Seeing the day at last


Election 2008

November 03, 2008|By Rick Maese | Rick Maese,

Neither Virginia Battle nor her husband, Henry, thought they'd live to see a day like this, when a black man was a major party nominee with a chance to be elected president.

"I didn't think I'd be here," says Henry, an African-American who's been voting for white presidents since 1940. "But now that I'm here, yes, I believe. I believe this country has been waiting for this day. The whole country."

Both 86, the Battles have been married for 62 years, have three children, 12 grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. They drive from their Rockville home to Barack Obama's Bethesda campaign office several days a week to volunteer, usually making telephone calls to voters in Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia.

"They keep us busy," Henry says. "Some days I wonder if I'm really retired."

Election Day tomorrow isn't about making history for black America, they say; it's a day to be shared by all of America. But the historical significance of the United States possibly electing a black president has especially captivated African-Americans.

The response - from seniors like the Battles to teens - doesn't surprise Benjamin Todd Jealous, president of the NAACP.

"This organization has prepared for a century for this moment. We've explicitly pushed since at least 1960 to make it possible for people of color to run for president of this country," Jealous says. "There is a deep sense of exhaling throughout the black community in this country, a sense that finally we've been able to truly compete."

Henry Battle says he's known for months that the Democrat Obama was poised to make history. He wakes up each morning and reads the paper and then flips on CNN, monitoring campaign reports throughout the day. His wife keeps reminding him that in politics, anything can happen.

The Battles have already experienced a bit of White House history.

A half-century ago, Virginia was a secretary in Sen. John F. Kennedy's Massachusetts office. When Kennedy won the presidency, he brought her to Washington. Ted Sorensen, Kennedy's adviser and former speechwriter, wrote that Virginia was among the first black staff in the White House, maybe even the first.

Obama "is in a similar position that Kennedy was in because the country's in a real mood for change," she says. She senses "the same aura of excitement around Barack and the people who are following him. It's exciting."

Henry did maintenance at the White House from 1960 to 1982. He knows which presidents sneaked a cigarette; and he knows that Gerald Ford installed an outdoor swimming pool and cabana on the grounds. He's seen them all, shaken their hands - and that only gets him more excited about Obama.

"There've been great presidents going in, but this man has so much to do," he says.

Since Kennedy, the Battles have tried to volunteer for every Democratic presidential campaign. This one is different, each says. Even the unfortunate encounters don't seem to get them down.

On a recent afternoon, the couple was making phone calls, urging people to vote on Tuesday.

"This woman on the phone, she said, 'I would never vote for a black man,' " Henry recalled. "I said 'Thank you.' "

And did he get upset?

"I'm a Christian. I'm not going to carry it," he said. "... I said 'Thank you' and I hung up."

Henry plans to volunteer as an election judge tomorrow, while Virginia monitors the results on television. They say they want to savor the day and make sure their grandchildren and great-grandchildren can appreciate it.

"They're going to sit in my lap and I'm gonna tell them a story, and they're gonna feel it," Henry said. "A story about America."

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