Monday, January 28, 2008

Witness to History

Last week, I received an email invitation to a rally for Barack Obama that was scheduled today at American University. It didn't take me long to decide to attend, thinking that this would be an opportunity to see someone who may very well be the next president -- and I wanted a chance to experience for myself the excitement and electricity that Obama has been generating at events all across the country. Of course, when it was announced that Obama had secured the endorsements of both Caroline Kennedy and Senator Ted Kennedy -- and the accompanying sense that the Kennedy family had passed the torch to this new generation of Democrats -- it made today's event all the more historic (and with my love of history, one that I definitely wasn't going to miss).

When I woke up this morning, A. informed me that she had seen on the news that folks had started lining up at the arena on campus at 5:15 this morning -- and that solved the dilemma of whether I should drive to work and then cab to the arena, or drive straight there. I was expecting the worst when I arrived, considering it was almost 8:00, but I was pleasantly surprised to find that I was somewhere around 160th or so in line. Settling in for the two-hour-plus wait in barely-above-freezing temperatures, I watched as the line quickly grew from several hundred to several thousand, and for the longest time I was -- by at least a decade -- the oldest person there.

Standing in the midst of so many college kids gave me a great opportunity to listen to their conversations on just about everything imaginable: politics, sports, classes, dating, professors -- you name it. It also gave me a great opportunity to discover that there is still a divide between the enthusiasm these kids are developing about the political process and this year's candidates and acting on their newfound sense of civic responsibility. One young lady was telling a friend of hers that her state votes in next week's Super Tuesday elections, and she didn't realize until her mother called her yesterday that she never requested an absentee ballot -- almost with an "Oh, well; not much I can do about it now" attitude. I will say the funniest line of the morning was uttered by a young man a few places ahead of me in line, who said, "Well, I still haven't decided who I'm going to endorse." (I couldn't help but chuckle at that: Kennedy; McCaskill; unnamed kid standing in line...)

The line eventually got so long that campus officials had to break it from its wrap around the block and move it off in a straight line (one of my sister's sent me a message during the event and said that the news was reporting thousands more standing in line, traffic at a standstill, and people dancing in the streets). Despite the fact the doors weren't due to open until 10:30, they were opened 30 minutes early, and the crowd moved forward as calmly and orderly as a group that was nearly frozen could. Routine security checks, and then it was into the arena.

I was there early enough that I could have taken a position on the floor in front of the podium, but my back and feet were already hurting quite a bit after two hours on the pavement and I opted instead for a good seat behind and to the left of the platform. Over the next hour, the crowd flooded in; every available spot to stand or sit was quickly taken, and the fire marshal ultimately had to close the doors to the building because of the fire hazard (leaving, from what I understand, a huge crowd outside the arena). I was fortunate to be seated next to a nice older gentleman (and, when they could finally come in to find him, his wife and another friend) and behind a family with a little boy who was never quite sure why he was there, but was very enthusiastic when it came time to hold up his sign (and made himself the focus of several dozen cameras in the immediate vicinity).

Following several numbers performed by an a capella men's group from the university (the leader of whom joked on the microphone that they appreciated everyone coming, and had never performed in front of a crowd that large), the Kennedy clan and Obama hit the stage to a roar from the crowd that was indescribable. The enthusiasm and excitement that I had seen on television and had thought I had found was most definitely there; it wasn't even the type of screams and applause that moved across the room in a wave -- it was quite literally an explosion.

I'll say at this point that even with the interest I've been showing in Obama and his candidacy lately, I entered this even with this interest tempered by a certain degree of skepticism. After all, here I was, pretty much a lifelong Republican, walking into a room full of folks from across the aisle. I had even mentioned to the gentleman sitting next to me that I felt somewhat out of place, despite thinking of myself as a disgruntled Republican (a comment met with a smile and not cries of "Blasphemy!" that I would have expected a year ago).

I was surprised at the outset with an appearance by Patrick Kennedy (congressman from Rhode Island and Ted's son), who started the speeches with his own endorsement of Obama. I'm not sure if anyone really knew that he was coming, but it turned the backing of the Kennedy family into a sort of daily trifecta. Patrick yielded the floor to Caroline Kennedy, who took her turn at the podium to state her reasons for supporting Obama (basically the same points she included in the column she penned for the New York Times over the weekend); at one point, someone behind her yelled that they loved her, and she turned and gave a shy, almost flirty sort of smile and wave to the crowd.

When Ted got up to speak, I almost caught myself not listening -- he of the far-left liberalism, and I of the right-to-middle-of-the-road approach to things; what was there to listen to? Instead of listening to what he was saying, though, I listened to how he said it: that familiar Kennedy accent, the images of his brothers speaking before similar crowds in their own runs for the White House, the rhetoric that charged up the crowd and got them going even more than they already were. Agree with him or not, I certainly can't deny that he is a great speaker in the right environment at the right time, and for him -- and his family's legacy -- that time was today.

