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The End of the Beginning

It’s hard to say who had the line of the night, Joe Biden or Jay-Z. At the DC Armory’s Obama Staff Ball last night in Washington, Joe Biden laughingly told the assembled thousands of snazzily-dressed campaign vets, “If I’d known how good you guys were, I’d have never gone to Iowa.”

The celebration capped off a week of spectacle not witnessed before in our nation’s history. Both Obamas, both Bidens, David Plouffe, Kal Penn, Arcade Fire and Jay-Z headlined the event, meant as a reward for the men and women, mostly in their twenties, who dedicated their lives toward the common purpose of electing Barack Obama President of the United States.

Young people generally perform paid campaign work, because the hours are absurd and the pay is marginal. For the vast majority, no job sits waiting at the end of the rainbow. Only the few make it through multiple “cycles,” the term for a campaign period. It is grueling on the body. Other areas of life are suspended or simply dropped. A campaign becomes all-encompassing. From the day you start until at least Election Day, it’s an all-day, every-day job. The sacrifices are sometimes hidden and private, little things you did that only you or maybe one or two who were right there will ever know or appreciate. And it all happens with the possibility that you won’t ultimately win.

What sustains most who elect this work is two things – the intense bonds of friendship one develops, and the connection to a larger sense of meaning. For the Obama staff who danced and reunited this week, culminating at the Armory last night, there was a kind of rare and unadulterated pleasure in a monumental mission accomplished.

No part of the evening was as special to this group as the heartfelt expression of appreciation from the President himself, who spoke for longer and more personally than he had at the Youth Ball the previous evening. The President, who is a community organizer at heart, knows personally and precisely what this group did to reach this moment.

“There’s one guy I get choked up whenever I see him and that’s David Plouffe,” Obama said. Citing Plouffe’s extraordinary focus on the task at the expense of personal drama, Obama again connected the twin themes of service and meaning – reminding everyone that working and striving for “something bigger than yourself” is how the campaign’s culture remained so strong and uniform. Moreover, Obama argued, that connection to serving a bigger goal would carry the “kids” arrayed before him throughout their lives.

Another subtle but memorable moment of the night was Joe Biden telling the crowd that during his entire public career and lifetime he’d never seen any sight as amazing as the one when he looked back across the Mall on Tuesday. As he spoke, it was clear both Bidens were moved by that memory from their unique vantage, as Joe’s voice became temporarily uneven and Jill nodded, mouth quivering.

There was humor in the speeches too, with Obama suggesting that he’d won against the daunting odds in part because his many young members of the campaign team simply didn’t know any better. Biden used the word “literally” and chuckled with self-awareness.

Still, this was the Gene Hackman-in-Hoosiers “I love you guys” night. Even Jay-Z made a point of expressing his personal gratitude to the staff on a capstone party that was all heart and hugs and dancing.

The official celebrations are now over. The tuxes, gowns, dresses and suits are back on their hangers. Bitter cold that began the week has given way to relative warmth. The overwhelming mass of humanity that descended on the capital has mostly migrated home to the near and distant corners of the country.

Already, the new administration has set its jaw soberly into the wind. The country voted for significant changes in public policy both foreign and domestic, and the urgency to get moving is palpable.

But for a final moment last night, the people that organized and strategized Obama’s win shared each other’s company and those sealed, lifetime bonds of friendship. Not to be forgotten.

And oh, yes. Jay-Z’s line. A rousing chorus, shouted triumphantly by the greatest political campaign staff the country has ever seen, summed up exactly where the country finds itself as the new President assumes office.

“99 Problems But a Bush Ain’t One.”


A Personal Note

One of the great privileges of my life is partnering with Nate over the past year at FiveThirtyEight and getting the front seat to history, from Big Stone Gap to Reno to Miami, from Denver to St. Paul to Grant Park. Nate hasn’t mentioned it, but we won the annual Weblog Award for 2008 Best Political Coverage last week. Ours is a great story of simply doing something you love with not just brains but heart and hard work, with no guarantee of outcome or reward. Finding success with that approach is the most satisfying aspect, and it certainly helps us stay grounded in gratitude. Nobody travels alone.

A special mention to Brett Marty, whose photography deserves wide acclaim. Along the road we were treated with hospitality and kindnesses from too many people to mention individually. We needed all of it.

This week in Washington was incredible. For a political moment, it had a quality that transcended normal descriptive categories tethered to partisan politics – rarely is an era’s end and one’s beginning so dramatically obvious in real time. As Nate said, it was a proud moment for America.

For us, 2008 was the beginning. I’m settling into DC and we’re ambitious, plotting more coverage in the coming year and years. Let’s face it, as Americans increasingly consume information online, new media has a critical role to play in reporting and analysis. We’ll be feeling our way and certainly asking for help.