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Witnessing Obama through LBJ

Election Night: Witnessing Obama's Victory at LBJ's Hotel in Austin, Texas

From NBC's Rich Gardella
On Election Day, after voting at my usual Maryland polling place, I flew to Austin, Texas, to work on a story relating to the financial crisis. I was planning to watch election coverage alone in my hotel room that night, but the stars and planets aligned to make me a witness to a far more interesting scene.

I'd contacted two friends, former NBC News colleagues now in new lives out there, to ask if they wanted to meet up while I was visiting. So it was that I found myself early that evening sitting in the bar of the Driskill Hotel in downtown Austin, watching election returns in the middle of an increasingly ecstatic Obama crowd.

When one of my friends suggested meeting at the Driskill, I was enthusiastic. I had checked out its Web site when looking for an interesting place to stay in Austin. (I ended up choosing another hotel because I thought the Driskill was a bit too expensive for my employer's dime.) I knew the Driskill was an historic hotel, built in 1886 by a cattle baron as a grand hotel to rival those in Eastern cities. I knew President Lyndon Baines Johnson had watched the returns for the 1960 and 1964 presidential elections from his suite there.

What I didn't know, but probably would have guessed if I'd thought about it, was that the Driskill Hotel was the location of the local Travis County Democratic Party's election night celebration. My friend, a Democrat, was planning to attend the Party's party in the hotel ballroom with her husband later in the evening. She invited me to go along with them, but I declined. That party was a partisan political event. I'm the journalistic equivalent of a teetotaler when it comes to attending political events, unless they're related to news assignments. Although I do vote, I do not discuss my politics.

But I decided having a beer at the public bar amidst the spillover crowd with my friend and her husband was acceptable. I called my other friend, who'd driven up from Houston, and he agreed to join us there. I didn't know his politics, but he didn't object when I explained the Driskill's role that night.

I ended up in the Driskill bar, between my two friends, watching election coverage on one of the large flat-screen monitors scattered throughout the bar's lounge areas. The place was jam-packed. You couldn't make out much of what the reporters and pundits on TV were saying without reading lips. But it didn't matter much to the crowd, because the graphics were delivering most of the news by themselves. 

My Democrat friend gushed excitedly as the graphics of state after state turned blue. Her husband watched intently, rarely turning from the screen. Both broke into enthusiastic applause and cheers along with much of the rest of the crowd each time a key swing state was announced into the Obama column. Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia. It quickly became clear which way the tide was running. 

Meanwhile, my other friend, while genial and participating in conversation, was unexpressive as the results billboarded the flatscreens. Eventually my Democrat friend and her husband made their way to the party in the hotel's ballroom.

Whatever your political affiliations or leanings, Obama's victory speech was indisputably an historic event. The bar filled with deafening whooping and hollering as Obama strode to the podium in Chicago.

My thoughts turned to LBJ. What would the 36th President's reactions have been, had he been able to watch this night's election returns at his old hotel, and observe that moment? A white politician instrumental in passing the Civil Rights Acts of 1957 and 1964, prohibiting racial segregation, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which gave millions of African-Americans in the South the right to vote.  The President who appointed Thurgood Marshall, the first African-American to the Supreme Court. 

Lyndon Johnson left some good clues to how he would have reacted to that moment of history in the commencement address he delivered to graduates at Howard University in June 1965. The title of the speech was "To Fulfill These Rights." Its words ring powerfully if you imagine them playing over scenes of Election Night 2008:
 
"In far too many ways American Negroes have been another nation: deprived of freedom, crippled by hatred, the doors of opportunity closed to hope. In our time change has come to this Nation, too."

"The voting rights bill [of 1965] will be the latest, and among the most important, in a long series of victories. But this victory -- as Winston Churchill said of another triumph for freedom -- "is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning."

"This is the next and the more profound stage of the battle for civil rights. We seek not just freedom but opportunity. We seek not just legal equity but human ability, not just equality as a right and a theory but equality as a fact and equality as a result."

That day, Johnson expressed long-term goals for the civil rights movement:

"…to help the American Negro fulfill the rights which, after the long time of injustice, he is finally about to secure. To move beyond opportunity to achievement. To shatter forever not only the barriers of law and public practice, but the walls which bound the condition of many by the color of his skin. To dissolve, as best we can, the antique enmities of the heart which diminish the holder, divide the great democracy, and do wrong--great wrong--to the children of God."

As I replay Obama's victory moment in my head, it occurs to me how well Johnson's phrase captures the ultimate significance of Barack Obama's election: to fullfill these rights. Shattering forever the racial barriers and walls around the highest office in the land.

An African-American couple was directly in front of me, arms around each other as they watched Obama take the podium. Like many others, her cheeks were wet with tears as the crowd shushed itself into silence to hear the next President as he began to speak.

"If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible; who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time; who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer."

In that bar that night, it was that line and these next two that drew the most affirmation and approval:

"It's the answer spoken by young and old, rich and poor, Democrat and Republican, black, white, Latino, Asian, Native American, gay, straight, disabled and not disabled -- Americans who sent a message to the world that we have never been a collection of Red States and Blue States: we are, and always will be, the UNITED States of America."

Obama emphasized the word "United," and many in the crowd responded to that with an emphatic "YES!"

"…we rise or fall as ONE nation; as ONE people."

"YES!!!"

I scanned the crowd, wanting to record in my memory the emotions and facial expressions on display. Heads shaking slowly, in wonder, almost disbelief. Many soft smiles. Many wet eyes. It was a roomful, rare in life, of hope and optimism.

I turned to my previously unexpressive friend, searching his face. Was that a tear forming under in his eye? I wasn't sure.

After we pressed through the crush of beaming, embracing, high-fiving people on our way out of the Driskill, and out onto the street, where a throng had formed to cheer happily honking cars through an intersection, I asked him. 

"What did you think?"

His hand clapped down on my shoulder, a resigned look in his eyes. "Rich," he said, "I'm a Republican."

As I flew home, I mulled his reaction. 

The emotion on display in that bar was testament at least in part to how far this nation has come in fulfilling those rights. 

Perhaps the lack of emotion in some like my friend may be testament to the same thing: the nation has begun to fulfill these rights enough so that some see Barack Obama not as the first African-American president, but as just another Democrat.

Rich Gardella has been a producer for NBC News since 1994. Since 2003, he has worked for the NBC News Investigative Unit, primarily with senior correspondent Lisa Myers. He has produced hundreds of investigative reports about the war on terrorism, homeland security, political and financial issues for NBC Nightly News and the TODAY show.