe because I’m sleep-deprived from hunching on the floor of the Grand Corinthian hotel and yelling at Wolf Blitzer to bring the returns in faster. Maybe because there is something a little anti-climatic when my own vote was counted a month ago. Maybe because it was strange to stagger outside at a quarter to 6 and get on a fairly quiet 4/6 tram, instead of dashing down M Street or parading down to the White House, as I would have done if I was back in my usual city.

But my god, am I happy. I already have e-mails and texts coming in from Hungarian students and colleagues, congratulating…and, in some cases thanking me. “The world is full of hope again,” one noted, stressing how this election went so far beyond our borders.

Pennsylvania did me proud, and went blue as predicted. But then came that cornerstone of Ohio, which lost it for Kerry but swung it for Obama. (and I, a dedicated Steelers fan who has been raised to make fun of everything across that border where the Cleveland Browns live, now vow never to utter bad word about those Ohioians again) But then Virigina…where, not so very long ago, public schools chose to close down rather than integrate…went blue.

Wow. Wow. Wow. I actually cry watching his acceptance speech.

And I also think about the irony of living in Washington, D.C. through two inaugurations where I attended as a protester, and how I’ll be so far away the one time I finally want to go and celebrate.

This is an inelegant and in-eloquent post. I am indeed these things right now, on five hours of scattered sleep. But I am so very, very happy. And I will not be hiding my passport cover any more.

It’s here. Election day. I … and every European I’ve met during my two months on the continent… waits with hope that the Obama will win.

Is he perfect? No. Is his election going to solve all the huge messes the U.S., and the world, have right now? Of course not.

But is he a very, very smart man. And where he may show some lack — being young, being less experienced on an international stage — he is, as The Economist so rightly stated it, a man wise enough to recognize this and to thus pick a partner whose foreign policy experience includes bringing the atrocities of ethnic cleansing in Bosnia to the light of American eyes (which so often refuse to see beyond our borders) and urging diplomacy before bombs in Iraq. He is the man far better suited to this job that the man who, while he was once more of a moderate uniter, has fallen prey to the pettiest of culture-war jargon and picked a running mate who — even aside from her total lack of experience in all the international relations matters so necessary to the successful running of our country — shows such a blatant disregard for science, for difference and diversity, and for basic founding American principles on individuals’ freedom of choice that it should be nauseating to anyone who holds US citizenship.

Obama is the only right choice. As a reminder, just watch what he had to say 7 months ago, when he could have taken the low road or the easy soundbite answer. He didn’t.

And, on the heels of the disasters that 8 years of anti-intellectualism has wrought, we need someone who can think.

Oh please. Oh please please please pleasepleasepleasepleasepleaseplease. Let America do the right thing.

I don’t think I even need to remind what it is one week until, do I? Yes, one week until the U.S. Presidential election.

I’m literally losing sleep over it. Part of me just runs the it will be Obama, it has to be Obama! refrain in my head. But I look at McCain and Palin, and the anger of some of their supporters. It is an anger that disgusts me and scares me at times (i.e. supporters who shout at “Sit down, boy!” at African-American cameramen) — but it is an anger that I know, unfortunately, can work.

VOTE OBAMA '08 -- for America, and the world...

VOTE OBAMA'08 ... For America, and for the rest of the world...

This anger, combined with the human tendency to fear of change and difference, can make people do a lot of crazy things …  things that end up hurting themselves and others. The New York Times had a great piece about my old “stomping grounds” — Beaver County, Pennsylvania, where I worked for about a year and a half during my other life as a journalist. While I have often been angered at the way “big” journalism covers my folks back home during this race — generally depicting them as either backwards or just stupid — I think this piece does a good job of capturing what is at stake here. The main photo is of Ambridge, a town named for the American Bridge Company, a steel mill that brought the town to epic boom proportions before closing in the mid-80s. And what do you do when that which gave your town its very name closes? Who are you left to be as a community?

When bored or avoiding the regular phone calls of the then-Ambridge mayor (a man named Buzzy who had a tendency to call in various stages of seeming inebriation, with various made up “news items”) while working at the Beaver County Times, I used to sit and flip through old photos in the library . Ambridge in the 50s or 60s looked so hopping: streets packed with people, dressed up, Friday night check in their back pocket, ready to go have fun.  The town had a look I never remember it having in my lifetime …in a way, it reminded me of the good happy feeling I get standing at the cross streets of M & Wisconsin in Georgetown on a warm evening … the crush of people and lights and cars and noise just makes you feel like everything is so… alive. The New York Times guy got this right, too: there were people of different colors and backgrounds: every Eastern or Southern European nationality you could imagine plus some influence from the earlier black American “Great Migration“. Certainly, it was no perfect melting pot, and separation between groups was strong. The segregation was both self-enforced  (there is a reason Ambridge once made it into the Guinness Book of World Records for having the most bars and churches per capita: the Italians had the Italian Catholic church and the S.O.I; the Poles had the Polish Catholic Church … and so on) and actively encouraged by mill bosses (Carnegie and Frick, great philanthropists thought they may be on some level, were famous for encouraging, via mill-owned housing and bosses, for trying to keep all the races and ethnicities separate in their industries to keep unions from becoming too powerful).

Obama once got attacked for suggesting that the people from such towns are bitter. Bitter? A gentle understatement — and the emotion should be understandable. I actually come from a family that suffered it, too: my dad worked for years at the H.H. Robertson plant there, a plant which, when I drove by it as a reporter, was so rusted and had so few shards of glass left hanging in the window. The town’s main street wasn’t hopping… it was closing up when I reported on it.

So who do people blame? It’s pretty hard, when you played by all those “pull yourself up by your bootstrap” rules of the American Dream, to admit that dream wasn’t ever available to everyone, and that the very ideological forces selling it to you were also selling your mill off to a country where unions couldn’t keep wages fair.  Can people blame ideology? Blame capitalism? Blame greed? Sure, but those are pretty big ideas; we humans have long preferred to turn our rage on other humans, however illogical the blame chain.  Bitterness only deepness segregation and discrimination. There is a reason those termed “limosuine liberal” tend to have the broadest mindset in terms of race or gender or sexuality: it is easy to shake off the systemic national prejudices when you don’t have survival on your mind.

But this time, this time I am hoping and wishing that the Beaver Counties of America … both the real Beaver County, Pennsylvania and all those places like it … prove their strength and refuse to be swayed by old and tired prejudices on race … prejudices which have always hurt the disempowered class far more than the ruling classes. Obama’s winning this election matters, very much, for the whole world. And that world includes places like Beaver County. Vote for Obama, vote for yourself.

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