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2018

In 2018, History Zagged

“History doesn’t move in a straight line. It zigs and zags.”

I knew the moment President Obama said this to us that I would never forget it. When I say us, I mean the dozens of still-reeling staffers he gathered in the Oval Office the morning after Donald Trump won the presidency.

He was standing in front of the Resolute Desk, Vice President Biden at his side—nodding, affirming the truth in his boss’s words.

I was crying. I don’t remember everything the president said, but the idea that this wasn’t permanent, Obama’s insistence that this wasn’t “the end of the world,” was enough to keep me from sinking to the next rung below ugly-crying in the Oval Office.

It was the president’s faith—in a long trajectory that would overwhelm brief reversals—that kept me afloat. Yes, this was a zig. A hard zig. A horrendous zig. But it might still be followed by a zag.

The first thing I did after Obama concluded his remarks was phone my mom to tell her about his pep talk. She had been re-elected to her seat in the Pennsylvania state legislature just the night before. She loved her work in Harrisburg, but there was no party in Pennsylvania that night, just stunned silence and quiet tears as the national outcome became clear.

My mom has an Election Day tradition. She takes coffee and donuts to volunteers at her local polling place and votes with her granddaughter, Aubrey, who was five when she pushed the button for the first “girl president” two years ago.

Before Obama summoned us into the Oval Office, my mom called me, her voice cracking. She had broken the news about Clinton to Aubrey who tried to comfort her own grandmother. “Hillary just didn’t run fast enough. She can win next year, right Mama?”

Of course, we knew the zag would not come so soon—that Hillary would likely never run for president again, let alone in one short year. But in their own way, Aubrey’s words echoed Obama’s.

Last week, my mom and Aubrey walked into the same polling place—coffee and donuts in tow—and voted again. Aubrey now seven and proud of it—but even more proud to vote for her grandmother, this time for a seat in the United States Congress.

Pennsylvania sends 18 representatives to Washington—not one a woman. Two years after Donald Trump was elected, my mom—Madeleine Dean—was about to change that.

I flew in from Los Angeles where I had been hiding from politics to campaign with her.

In 2016, Election Day was beautiful. The weather was crisp, the air still. This year it poured from morning to night. I waited outside in the rain and fog as the first voter exited, threw his hands in the air and yelled: “Ooh, that felt good!”

This run was off on the right foot.

The roads were slippery and the visibility low as we criss-crossed Montgomery County to visit polling places, stopping briefly at each, to shake hands, and drop off snacks for volunteers.

Pennsylvania was energized. We heard the same thing everywhere we went: Turnout was approaching presidential levels.

“Vote for my mom,” I’d repeat.

At stop 21, the rain finally stopped, but on the way to stop 22, just as dusk turned to nightfall, my mom pointed from the front passenger seat of our car and said, a little too calmly, “They’re going to hit us.”

A sedan side-swiped us, cutting across the driver-side of the Jeep that had transported us to 21 consecutive polling locations on time and unscathed. We jumped out of the car, examined the gash across the metal doors. My parents checked on the woman who hit us. She was older and fine.

“Did you vote?” my dad asked with a wry smile.

She began to explain that of course she did. “We need a change.”

And with that my dad introduced my mom.

“Oh my, I’ve been praying for you for weeks,” the woman who just wrecked the side of our car said with sincerity and relief.

In 2016, I knew Hillary would win.

This year, my mom’s staff threatened to have me sent away because my anxiety was driving them insane.

In 2016, I started to party before the polls closed.

This year, I waited until my mom’s opponent called to concede to let myself believe for one second that she was headed to Congress.

In the week since women candidates like my mom propelled Democrats back into control of the House, we’ve slipped back into old habits and bad ways. Trump escalated his efforts to obstruct justice and infringe upon the First Amendment; political commentators settled early on an incorrect conventional wisdom about Democrats’ performance last week, and have been unwilling to concede their error; we endured yet another horrific, senseless mass shooting.

Still I find myself holding on to the hope Obama stirred in 2008, and recaptured in 2012, and summoned again somehow in the wake of 2016.

As he ended his pep talk that morning in the Oval Office, Obama pointed to the Rose Garden, where the rain had just let up: “Look, the sun’s come out. I want to do the speech outside,” he said. “It’s more optimistic.”

This past Wednesday was warmer than usual in Pennsylvania, and sunny, too. We had zagged.

Pat Cunnane served as Senior Writer and Deputy Director of Messaging for President Obama. He now lives in Los Angeles, CA where he is a television writer and the author of West Winging It.