The public is always ahead of its servants. On the evening of June 20, I went to Jon Ossoff’s campaign finale in the Grand Ballroom at the Westin Atlanta Perimeter Hotel. I arrived in the middle of “Shoop,” and the evening went downhill from there.
By the time I got there, I’d downed two energy drinks. It was enough. I asked one of Ossoff’s guys about the polls. The man handling the press passes shrugged, as if I’d ask him to rhyme in Esperanto. This was the prevailing mood of the day: Who the hell knows? I walked into the fraternizing zone outside of the ballroom. The sun was out, and everyone was sober. That state of affairs lasted about an hour.
The Westin Atlanta Perimeter North is at Sandy Springs, near Dunwoody. Buckhead country: all sleek and polished, sensible wood. See-through tabletops and tinted car windows. To the northwest is the old Chattahoochee Plantation, and beyond it, East Cobb, Sandy Plains, Noonday, and eventually the rest of America.
The night went on for an eternity—roughly three hours. My initial impression was of lanyard hell—Jonah Ryan’s crowd. Richard Ossoff, the tall father of Him, was here, hands behind back.
The crowd at Ossoff’s was divided into three hordes. First, my people. The press. A credentialed reprobate lot, including yours truly. I embedded myself up front. But I kept getting odd looks from Ossoff fans. At the end of the third hour, I executed a full turn, to get a panoramic view of the faces in the crowd. An ashen pear-shaped man stared at me. His face was a ticket to Drinktown. He gave me a once-over, as if I was the spawn of Kushner. Or perhaps it was animal curiosity. After all, I had my official newsboy press notebook out and was taking notes, like Professor Higgins in the beginning of My Fair Lady. The man seemed to be sizing me up for a place in his own anecdotal lineup: “Yes, there was a press guy there taking notes … damnedest thing I ever saw … gave me a headache … no, don’t pour me a whiskey. Everclear is my cleanser of choice these days.”
The second group were the professionals. The polished New York and Washington folk, flown into the South for this blood-letting. They were prettier and more fashionable than the rest of us. Also, fragile-looking. Like if you hit them at the right angle with a rock hammer they’d shatter. I felt for them. They were in strange waters, and a failure at this moment might mean lashes in a boardroom back on the Coast. As anyone learned in the sciences can tell you, a thoroughbred horse or dog is not a perfect animal. Such creatures are bred for their show appeal. They are comely beasts outside, but inwards they tend to be nervous wrecks. Prestige bloodlines guarantee emotional trouble. Much as ligers or horse-zebra hybrids are infertile and insane, the more ideal-looking the professional political operative, the more likely a calamitous breakdown will follow. Beware!
The third group, and by far the largest, were the Ossoff volunteers. Mostly locals. They were the best to talk to. I got away from the press cluster in the back and got deep into this crowd. There’s no other way to do a story, and it was a prime batch. At any given moment, the crowd had but a dozen fucks between them, and they were scattered widely. They were nervous but pleasant, pondering the future of the Trump wasteland.
I spoke with two of them, Libby Glass and Charlene Rallo, two middle-aged women from Alabama.
“We’re excited!” said Glass. “Butterflies, butterflies.”
“We’re hoping for a win, a really big win,” Rallo said.
They wanted a victory to shut Trump up. “He’s a sore winner and a sore loser,” said Glass. The women said that no matter what happened, if there was a win, that would be everything, it would open the door. Both approved of single payer healthcare, but they backed Ossoff all the way.
“The win will open the door for other young people, and if he can win here,” Glass said, “a seat won by Newt Gingrich, it can happen in other places.”
They told me about the incident. Tuesday morning, while they were helping voters at a polling location, a crazed man in a busted-ass van pulled up on the sidewalk. The shameful vehicle was covered in Handel stickers. The driver blocked the handicapped access ramp. A husky middle-aged man got out and began screaming.
