Monday, February 12, 2007

Obama's Kickoff

Days Until Bush Leaves Office = 707

As promised, I drove up to Ames yesterday for Senator Obama’s campaign event. This turned out to be a speech to about 5,000 people in the basketball arena at Iowa State. The crowd appeared to be mostly students from the university, but a fair number of the post college-age population was there as well.

I got to the venue about two hours before show time (lesson learned from the Hillary Clinton kickoff: if you go to one of these media feeding frenzy events, go early!). I came around to the east entrance of the arena to see exactly two people waiting outside. Couldn’t be right. I walked around to the West side, and found the line-up there. Fortunately, there was a small foyer that I was able to go into and get out of the cold (yep, it’s still freezing here!). The doors opened about 35 minutes later.

The early arrival paid off: I was one of the first few dozen people to get in. I passed up the available seats and made my way to the arena floor, and snagged a place to stand that was pretty much dead center to the rostrum, and about 30 feet from the stage. There was a cordon separating an area just about 10 feet deep in front of me, reserved for people who arranged to get the double top-secret unannounced red tickets (Hey! Who did you have to be to get one of these? Where were they doled out? No answers!). Whoa – just reread that: the Spoiled-Rotten Iowa Voter just came leaping out there, didn’t it! “GRRRRR! I couldn’t get closer than 30 feet from the candidate! I was robbed!” Uh-huh. Anyway, after the red ticket cordon there was another cordon to separate a final five feet of space in front of the stage for press and security people. Red tickets aside, I got a much better slot than for the Hillary event, even though this time the building was enormously larger. I even had the chance, if I had wanted, to be one of the people who were actually on the stage behind the rostrum. I passed this up because, one, I didn’t want to spend the event looking at the back of the candidate, and two, I would’ve felt bad being up there as an uncommitted when I know there would’ve been an actual supporter just dying to stand in my place. Good choice, as it turned out.

And then, the down-side of getting there early: the wait. The standing up wait. The watch the arena fill up while listening to the cover band wrestle its repertoire wait. The take pictures of the arena filling up wait. The call everyone in my address book because I really, really have the time to talk wait.

Finally, of course, things begin to happen: staff people start to mill about the rostrum with affected nonchalance (“Oh! There were 5,000 people watching me just then? I never even noticed!”), the press gets in position, the selected audience members are taken to their positions on the dais. More staff buzzing, not a few in what must be the de rigueur uniform of the Obama campaign: jeans, pale blue dress shirt (untucked), and blue blazer. Staff passing out printed placards to the crowd, then (and I thought this was a masterstroke) passing out hand-lettered signs (“Nurses for Obama!” “Barack the Vote!”) to give the cameras the appearance of people who had so much enthusiasm for the event that they took the time to make their own signs…because, of course, what person planning to attend the event would ever have imagined that the campaign would provide its own printed signs?!? Other campaigns, take note: this little bit of stage management goes over like gangbusters: the press absolutely laps it up.

Then the introductions. First, the vice-chair of the local Democratic party committee. Then, the specter at the feast, the candidate who unsuccessfully ran for congress in the district last November. Finally, the president of the campus chapter of Young Democrats, who, bless her undergraduate heart, absolutely froze at the microphone, blinking and stammering in the lights for a painful eternity before finally managing to blurt out, “Please welcome Senator Barack Obama.”

Badlam as Barack hits the stage. The phrase “rock star reception” is overused, and anyway, hardly does justice to the welcome he receives from the crowd. Seriously, what it’s like to get that kind of lift from a crowd of strangers probably only Bono, the Pope and a handful of other mortals know. Add Obama to their number.

As preamble to the main event, two Iowa Democratic elected officials (State Treasurer and Attorney General) announce that they are endorsing Barack Obama for President and signing on to his campaign. This is bigger news than it may sound, as these are the two most prominent Democratic office holders to have yet issued an endorsement of any candidate, and puts the other campaigns on notice that Obama has what it takes to pull the organizational muscle that’s a big part of winning here.

In contrast with the Hillary kickoff, this was a speech, not a town hall meeting. Obama talked about his family, his background, his political career, his newly-launched campaign for the White House. And the war. Eloquence throughout and to spare. But it isn’t all oratory and no substance; Obama talks in some detail about his plan to get U.S. troops out of Iraq by the end of March, 2008, for example. But the crowd is there to hear a broader message: hope for the future, national renewal, a return to respectability for the United States on the world stage, and Barack does not disappoint.

Barack Obama is, at most times, an inspiring speaker. In his best moments, it is possible to take him at his own valuation as a once-in-a-generation leader from the JFK mold. He places his personal story in the continuum of national progress on civil rights and civic enlightenment, and when he concluded by quoting Martin Luther King, Jr. about reaching out to bend the arc of the universe toward justice, he absolutely brought the house down.

Is he the real deal, a reporter from the New York Times asked me afterwards. Only time will tell. Barack Obama is at the beginning of this campaign, not the end. And although he is a formidable candidate, there is no way to know for a long while whether he will live up to the potential shown here. Which plays us right back to the question: is he the real deal…is he the real deal…


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