The US goes to the polls today. It is perhaps the most consequential American election in a generation. Four more years of Trump could be catastrophic for not only his own country but for the rest of us too. Never before has the American Dream been interpreted in so many divisive ways.
Will American voters perpetuate the toxicity that has enveloped their country for the past four years or will the country turn a corner? And if Americans do vote the incumbent out, will it encourage a similar wave across the world? Both the Republicans and Democrats are preparing for a contested election result, which would mean recounts and lawsuits. With this I am reminded of another American election 20 years ago – George Bush vs Al Gore – the last time a presidential election result was contested.
I was 21 years old and was working at The Indian Express in New Delhi. It was my first job. Having studied at a boarding school in a small town and then moving to London for higher education, this was the first time I was in Delhi for more than a month since I was nine years old. It was intimidating to be a part ofThe Indian Express, especially the city supplement, Delhi Newsline. I was working with people who were my age or just a few years older but they really knew their stuff.
They could navigate the city and their beats with ease, not just in physical terms, but in knowing the juiciest source at Delhi police, leads at Municipal Corporation of Delhi, the most reliable autowallas, the best anda-parantha post midnight, and how to ask the right questions at convoluted government press conferences.
A dream team
I felt like a fish out of water, but my colleagues were incredibly kind, helpful, patient and most importantly fun. The team was very young – my immediate boss was 26 years old. The powers that be that sat on the floors above us gave the Newsline team a free hand and yet took real pride in the city reporting that we undertook. There were postmortems done and words of encouragement from the bosses who were legends in the field.
Most of my colleagues from my 18 months at the paper have gone on to become award-winning journalists, familiar faces on primetime news and now heroes to other young journalists. Some remain my friends. I was lucky to have had a great experience at my first job. It’s funny that there is so much I don’t remember in the decade that followed (my mid 20s to 30s) but I have vivid memories of my time at the Express. One such memory takes me back to the US Presidential election of 2000.
As a rookie that was eager to prove herself, I got my share of random assignments (read the ones that seasoned reporters didn’t want). On the evening of November 7, my boss was handing out assignments for the few next days. She asked if anyone wanted to go to the American Center the next morning at 7 am to cover the election day celebrations. It was a tradition. The American Centre would invite friends, members of the press and others to a reception early on election day as the results rolled in.
By noon, the election results would be announced with the pop of champagne. There was plenty of food from bagels pizzas, nachos and much cheer and self-applause about American democracy at work. Nobody in the Newsline team wanted the assignment. I took it.
Before 9/11, the American Centre was not the fortress that it is today. From what I remember, a large hall had been transformed into a makeshift reception room that had loads of American portion size refreshments, cheery staffers and a bunch of journalists sheepishly sizing each other to see who else got this undesirable assignment.
I registered myself, ensuring Indian Express’s presence was recorded in case I decided to sneak out prematurely. There were large television screens that provided updates on the results and a large cheer would go up as each state was called. I interviewed a few members of the embassy, made extensive notes, had a breakfast of champions (oh the metabolism of a 21 year old!) and was only waiting for the final results to be announced so I could go to work, file my story and call it a day.
By noon, there was no clear winner. The networks first called Florida’s 25 votes in favour of Vice President Gore but later said it was too close to call. A few hours later, they announced that George W Bush had won Florida and therefore the Presidency. Gore made the call to concede but retracted it at around 1.30 pm India time.
It was all very confusing. I mean there had to be a winner right? I realised we were in this for much longer. I took a walk around to check out a photography exhibition on display in the adjoining room. There was another person who had the same thought and was viewing the exhibition too. She was beautiful. I couldn’t tell immediately where she was from but she was dressed in layers and had a kind face. We both smiled at each other and she being the more confident one something to the effect of “yup, can’t believe we don’t have a result as yet.”
A long wait
Encouraged by this opening to strike up a conversation, I asked her where she was from and what she was doing at the American Centre. “My husband I have just moved to India,” she said. “He works at the Wall Street Journal. He’s American and I am partly Cuban, partly Dutch but grew up in France.”
We got chatting. She wanted recommendations of where to shop for linen and other home items as they were going to set up a home in Mumbai shortly. I gave her the usual recommendations of Fabindia and similar establishments.
“No result means the champagne hasn’t opened, Priya,” she said. “Maybe we should go ask for some anyway.” I loved this idea and both of us strode off looking for our reward for what was now five hours of waiting.
The embassy staff had also grown weary and were only too happy to oblige us with a drink. My new friend took two glasses, one for herself and one for her husband: “Come meet him.”
Her husband was deep in conversation with a small group of people. He was handsome, friendly and generous with his smile. They made a good-looking couple. For the next hour the three of us chatted about both our recent moves to India, their plans, what to do in Delhi, where and what to eat.
Champagne kept the conversation flowing. I didn’t quite understand how Gore appeared to be more popular vote but was not declared the winner. He explained the nuts and bolts of American elections, the mind-boggling electorate college system and possible scenarios.
It was by now late afternoon. Gore’s team was demanding a recount. I wanted to return to the office to file my story. Like other journalists present at the election reception, I realised that the story was that there was no result.
I didn’t have a business card, but the couple I’d just met both scribbled their personal email addresses on his Wall Street Journal business card and gave it to me. We promised to keep in touch. Unfortunately we didn’t. But every four years as America goes to the polls, I remember the champagne, the chats and I remember Daniel and Marianne Pearl – the friends I made for the fleeting morning of election day.
Priya Kapoor is the editorial director of Roli Books.