Michael Brown: Under Reagan's gaze the faithful despaired

The Capitol Hill Club, Washington DC

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A short distance from the US Capitol stands the magnificent Capitol Hill Club, the Republican equivalent of the Carlton Club in St James's. Although described as "a refined and elegant environment for Republicans' business and social activities", election night's sombre "last supper" for Washington's Republican social elite was over almost before it began.

The writing was on the wall an hour before the polls closed when I addressed two dozen politics students at the American University. Only two had voted for Senator McCain, and no warnings from me that expectations and high hopes were likely to run far ahead of reality in four or eight years' time could dim everyone's enthusiasm.

By the time I arrived at the Club's "Presidential Dining Room" with my host, not even the benevolent gaze of Ronald Reagan's portrait could lift our spirits. Indeed, I was actually in the line of fire of Herbert Hoover's baleful expression reminding me that 2008 was about to be as dramatic as FDR's 1932 victory. A huge Fox News screen (the in-house favourite rolling news channel) suggested at 8.30pm that Pennsylvania would go for Senator Obama but that traditionally Republican Virginia was "too close to call". The lashings of finest lobster, smoked salmon and crab failed to compensate for the news that Ohio was likely to fall and my host choked as David Axelrod, Obama's press spokesman, appeared on screen to say: "We like what we see." But the die was cast, as even George Bush's former guru, Karl Rove, gave up any pretence that a surprise win in the western states could save the day for McCain.

By last orders at 9pm, the dining room was nearly empty. Four years ago, I had experienced the drama of Bush's second triumph in this very room crowded. Tuesday night's atmosphere was neither angry nor bitter, just an air of resignation. Few mustered the energy to go downstairs to the all-night bar and they slipped, dejected, quietly into the night. We braved the bar; no champagne in sight. This was dry martini territory to stiffen the sinews against the dreaded moment at 11pm when projections from California and other western states tipped Obama over the magic 270 electoral college votes needed to win.

This was our cue to leave, a far cry from the 2am celebrations I enjoyed in 2004. As we left, a diehard Republican lady worthy of the Tory blue-rinse brigade repeated to me the McCain mantra "Never give up". But a few moments earlier, a small group of good-natured young African Americans had walked by. I overheard one remark: "I don't know what he stands for but I voted for him because he's black." The question remains how long before they give up on Obama.

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