On November 7, 2000, Election Day, I was at work when my cell phone rang. It was my father calling to see if I had plans to attend George W. Bush’s big election party, which was being held that evening on the grounds of the Texas State Capitol.
At the time, I was employed at the University of Texas-Austin, putting me into close physical proximity to Governor Bush during his presidental run. If all went according to his plan that night, the grounds of the Capitol would be the epicenter of a grand old party.
The newspaper earlier that day had done a report on the celebration and that it was free to attend, but I hadn’t too much thought into it beyond that. The weather forecast called for a clear cold night with temperatures well below 50 degrees F, so I was hesitating. Dad insisted that I should go, as life would present few other opportunities for a youngster such as myself to be part of history as it occurred. Since the words “historical” and “free admission” are words of equal magic to my soul, I agreed to attend. I called my sister Micha to invite her, that she should dress warmly, and meet me downtown after work.
Micha and I met up and together we walked to the capitol. The winter sun was setting, and the night quickly became chilly. Since I hadn’t anticipated going out that night, the only warm clothing I was wearing was my green University of North Texas light jacket. Thankfully we were moving briskly enough that we didn’t feel cold.
Once we neared downtown, the streets were becoming congested with long queues of people. We noticed that everyone in line was holding some sort of ticket. The nearest person I asked confirmed that they were tickets for admission. I said to him, “The newspaper said this event was free.”
“Yes,” replied the gentleman, “but you still need a ticket.”
Looks like the Austin American-Statesman dropped the ball on that one.
I asked him where he got his ticket, and he said it came courtesy of the local Republican Party office, which was nowhere nearby.
Micha took the initiative and dusted off her feminine powers of cuteness in an attempt to sweet-talk the security guards into sneaking us in. When that tactic failed miserably, I used my masculine powers to ask other people where we might get tickets. After a few tries, I discovered that some people had gotten their tickets at the Federal Building on 8th Street, about three blocks away.
Without hesitation, the two of us rushed over to the Federal Building. We soon arrived at a dark, empty office building whose front door was propped open with a rolled-up Austin Chronicle. We walked inside and encountered a handful of people who told us they found their tickets up in Kay Bailey Hutchinson’s office. Since we couldn’t find a building directory in the sim lobby, Micha and I began a methodical search of the complex one floor at a time. Upstairs in a dark elevator landing illuminated only by emergency exit signs, we found the prize: a plain cardboard box of tickets sitting in the shadows outside of Senator Hutchinson’s Austin office.
Taking a moment to gather our thoughts and breath, Micha said, “You know, it really was a pain in the butt to find these.” I understood where she was going with that. Instead of taking the two tickets that we needed, I grabbed the entire box and we rushed to the State Capitol.
As we reapproach the admission line, we see tons of people milling about in despair because they themselves don’t have tickets. Micha and I each grabbed handfuls of tickets, spread them out in our hands like Japanese fans, and like scalpers yelled, “Tickets!”
We were instantaneously mobbed.
Much like the climatic scene of “Trading Places” when desperate stockbrokers couldn’t get enough of what Eddie Murphy and Dan Aykroyd had that they didn’t, the two of us were surrounded by the ticketless.
Left and right, all we could see were open palms pressing against our personal space, clamoring for our booty.
As Micha and I handed out tickets to people who were lost without admission like I was just moments before, we thought to ourselves, “Now we’re going to heaven!”
The commotion we started with the giveaway attracted the attention of two members of the Austin Police, who were approaching to investigate. Seeing this, we dropped the box, tossed bunches of tickets up in the air, and snuck away. We hopped in line and eventually made our way into the party.
And what a party it was!
To the north was the Texas State Capitol, a magnificent building of Marble Falls pink granite that is unlike any other such building in the United States. This evening, it glowed like an earth-bound moon in the dark November night, thanks to the reflections of camera flashes and camcorder lights. Laser beams and colored beams lazily tracked left and right across its facade. Directly facing the Capitol was a six-story tall grandstand of modern media — little skyboxes each filled with a camera, a light, and an anchorperson, all there to report on what may turn out to be a historical evening.
As we admire the setup and spectacle, I am approached by a middle-aged man who points at my UNT jacket and asks, “Did you go to school in Denton?” I said yes, and he identified himself as Bud Kennedy, a columnist for the Ft. Worth Star-Telegram, which is published near my old college town. Mr. Kennedy asks if he can interview me, since a former Denton resident living in Austin walking about Dubya’s big party seems like a good story.
First he gathered some information: my name, how old I was, the same information for my sister, etc. “Who did you vote for today?” he asks me. I reply that I voted for Al Gore.
He turns to Micha and asks her the same question. My sister, a lifelong Democrat the whole time I’ve known her, says, “Bush.”
My eyes grow wide and I explain, “What?! You did not!” It was my assumption all along that she would vote for Gore. She’s perturbed by my reaction and says sharply, “Yes, I did!” then proceeds to nail me in the arm with a punch that means, “Mind your own business.”
Mr. Kennedy, obviously curious as to what he started with his simple question, continues the interview. He asks me why I voted for Gore, and I provide a long, detailed answer of the difficulty of that day’s decision, but that I ultimately voted for Gore because of his stances on Social Security, the environment, and his previous record of reducing government waste. My reasonings were very long-winded, nuanced, and sound.
When asked the same question, Micha simply says, “He spoke at my graduation ceremony and seemed like a nice man.” That was it. No exploration of policy, opinion of his competency to hold the most-powerful elective office on the planet. Just that he’s nice. That’s what girls say about dudes they don’t want to date, not people who are given a briefcase of nuclear launch codes.
The floodgates between Micha and I are now fully open, and we begin to loudly argue about the merits of our choices. As the verbal barrages sling back and forth, Mr. Kennedy is documenting everything for his article that publishes the next morning. The next afternoon, I am getting phone calls from my parents that read the Star-Telegram wanting to know what the heck was going on.
After things settled down between us, we made our way into the crowd which was milling about in front of a giant Jumbotron screen. On the TV was a map of the United States, where the states were being shaded red and blue as the polls slowly started to close east to west. From time to time, famous G.O.P. members would flash up on the screen and be greeted by wild applause. In between such appearances were snippets of live CNN broadcasts calling the states based on exit polling. Whenever a state went red, the plaza shook with thunderous yells of approval. Should a state go blue, no amount of amplification on the Jumbotron would allow the broadcast to overcome the cacophonous boos emitted by the audience. Micha and I each cheered and jeered in our own fashion during each of these moments.
Since we were standing and not moving, we began to feel the night’s chill. It was getting cold enough that we felt like leaving soon, but we didn’t want to leave before everything was over and an announcement on the election’s outcome was made. So we waited. And waited. And waited. By the time 12:30am came around and everything was still up in the air in Florida, Micha and I finally decided to leave. “Let’s go home,” we said. “After all, we’ll be able to see who won in the morning.”
How naive we were.
Photo credits: Austin American-Statesman