It was a plum assignment: Covering Hillary Clinton’s 2016 election night event at the Jacob Javits Center. It was a long, exhaustive slog of an election cycle, and I wasn’t even one of the journalists primarily dedicated to the campaign trail. 595 days of name-calling, allegations, yelling, divisiveness, scandal, disgust. News stories about both candidates were consumed, regurgitated and dissected. When we covered this, critics asked why we didn’t cover that.
It was about to be over.
Photojournalist Will Cockey and I learned we’d be going to NYC days before election night. I got on an Amtrak early the day before. Wil followed later in a news car. We picked up our credentials, and loaded in our gear, A good night’s sleep was essential.
On Election Day, we ate a big breakfast, not knowing how long our day/night would be, and headed to the Javits Center around noon. We went through the Secret Service security sweep, checked in and fed our stories to our CBS affiliate in Washington, DC. for our 5pm and 6pm live hits.
Journalists from all over the world were jammed onto risers, some switching places with others as the night went on, essentially doubling the amount of national and foreign press covering this historic election.
The Javits Center is made of glass and steel and I could overhear journalists talking about the metaphorical significance of the HRC campaign selecting it for the event, with it’s glass ceiling – a ceiling polls showed Clinton was likely to shatter with her potential role as the first female president of the United States. I joked to Will that we should make a drinking game out of it.
We did our early live hits talking about the mood in the room, and the historical significance of the election – for both Clinton and Trump. This was before the numbers started rolling in. Everything went smoothly.
It was after our 7pm live hit, that numbers started rolling in. A larger than life monitor, swapping channels from CNN to CBS to ABC to MSNBC, filled the room with audio. As Clinton took a state, or when numbers showed her ahead, the room erupted in a cheer. More people started to fill in. When Trump took a state, the room did not react, or at least it didn’t audibly.
Thousands of Clinton supporters started to pile into the large convention center. A huge crowd went through airport-style security outside to gather near a separate stage where big names in the Democratic Party gathered, along with pop singer Katy Perry and the mothers of young black men killed at the hands of police. The program started with a soulful rendition of the Star Spangled Banner. The speakers, from NYC Mayor Bill deBlasio to Senator Chuck Schumer to Governor Andrew Cuomo riled up the exuberant, New York-centric crowd. Inside, it was a different story,
Donald Trump was leading in electoral votes, and North Carolina and Florida hung in the balance. Poker faces abounded. I looked at Will and it occurred to us both that what was happening was historic, but not what anyone in the room was expecting.
We did a few live hits for our election show that aired on Facebook, then the big crescendo – the 11pm news. We were slated to lead the show, but instead, producers decided to go straight to our other crew in town at Donald Trump’s election night event at the New York Hilton a few miles away. By this time, we realized this could be a long night.
We broke free of the riser we were limited to, and tried to get near the crowd below. A barricade stood between us as we tried to ask supporters how they were feeling. At one point, a Clinton campaign staffer tried to shoo us, but we moved a few feet away. People started to leave. I saw people give hugs to others. Some were crying. Many sat on the floor, including a young woman wearing socks with Hillary Clinton’s face on them, resigned to the news that it was getting tougher and tougher to see ways Clinton could win.
Trump clinched Pennsylvania, as a stunned press corps watched. It’s now 1:35 am.
A half hour later, Clinton Campaign Chair John Podesta takes the stage and tells the crowd the race was too close to call and that Clinton wouldn’t be speaking. He told them to go home. We grab our gear and head towards the doors to talk to people who came to the Javits for a victory party and were leaving empty-handed and with an empty feeling.
Not everyone wanted to talk. We were blown off by several teary-eyed people, as Rachel Platten’s “Fight Song” played. Several people told us they felt Clinton made the right move by not talking, and not conceding. They seemed to hold out hope.
An emotional Brandi Wolff of Colorado shared how she was feeling, “Very uneasy. Really skeptical of his capabilities as a commander in chief, and just hopeful that everyone who is a minority, a woman, anyone in these next 4 years who doesn’t look like Donald Trump bands together. and stands with each other because we’re going to have to have each others backs, clearly.”
We shot some more video and proceeded downstairs to the press room to get ready to feed it. That’s when we saw a few CBS Newspath engineers crowded around one of the TVs. Then, we heard that Trump had taken Wisconsin.
We were still thinking we would feed what we had when the bombshell came. AP declared Trump America’s new president.
Then, we all crowded around and watched Donald Trump announce he just received a call from Secretary Clinton congratulating him on his victory. The President-Elect told the world, “It’s time. I pledge to every citizen of our land that I will be President for all Americans and this is so important to me.”
I couldn’t believe it. The polls were wrong. My gut was wrong. Thousands of Clinton supporters were wrong. it was stunning.
We gathered our gear, carried it up steps and down streets, and hopped a cab to Times Square. I knew from working as a journalist in New York previously, that even if some of the city slept, it never slept there.
We spoke to Clinton supporters who said they were shell-shocked. A student named Leticia told me she felt like she was having an out-of-body experience. One man called Donald Trump a word I can’t print, and said he felt like he was in the twilight zone. All the while, cars whizzed by, some with passengers yelling “Trump!” In this heavily Democratic city, the juxtaposition was striking.
We made our deadline, and fed back our interviews for our station’s morning show which was about to start in minutes. The story was that the American voters wanted change more than they wanted anything. And it had been along.
Across town, our Trump crew was still out, covering the victory party.
Exhausted, I climbed into bed. No Facebook, please. I couldn’t bear to read updates from friends who were devastated Trump had won, nor from friends who wants to stick it to Democrats that Trump had won. I wanted the calm comfort of sleep. I got it.
The next day, I awoke and took a walk. It was raining.
Setting aside the Javits Center’s glass ceiling metaphor, I found a new one. To me, the raindrops represented a rebirth, a cleansing of the harsh and dividing 595 previous days, and once again, change.