Richard Schiff: I've waited my whole life for change

'West Wing' star and Democratic activist, explains what the 2008 election means to him
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The Independent US

We are on the verge of a historical, seismic shift here in America. I write this as we begin our day as citizens lining up to affect outcomes of world events not yet ready to unfold. People stop me on the street and ask me what it looks like. They ask me what will be. There is little debate left in our lungs – we are out of breath, exhausted and exhilarated and wondering what will be.

I remember the day Richard Nixon won in 1968. That was a time that seemed certain to bring about long-awaited seismic change in America. But events of tragic proportion took us on a turn. Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jnr were suddenly dead. The Vietnam War was in full throttle. Thousands of American casualties every year and no end in sight. Riots threatened the sanity of our cities. I rode the subway to school that morning. I looked at people. They read the newspaper, cracked gum, ate muffins, nodded off to catch a few more minutes of sleep before work – no different than the day before. I thought the world would surely be different. I was sure I would see a darker place; a colder Earth; an ugly city or at least a dirty look or sneer or some sign on my subway ride to school that morning that the world was in trouble.

Things happen to us and reaction is sometimes tough to measure. A cop told me once that when he pulled his weapon and shot a man for the first time the thing that struck him most was that the man seemed unbothered by the bullets that had entered his body. The man kept running for blocks – kept running and running.

I fell in love with my wife 20 years ago. I am only now, it seems, getting it through my very thick skull how lucky I am. I've been running and running.

If you are like me, our most powerful epiphanies find us after their effect could have been put to good use. We are often too late with our brilliance. We are on time delay. The only instant gratification comes in the form of potato chips. The rest will find us by surprise somewhere down the road, maybe as we sleep and dream of other things.

So I wonder about tomorrow. Is this a monumental moment in our lives? Is this the instance of epiphany or are we awakening from slumber and recognising the effects of cosmic shifts in paradigms that have happened long ago, from which we are too tired to keep running away? I wonder what would have been had Al Gore been allowed to accept his victory as our President. We would not be in Iraq – I know this. We would have invested heavily in green and alternative technology and we would be leading the world in an economic boon for the next generation.

There are seminal moments in our lives where our brilliance is given the chance to unfold and show itself. In the collective American consciousness we had such a moment. On election night 2000, the networks had all given Al Gore a victory in Florida after a tough and close battle all evening. The exit polls were showing a growing Gore lead that was insurmountable and so Florida was called for Gore, which would also give him the electoral numbers to claim victory. A press conference was announced in Crawford, Texas, where George W Bush and his team had holed up for the big night. Newsmen and pundits anticipated a concession speech that would declare the night officially over. But there was no concession speech and no George Bush. Instead out came Howard Baker, a Bush senior campaign adviser, Karen Hughes, the Bush communications director, and Mr Bush's brother Jeb, the Florida Governor. Huh?

They announced, in no uncertain terms, that they did not concede Florida on this night nor did they concede the general election and they were, and this is a quote: "Getting on the phones and getting to work. We are going to win Florida!" The newsmen and women seemed stunned. I was screaming at the television asking the question: "Getting on the phone to do WHAT?" The polls had closed. There was no work to do. Everybody had already voted. Magically, the numbers changed and showed an unlikely, to say the least, turn in the count that begat the infamous recount that begat the infamous hanging chads that begat the criminal Supreme Court decision that handed the reins of power in a virtual coup d'état to the governor of Florida's brother, George Bush.

Had we been a fighter pilot we would have been blown out of the sky. If we were Luke Skywalker, we forgot to use the force. If we were a goalie on a soccer field, we went right and the ball went left, or worse, we didn't move at all and the ball rolled through our legs. Had we had our senses with us that day, our antennas up and our muscles taut, we could have been brilliant. We could have stormed the ranch at Crawford and taken our country before it was stolen from us. Instead we rolled over in our sleep.

So, as we stand on the verge of a shifting Earth, I wonder is this the Big One, the epiphany that leads us to brilliance in real time, or is this an aftershock. Was the Big One Rosa Parks refusing to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery in 1955? The Civil Rights Act of 1964? Richard Nixon's Watergate? Crawford, Texas? 9/11?

Maybe it is the slow moving forward of lives toward death that allows evolution to do what it can by killing away ancient paradigms of supremacy of people and nation. That has allowed for a younger generation to be blind to issues of race and gender and to recognise climate change as science and not God. We lay asleep, we Americans, dreaming of making millions in mortgage madness, unbothered by battles fought and blood spilled by contractors and volunteers a million miles away. Though we did begin to worry about the cost. Has evolution caught us napping? Has this new generation moved forward and with the kindness of their spirit brought us along for the ride?

I am in my home, New York, as it happens. Today I will ride the subway. There will be gum and muffins and newspapers and some will be dozing. Will the city be beautiful this day? Time will only tell.