Hope Over Experience

For America’s Democrats, the past two decades were a blur of saxophones, chads, and John Kerry’s sloped withers. Then came hope. A dip into the acid puddle to find faith.

Credit: Steph Goralnick

My friends have always told me I take politics too personally. Well, sure. Growing up in Washington, DC, I logically developed an interest in what makes the town work. When you consider, as well, that I am the daughter of two government lawyers and that I started college in the year 2000 and graduated in the year 2004, and that my older brother was born on the very day Ronald Reagan was elected and himself went into politics, it is not only likely that I would have a life defined by electoral cycles. It is virtually written in the stars.

The most pivotal election of my young life was the first in which I could vote, in 2000. I had been absorbed in politics before then, of course—I memorized “Capitol Steps” tapes when I should have been vogue-ing and played Bill Clinton in a fifth-grade debate, mopping the floor with the perfectly nice but utterly unprepared girl who played Bob Dole. (She wore an oversized man’s suit while I opted for a T-shirt showing Bill playing the sax.) When Clinton won, I felt like I had done my part, and even when I was nearly stampeded by a mob at his inauguration, my pride was a palpable thing. In a way I was even grateful for the Monica Lewinksy scandal, which was instructive on levels both intellectual (if you lie on television, you will look like an idiot when you are caught; most adults, especially politicians, are hypocrites; sex makes even smart people act like children) and practical (Altoids! Who knew?).

As soon as I realized Al Gore might not glide to victory as easily as I had on behalf of Clinton in the fifth grade, however, I went into overdrive on Gore’s behalf, and my love life got taken along for the ride.

My boyfriend in the early fall of 2000—while I was knocking on doors in West Philly and attending strategy meetings with the College Dems—was tall, gawky David, who broke up with me because he realized he was still in love with his high school sweetheart. But, he asked, could we hook up and be friends in the morning? My self-respect made me say no. I winced from behind a red plastic cup at his election night party as he picked up a blonde girl with the same speed that Bush picked up a declaration of victory from Fox News. The blonde took David, Bush stole Florida, and I cried vodka into my sheets.

The blonde took David, Bush stole Florida, and I cried vodka into my sheets.

In 2004, though, I was ready to risk everything again to hope for the election of John Kerry, to open myself to the possibility of being again dashed on the rocks of defeat. What was the alternative, after all—to give up? I had to trust that my country would come through. I had to have faith, and optimism, and a sense that God would not let this nation be destroyed. Also, I had to have a job, since I had graduated from college in the spring. I began working at my first real-world job in New York at a Very Important Talent Agency. There, I figured, I could begin a fulfilling career at the same time that the country, inspired by Kerry and, more importantly, by my brother Adam’s hard work on Kerry’s campaign, corrected its course.

Unfortunately, in that office, I soon discovered, the windows were suicide-proof for a reason. Less than a year after I started, and about six months after the country decided to double down on its decision to put George Bush in charge, I was forced out for having gone to the emergency room during the workday. Adam returned to our parents’ house to hibernate and recover from Kerry’s loss, and I moved listlessly through office jobs and freelance gigs and stints of unemployment. Finally, as the Bush years came to an end in 2007, Adam had decided to go to law school in an important swing state and I thought I had found the job I had been looking for.

Like the Obama campaign, my new employer was an engine of change, the first online, content-focused college guide, and a re-imagination of the way students choose a school. And like Obama, the site was endorsed by the New York Times: Staff members were immortalized in head shots and a lengthy article in the magazine’s education issue. We were optimistic—you can tell by our faces, even though we were instructed not to smile.

We too had a young, charismatic leader: President and CEO Boy Wonder, who was my age, clean-cut, and fresh-faced. We few, we happy few who would have followed Boy Wonder onto the battlefields of Agincourt, didn’t care that our office felt like a bachelor pad, with no table in the break room or toilet paper in the bathroom (but an Xbox and a toy dinosaur for morale). Even my most inexperienced co-workers intuited that it was rare to have a boss who inspired you.

