Don't look for change. It's already arrived


So this is what "change" looks like.

After a campaign built on a word that many challenged as vague and meaningless, change came swiftly Tuesday. The polls had barely opened - with long lines of new voters, or simply newly invigorated ones - and already it was clear that this was going to be a different election than we'd seen in the last couple of presidential cycles. A giddy, festive day - free doughnuts! - turned into a celebratory night, from the new president-elect's huge victory party in Chicago to spontaneous streetcorner eruptions across the country.

But the biggest change was yet to come. Much as the day after Thanksgiving has become the start of the holiday shopping season, those after Election Day have launched the start of the recrimination season. It's the time to demand a recount, or to stage a Brooks Brothers riot to oppose one. It's the time to mutter darkly about voter suppression in Ohio, or confused seniors in Florida. It's the time to denounce bad exit-poll data, or blast the news media for calling races too early or simply erroneously.

And yet, yesterday dawned, and the election results remained mercifully unchallenged. Polls turned out to be largely on the mark; the news media, if anything, appeared to have been overly cautious in calling the race.

So this is what a landslide looks like - and sounds like.

Actually, what struck me most about this remarkable election was not so much the noisy hoopla that played out on the surface but the quiet joy that trickled beneath it. After an operatically fought campaign, Election Day came as something of a grace note, a simple end to an entirely overwrought affair.

It was almost hard to remember what all the screaming had been about.

I listened to John McCain's affecting concession speech as I drove home from the newsroom Tuesday night. It was a revelation, or rather, a reminder of McCain as he once was before his campaign sank into the final weeks of nastiness and desperation - a fighter, yes, but one who lived by a certain moral code and regularly reached across battle and party lines.

This was the McCain who was already starting to emerge from whatever bad handling he had during the campaign - he rebuked a woman at one of his rallies who called Barack Obama an Arab, even though he himself was then booed.

Hopefully, this is the Mac who really is back.

My street was quiet and empty by the time I got home, but it was far from slumbering. From windows of just about every house glowed a pale blue light, the surest sign that the TVs were still on. Separately, maybe, but we were all waiting to hear from the new guy.

When Obama finally emerged on stage before his flag-waving frenzy of a party, he seemed preternaturally calm, even pensive - T.S. Eliot's still point of a turning world.

It shouldn't have come as a surprise - if anything, the length of the campaign revealed rather than rattled an almost startling equanimity - and yet as I listened I swear I could feel the jagged edges of the past months smoothing out, and the country's collective blood pressure dropping into mellower zones. Temporarily, no doubt, but in the continuing uncertainty of these times, that vaunted "first-class temperament" that Obama is said to share with FDR should serve him - and us - well.

When change comes, what does it look like?

To answer that, I spent part of Election Day in a single precinct in Baltimore County that I wrote about in yesterday's paper - 11-16, which is part of Carney plus a bit of Perry Hall. It was interesting to me because in 2004, voters there split almost evenly between George Bush and John Kerry - only 12 more people went with the Republican than the Democrat - and I wondered how they would go this time around.

Much more lopsidedly, as it turns out: According to unofficial results from the Baltimore County Board of Elections, about 60 percent for Barack Obama and 37 percent for John McCain.

Voters and election judges I spoke with there offered various reasons, such as an influx of first-time voters. (The elections board said registration was up about 300 voters over four years ago.) It's a stable neighborhood with both longtime residents, they said, and a steady stream of newcomers.

The voters represented quite a range of stories - a software engineer, a couple of retirees, someone laid off after 24 years on the job, a couple of salesmen, an NRA member, a teacher, a former Arab linguist with the Army who now works with a construction company, a recent college graduate looking for her first "big girl" job - and they were black, white, Hispanic and Asian.

At first, I thought I could predict who voted for whom, but then there were surprises - not all the white men were for McCain; not all the young people were for Obama.

So maybe that is what change looks like. In fact, if there's one thing I would challenge in Obama's speech on Tuesday night, it was his ringing declaration that "change is coming."

It's already here.

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