“He yelled at us,” Rallo said. “He kept saying that we were paid, and that he was the true volunteer.”
“It was disconcerting,” Glass added. She showed me a series of pictures. It was as they described.
The women agreed that the participation of what they called “the younger people.” The best of the people they’d seen “were under 25,” said Glass. “It shows what activism can do. Hopefully we can get other candidates—they’ll see you can make a difference!”
WHAT HAPPENED NEXT
The Grand Ballroom is a rectangle on a north-south axis. North end of the space: a raised stage with a podium, balloons. Flanking the platform on the left and right are two large screens showing CNN. On the South end of the ballroom: the press bleachers, filled with TV gadgets, cameras, microphones. This place is absolutely filled to capacity with the goddamn news.
By 8:17 most of Atlanta is here. There is a serpentine line at the bar. People guzzle drink and sweat freely. I see men with Secret Service-like ear pieces. Security. There have been threats, after all. On my left is a thickset bouncer-shaped hombre with a cowboy hat, but I can tell he’s not from Texas. There is a constant gabble around me. Average age is bipolar: 25 and 60. Inside the room, cheer goes up. The crowd, swelling, chants “FLIP THE SIXTH” about five times. “I TOLD YOU IF YOU MADE SOME NOISE THESE NUMBERS WOULD CHANGE,” the DJ yells.
Near the west end is the Student Body President convention: sports coats and close-cropped hair. All poli sci students at the Regional Ivies. Most of these dudes have Dads who are prosecutors somewhere. Half of this crowd is on their phones. “Let’s hear all my Latinos!” the DJ yells. Nobody can dance, too little space. There is about seven inches between my arm and the guy next to me.
The crowd cheers. The TV says 51%—for Ossoff. Fulton County results appear on the screen. But what’s this? Handel is in the lead there. Meanwhile, Anderson Cooper’s giant Vanderbilt head takes up the left edge of the screen, like Chairman Mao wearing Derek Zoolander’s face and Clooney’s hair. To my right, a tired red-faced fortysomething guy is playing Words with Friends. A pale young man in a bowtie is to my left. In his twenties. Hair part, running down right side of his scalp. This is Steven Higgins, volunteer. He tells me that “We need a few precincts in, but I’m loving it, much closer than I thought it would be. This is a pretty conservative district. ... I’m liking what I see so far.”
Closer to the stage now. Body heat everywhere. What does this remind me of? Wrigley Field, during a playoff game. Tense. Watch the hands and the eyes. Especially the eyes. What are they not saying? Desire and fear. Need. Nervousness. There’s an unspoken longing. Need fills this room. This crowd wants. How they want. The crowd has what Owen Wister saw in Theodore Roosevelt: “perplexity and pain … the sign of frequent conflict between what he knew, and his wish not to know it, his determination to grasp his optimism tight, lest it escape him.”
“It’ll be a close race,” Stacy Efrat, a Sixth volunteer, tells me. “I don’t know who will win.” Everyone I talk to feels this way.
CNN keeps swiveling its vote tallies from Fulton to Cobb to DeKalb. At one point, there’s a version which reads Ossoff 51% and Handel 50%. “That’s not motherfucking possible,” someone next to me yells. Jon Ossoff’s old Congressional boss John Lewis arrives on stage. He starts dancing with the music. A guy says to me, “Can you believe he’s seventy-eight?”
“This is a good-looking crowd,” Lewis tells us. “I want to thank you for never giving up.” His cadence rises. “You have made a major down payment on changing the nation.” After Lewis finishes, “Living on a prayer” plays. It’s a fitting choice. “Halfway there,” the crowd sings.
Photographers appear on stage. The crush of bodies grows. Sweat in the air. A tall man-bun stands next to a young woman in an off-white hijab. People brought their kids. Infants appear on shoulders. I see a baby in a yellow shirt, large head. Baby in light-blue shirt, normal head.
