- - Wednesday, November 9, 2016


Last night as the returns rolled in and the network cameras focused on disbelieving Clinton supporters in New York, I thought back to the reaction I witnessed in 1980 as President Jimmy Carter’s staff and advisers grappled with the news that their man was actually losing to Ronald Reagan.

It was a deja vu moment because back then, I was an executive assistant manager of the new Sheraton Washington Hotel, now the Marriott Wardman Park Hotel, the largest D.C. hotel of its time. One of my duties was “hall roamer” and “brush fire manager.” I alerted room service to empty trays in the guest room halls, begged managers to keep restaurants open when meetings ran over, and one Christmas Eve, woke the resident manager when an icicle punctured the large glass lobby roofline.

President Carter, Gov. Ronald Reagan and Rep. John Anderson, the candidates that year, were frequent guests, entering the hotel through private entrances where I would be standing by to handle any problems that might arise. As a result, I saw or met the candidates and staff many times and, like a fly on the wall, overheard hundreds of snippets of their conversations.

The hotel was Democratic election night headquarters in 1980. As the night wore on, Carter staff crowded elevators, disappointed, then unbelieving, then hysterical, almost raving about how “the people just didn’t get it.”

As the evening progressed, the downstairs staff cafeteria filled with employees who did not want to leave. A rowdy bunch under any circumstances, we became more and more jovial on free coffee, tea and soda as Reagan, the know-nothing actor from California of all places, swept state after state.

Back at work in the lobby, I was trapped inside a tight group of people walking briskly into a small conference room. I had all the small metal tabs identifying me as a “safe” person and could be anywhere I needed to be, but not going the direction the Secret Service expects puts your health in danger. If this small group was this serious, a hotel employee should probably be there. I looked behind me and saw Sen. Walter Mondale, Mr. Carter’s running mate, among the 20 or so crowding into the room.

The doors closed and President Carter stepped forward to officially inform those gathered that he had lost. The group fell silent and quickly dispersed. I was the first out of what was not a happy gathering.

The media then, like the talking heads of today, had not expected the western cowboy to win. They just knew the Silent Majority didn’t really exist even as, at the grass-roots, Reagan was building an unstoppable movement. Reagan took back the South that gave Carter the presidency in 1976. By night’s end, he had carried 44 states, 489 electoral votes and 50.7 percent of the popular vote.

Even more than in 1980, the media this year was in the tank for the Democrats. That crazy, racist and fringe tea party movement had been put in its place, dismissed as consisting of little more than a bunch of elderly ignoramuses not even worth mentioning as everyone prepared to coronate Mrs. Clinton. Less idealistic about how long it would take to change the country, tea party activists had gone to work, joining with others who distrusted pollsters and do not answer surveys.

The press is now saying this year’s election was the most amazing in our country’s history, more surprising even than the 1824 election decided in the House of Representatives, Truman’s surprise 1948 victory over Dewey or Ronald Reagan’s surprise 1980 win. Those of us who lived through 1980 and knew what can happen to an out-of-touch government suspected, but in the face of overwhelming propaganda, kept silent about what we saw was going on in the country. We turned off the news, were reluctant to discuss it even those who agreed with us, prayed, and watched for the feared voter fraud that could tip a close contest.

Mr. Trump may not have been our first choice, but we knew he was the only person standing between us and the dire direction of a Clinton administration. We didn’t go on television to rail against Mr. Trump’s imperfections like the Never Trump zealots because we believed our future was at stake.

We talked to the grocery store check cashier, the lady in the Post Office. About jobs, about taxes, about referenda where we were told to vote for more school bonds and more taxes. We’d learned that budgets can be manipulated to pull out the cute spending and let you think you have a choice. Then we realized that Mrs. Clinton might like to make this our last hunting season, and voted for a constitutional Supreme Court, not a court Hillary could pack with fellow liberal true believers.

And, like millions of others like us, we voted — and that made all the difference.

Donna Wiesner Keene is a Cornell Hotel School graduate who has served in the Reagan, Bush and Bush administrations.

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