As the year wore on, however, and bad decisions compounded, our allegiance wore thin. CEO Boy Wonder became more remote, the office more bureaucratic. We hired a CTO; he quit. The scheduled launch of our site, built on the cheap in China, was delayed, then delayed again. When the day at last arrived, the onslaught of traffic was too much for our unprepared servers, which gave up faster than the French.

A smell that I recognized wafted through the office air: lay-offs. Night after night I found myself sleepless, lacerated with anxiety that my company and I were both going to disappear into the recession. One fearless leader had failed me; worse, what if the other did, too? If Obama didn’t win, could I handle the same kind of crushing disappointment for the third time? Would I be able to allow my hopes to rise again in the next election cycle? It didn’t seem possible: Surely they, and I, would be too battered, too jaundiced. Too sad.

Please, I prayed as I stared miserably at the acid puddle of my insides. Help me, Barack Obama. You’re my only hope.

On Nov. 4, 2008, as on every morning during that fall’s presidential campaign, I began my workday by reviewing the latest battleground-state polls at Pollster and RealClearPolitics, checking up on the pundits at Politico and Wonkette, and seeing what the establishment had to say at the New York Times and the Washington Post. In contrast to the recent Election Days I had known, the news was more than encouraging. My co-workers planned parties. The experts were hopeful. Nate Silver at FiveThirtyEight predicted a landslide. Still, concern spread through me until I was possessed: By the end of the day I resembled something out of The Exorcist: trembling and mumbling, with green-tinged skin. My husband, Ben, showed up at my office, took one look at me, and knew that I would never make it to our results-viewing parties; even if I did, I would scare the revelers. “Let’s go home,” he said, worried enough that he suggested taking a cab back to Brooklyn. I was worried enough that I agreed.

We made it only to Union Square before I threw up, splashing my fear on the inside of the car door and my beloved new suede boots. I got out and sat shivering on the curb as the cab driver muttered curses and Ben ran into stores, begging for cleaning supplies. Two Manhattanites walked by me on spiked shoes and laughed, but I barely heard them. I was thinking about Pennsylvania.

I cursed everything that had brought me to this point: Sarah Palin, John Kerry, Al Gore, David (that idiot boyfriend from college), swing states, soccer moms, and most of all, CEO Boy Wonder. Please, I prayed as I stared miserably at the acid puddle of my insides. Help me, Barack Obama. You’re my only hope.

Once the cab driver dropped us off at home, Ben guided my nausea and me to the bathroom. Hours heaved by as I stared at the black-and-white tile. At 11, Ben checked my phone, which had come alive with the receipt of text after text. “We won,” he told me gently.

At 11:15, I threw up one last time in celebration and passed out.

When I woke up the next morning, I felt cleaner, lighter, as though I had been cleansed of eight years of accumulated bile. Yes, I was going to lose yet another job; I had bounced back from that before. The important thing was: We won. This was a fresh start, an opportunity to choose my next steps wisely and learn from my mistakes. If the country could do it, surely I could. For the first time in my adult life, a Democratic star was rising, and, so help me, I would rise with him.

Only about a month later, the entire editorial staff of my website was let go. No one had thought to provide us with boxes for our stuff, so we emptied out the contents of our desks into black garbage bags and carried them out with us, each of us a parody of Santa Claus.

Now I have a new job, at a pleasant Jewish non-profit that has been around for 50 years, and a new election to obsess about. Even knowing that after the brief euphoria of 2008, there is nowhere to go but down, I cannot be indifferent. I track poll results, check the president’s approval rating on Gallup every day, and remain committed to the process and the potential of a positive result. This is the key to being active in politics: You cannot learn from experience, tell yourself you will never let yourself be hurt again, and scar over like you can do with jobs or love. Oscar Wilde’s aphorism about second marriages, that they are the triumph of hope over experience, is also true for life in the political swing of things. At least, it is if you’re a Democrat.

Ester Bloom, winner of the Lois Morrell Prize for Poetry, has been published in the Apple Valley Review, Conte, and Nerve, among other venues. Her first novel, Applebaum: Agent of God, was picked up for publication by ICM, and she is currently at work on Never Marry a Short Woman, a comic memoir. More by Ester Bloom