Prince’s “1999” plays. Nobody sings. Waiting. Waiting. Ballgame tension. CNN’s playing coy. Ralph Norman, a Republican, just won in South Carolina.
“How ya doin’, buddy?” a guy behind me says to a friend.
“Been busy?” They laugh. It’s not really a question. They both chuckle in a knowing, how-bout-them-Falcons way.
“Hot as hell in here,” the other guy says.
CNN reads 59% in DeKalb for Ossoff. 60% in Fulton for Handel. Ossoff’s best areas have already reported in.
Two hours have passed. It is 9:30 here, in Georgia. Across the rest of the country, Wingstops are dispensing lemon pepper, bars are breaking up fights, sports fans are starting fights, piano players are accepting tips to belt out some drunken realtor’s college fight song. Dogs run wild and howl in Yellowstone. Teenagers are using Snapchat to discuss Drake.
CNN’s camera crew is in the back of this room. The channel keeps cutting in to Ossoff’s party, here in the Westin. The crowd jumps and waves. By contrast, shots of Handel’s party seem sedate, golfish. Then the CNN feed stops. A video begins to play. It’s a series of shots of the candidate, Obama, and various ordinary folks. This new movie is clearly a thank-you video made by the Ossoff campaign. Footage of campaign volunteers, smiling, laughing.
Then Alisha Kramer, Jon Ossoff’s fiancée, comes and begins to speak. She is birdlike and pleasant.
Then a strange moment happens. The front three-thirds of this ballroom are taken up by Ossoff’s volunteers and fans. During Kramer’s remarks, the low, subtle chatter of the crowd behind me begins to swell. The rearmost part of the crowd is talking. The sound they make is absolutely uncanny, because you can hear it approach you, very slowly, like a red wine stain spreading across a white tablecloth. Nobody in the crowd is shushing the talking, because everyone is doing it.
“Jon sprang into action,” Kramer is saying.
All around me, people are staring at their phones. The murmur is eerie. It sounds exactly like a sound effect in a movie, Crowd Noise No. 5.
Meanwhile, Kramer is thanking them. “In the face of so much hate, so much derision, so little respect,” she says, they built a campaign built on humility and respect. “This campaign has changed my life.”
I check my phone. The news has Handel six points ahead.
Kramer finishes, applause. A woman next to me says, “We’ve worked our asses off.” CNN returns to the big viewing screens up front. Handel is now 10,000 votes ahead. I see two women in the crowd; the second one has her hand on the first’s back, and the first has her hand over her face. Party is still going on but the host has passed away. Just look at their eyes. No weeping. They were ready for the blow.
“We knew it was a long shot,” Sarah Quinn, twenty-something, tells me. “Tom Price won this district by 20 points last November. But we have to run again in 2018, so we might as well get ready. This is just the beginning of our activism.”
I duck out for water. I step back in to see Karen Handel officially declared the winner on CNN.
“What the Fuck!” a young man next to me yells. You can hear the capital F. When I ask for his name, he smiles and says, “I can’t talk to the press.” A woman named Vashti doesn’t want to give her last name. “I’m sad,” she says, “but it’s expected.” The crowd can’t go on, but they’ll go on. Another installment of electoral hell since last November.
SO LONG AND GOODNIGHT
Handel’s victory speech is now on the CNN feed. The crowd yells but is half-hearted about it.
“Should we go? Should we go?” a tall brunette guy asks.
A blonde woman standing next to him asks, “They already announced?”
“Shit,” she says.
Nobody is weeping, not that I can see. Ossoff has not appeared yet.
CNN puts up pictures of the former Congressmen of the Sixth. A series of desiccated, smiling old guys. Newt, Isakson, Price. “Fuck you!” the blonde screams to the TV screen.
At 10:14 PM a group of women up at the front of the stage begin the chant “This is what democracy looks like!” The crowd joins in. Then the same begins “Not my Congresswoman!” but this time the chant doesn’t catch on. Someone has passed out. A nurse is called for. The crowd parts. “A doctor is coming!” a voice says. A woman is sitting on the ground. A guy fans her with a sign.
