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Critic's Notebook: The election serial's final chapter

November 4, 2008 |  9:04 pm

And so we came to the last day of a serial that lasted nearly two years -- an epic of Dickensian sweep and proportion, full of laughter (hearty, bitter, satirical) and tears (of sorrow, of joy, of frustration), with an enormous cast of characters that a generation ago would have been considered unlikely at best -- the stuff of speculative fiction. A generation? It is a world away from the last election.

This cast comprised not merely the candidates, and the sprawling fields from which they emerged, but the ranks of new and old media people whose job it was to follow them, to analyze their statements and actions, or merely to blow hot air their way. It was a story that into its last hours, when a unanimity of opinion coalesced out of a haze of speculation, and the chatter ran up against the facts, remained almost willfully unpredictable, in spite of an anxious, universal desire to tamp it down.

This story was formed in large part by television and the Internet. We here in the print world had our scoops and summations, but overwhelmingly we came to understand these characters as the sum of their walking and talking. This was finally the election where the new media really meant something, not just in terms of organizing, but in the marshaling of images -- it was the year of the embedded video. In this expanded media universe, one could find a number of ways through the story -- you could travel by way of the sort-of-left MSNBC, or the fairly-balanced-to-the-right Fox News, by the Daily Kos or The Corner. But in the end, all roads led to the shores of Lake Michigan.

In spite of Obama’s stable lead in the polls, the day dawned with the contest very much alive. The early part of the day was quiet ("We’re not going to yell at each other today," said Fox News’ Shepard Smith), devoted to rehashing, and slicing and dicing imagined numbers. It was not yet a time for reflection, because no one quite knew what there was to reflect upon; the partisans were upbeat for their sides -- the early morning stories were all about the lines, and at times the lack of lines (which was also a story about early voting); the candidates were seen at their polling places. In Colorado Springs, John McCain took a hoarse last fling before his crowd: "I think we ought to hear one more time: ‘Drill, baby, drill.’" Joe the Plumber gave CNN’s Rick Sanchez possibly his last interview.

But the news outlets were anxious to get on with it. CNN ran a countdown clock until the first poll closings. "NBC will be very careful about how we call these elections," said Chuck Todd. But by 6 Pacific Time, with the Eastern polls closed for an hour, the notes of caution were drowned in the fanfares of called states -- called at times with zero percent -- with caveats to remember that, whatever the networks said, it was still necessary to go out and vote.

It was a big night for the touch screen. CNN ran its "Magic Map." Fox had "The Launching Pad." NBC and MSNBC, which had the advantage of Rockefeller Center outside its window, an electoral map drawn onto the ice skating rink and the tally projected onto the side of 30 Rock, whipped itself up a kitschy Second-Life virtual rotunda, while CNN pioneered the holographic reporter. "You’ve never seen anything like this on television," said Wolf Blitzer, as Jessica Yellin beamed in from Chicago. ("I want to talk to you as I would normally be talking to you if you were really face to face with me.") Said Fox News’ Brit Hume of their virtual set: "You see all that stuff? ... It’s not really there."

If the preceding months had formed a kind of national conversation, this last day came down to watching big media deliver the numbers; it was not quite that a hush fell over the comment-posting crowd, but we had passed the point where the crowd could imagine its passion magically changing history. History had happened. The noise of the talking heads, too, faded as the numbers and colored maps wrote "End" to the tale. Just after 8, as the West Coast polls closed, one network after another called the election for Barack Obama, and the cheers went up in Grant Park.

-- Robert Lloyd