And then it was time for the man of the hour, and by this point I think that folks were hoping that he wouldn't delve into a policy speech. Senator Obama most definitely didn't disappoint, giving instead a very inspiring speech that touched on the constantly-delivered theme of change without actually using the word. It was a speech designed to inspire and to motivate; a speech designed to get folks energized and involved; a speech designed to get people moving in a common direction -- in fact, a speech that seemingly echoed the power of Robert Kennedy's famous little line: "There are those who look at things the way they are, and ask why... I dream of things that never were, and ask why not?"

He really seemed to feel the crowd, and it struck me at one point that he was somehow lifting the crowd from their seats and from the floor and symbolically putting them on the stage next to him so that they were all looking in the same direction: towards the future. He even got me, the skeptical gray-haired Republican, to move up on the stage with him.

I wasn't around for either Jack or Bobby Kennedy, and only know from books, documentaries, and my family the level of excitement they generated. Today, for the first time in my lifetime, I saw someone else that was reaching across all the boundaries that we in this country have thrown up over the years and bringing folks together to share in a common vision. Critics may say he's not really saying anything, that he has no plan, that he only appeals to a certain demographic of the population.

At this point, I still don't know for whom I'm voting, but to those critics I would say, "Be quiet and listen, and watch, and learn -- he's saying a lot, he has a vision, and he appeals to more folks than even I realized.


Dave said...

Matt! Wow, what a fantastic write-up of what may turn out to be one of the most pivotal events of Campaign 2008! This definitely beats reading the standard media account of what happened at American University today and I'm going to publicize your blog to the Michigan Obama email list that I subscribe to - hope you don't mind!

The pictures are very nice and I really appreciate you taking the time to summarize the event and your impressions for those of us who couldn't be there.

I promise to return the favor whenever one of the candidates comes around to Grand Rapids, as I'm sure will happen later this summer!

rdl said...

I'm getting chills reading this; but i will be late if i read the whole thing-so i;ll be back later.
stop by my place for my obama post (oh yeah i left one here, didn't i?) and also something about Patry.

Ed G. said...

dave - thanks for sharing this. I'm a life-long democrate who voted for Bush in '04, and I am so excited to finally have a candidate to get excited about.

ZILLA said...

As a retired school teacher who has seen more youthful apathy than would indicate a healthy culture, my once republican now independent mother seems so thrilled that our nation's young people are beginning to take interest, and that so many seem to believe there is finally a leader and a vision worth troubling themselves to get behind. As a mother of four (ages 13 - 22), I too believe it's a beautiful thing to see young people inspired. The future, after all, should be in their hands.

As a Christian and a father, you know very well that a strong foundation is essential to faith and character. I believe a strong foundation is also essential to building a healthy society. We are weak at the bottom and strong only at the very top. I've prayed on it and prayed on it and what I've come to understand is that while my libertarian ideals are fine in theory, in this moment, those ideals will not work in practice, to build and maintain a structure of lasting integrity, because those at the top too often fail to see that strengthening the bottom is best for the entire structure.

We need to take care of our Least, by helping them to take care of themselves, so the Whole doesn't come tumbling down.


Didn't mean to get so long-winded or pedantic.

I'm just so happy when I see people opening their hearts and minds to the possibilities of a new direction.

Wishing you and your family every happiness, Z

Dave said...

This came from the "Michiganders For Obama" email list, after I posted the link there last night:

Thanks for sharing.

You can tell your friend...I too, have always voted Republican. I hope and pray that this election I will have a great reason to vote Democrat.

Penny J

Sarah R. said...

I've told you before, I think, but I feel like Obama is my generation's Bobby Kennedy. He energizes young people and we all know how difficult it can be to get young folks interested or excited about politics.

Kansas Bob said...

I ditto Dave's comments.. what a great write-up Matt!! I so agree with the way you ended:

"At this point, I still don't know for whom I'm voting, but to those critics I would say, "Be quiet and listen, and watch, and learn -- he's saying a lot, he has a vision, and he appeals to more folks than even I realized."

ipanema said...

you're fortunate to have attended this. great write up.

i'm an outsider but since day 1, I'm for Obama. :)

Patchouli said...

Well, I haven't decided who gets my vote, either, but you've helped me narrow it down.
...and to find out if/when he's coming to my state

Ed G. said...

wow matt -- this event seems like so long ago... how's your recollection of the day now (only three weeks later)...

NoVA Dad said...

Hey Ed - it really does seem like a long time ago, but my recollection today is just as strong as the day it happened. It's interesting to see how my interest in his campaign has grown, even after the rallies and election day here in Virginia have long since passed. I'm just glad that several other of my friends have had the opportunity to attend rallies since that day, and I'm enjoying having a chance to read their own stories about the excitement they're feeling.