The crowd is quiet, but not at peace. This becomes clear when Ossoff finally gets out onstage. Kramer is with him. There is rapturous applause. Beautiful couple. They’re the two nice people who adopt the orphan protagonist at the end of a movie.
It strikes me that this crowd loves Ossoff, but more specifically, they love the force Ossoff represents. When they speak of this campaign, the people here don’t speak about him. They speak about the resistance, what it means. To these volunteers, Ossoff is embodied hope—a kind of redemptive youth. They cheer Ossoff, but the people here are farther along than their champion. They want it more than he does.
A hundred iPhones are lifted up high. Ossoff says “Thank you.”
We love you, voices in the crowd yell.
“I love you too,” the candidate replies. “I called Handel,” he says—and there are yells and boos. Ossoff is handsomer and younger-looking in person. He appears to be slightly unshaven.
In the front, a woman calls, “Go high!”
“Go high,” someone to my right says.
“This has nothing to do with me,” Ossoff says.
“Yes, it does!” five people in the crowd yell.
“Let him talk!” another person says.
The crowd is yelling various slogans. They want beastmode, and he is giving them Best Boy.
“Let him speak!” someone else yells.
If Ossoff told the crowd to march on the Capitol they’d do it. He won’t. Rather, he is practicing Obama phrasing and gesturing. The influence is immediately detectable. Ossoff swings his head side to side, like Obama does; he gestures, like the former President does. When Ossoff says
“As darkness has crept across this planet, you have provided a beacon of hope to people in Georgia, and people around the world,”
he says it the way Obama would say it:
“As darkNESS has CREPT A-cross this planet …you have pro-vided a BEACON of HOPE, to people in GEORGIA, andpeoplearoundtheworld.”
He juts out his chin, too. There must be an academy in the Beltway where they churn out these guys.
“You carried us on your shoulders,” he says. “The fight goes on, and hope is still alive,” he says. Then he disappeared, late for a retooling at the centrism factory.
AND IN THE END
What did I see there? The incredible decency and passion of his supporters, and the utter failure of the candidate. The battle in the Sixth was the last chance for neoliberalism to rise from its moldering grave. But the people gave me hope. The America I saw in the Ballroom was the future: the hoped-for country where people of every color, gender, age, and walk of life mingled together. If the Democratic Party had combined real progressivism with this crowd’s energy, they would have won. Every single person mentioned in this story would disagree with me here, but they deserve so much better than Jon Ossoff. Nevertheless, they persisted.
A wise man once said, history repeats itself: first as tragedy, the second time as farce. Tragedy was Clinton in November; the farce was Ossoff in June. He’s the Clinton campaign in miniature: focus on the enemy’s vices instead of talking real policy. Spend your time fighting over an imaginary center. Ossoff ran against a woman who said she loathed the living wage—and Handel still won. Trump is not enough to make people vote for you. Raising money will not suffice. You have to give something to the public.
I left the party. I walked east, out the glass double doors and into the night. The stairway sloped down to a kidney-shaped brown lake. Around the pond stood six mighty towers, stark steel-and-glass knives. The pond was Concourse Lagoon, the still heart of Concourse at Landmark Center, deep in the belly of the Perimeter Center business district. Corporate towers, reaching high above the earth.
Directly in front of me was Concourse Parkway Center One, and its brother buildings, Concourse Corporate Center Two and Three. You could hardly tell them apart. To my left rose the thirty-four story bulks of the Concourse Corporate Center V and VI. Inside those see-through walls the climate never varies, no winter obtains. Six dauntless spires of Babylon. If you lived your life in those halls, you might actually imagine nothing in the outside world ever changes. It is as if you were in Coruscant or a futuristic skyline, and not a city of struggling people, hungering for a change, for a sign, for anything. Anything. I took the long way back to my car.