Friday night I went to hear Barack Obama speak at the Hammerstein
Ballroom in Manhattan.
I wanted to see what the candidate is like without a screen between
us. It's a natural impulse, but of course the candidate is encased in a
successful image-making machine. So getting to know him means seeing how
he handles that experience. In other words, when we see him live we're
looking at how he handles the fact that we almost never see him live.
Does he act like a human being behind that curtain (the curtain that is
designed to tell us "he's a human being! he's like you!'')? Or does he
seem graceless about it, or God help him (or her) a fake?
It's odd. Voters and politicians know the importance of this
technology that sells the self. As Arnold Schwarzenegger once said, he
works all the time at presenting himself as "real.'' But we also know
that this state of affairs is weird. Presenting yourself isn't
being yourself, and everybody knows that somewhere in the
presidential campaign is a being who doesn't work at being real, who
just is real.
That's the person who'll face unpredictable crises as president, and
so, no matter how terrific the curtain is, we want to know what's behind
it. It must drive the candidates nuts, to see us out there, saying
hooray, we love you, but still ... we want more.
I guess, then, that I wanted to see how good Obama's curtain is, and
to glimpse behind it.
So there I was with my $9 beer, listening to the generic rock on the
speakers, looking up at the VIPs in the balcony, On the main floor,
barnlike without seats, about a thousand of us low-level contributors
milled around between a bar at the back and a stage at the front. On the
stage, a lone mike on a stand. Behind that a humongous American flag,
stars as big as your face, stripes as wide as a door, covering the
entire back wall. Stage right: A lumpy man-high replica of the Statue of
Liberty. There was an elevated platform parallel to the back wall for
press photographers, but the backdrop pretty much guaranteed that even a
shaky cell phone pic would be iconic.
OK, so the curtain is good: Simple, direct, effective. So is the
candidate: The crowd surged around the room, wherever he went, but he
seemed to see individuals; when he shook hands, he looked people in the
eye, and held their gaze, said a few words. My impression: He handles
the curtain, the sales pitch, with grace -- by acting protective of the
humanity involved (the audience's and his own).
Before the linewalk, the event itself ran in the same spirit, high
on emotion, low in canned blah-blah-blah. After the music stopped, a guy
from the Brooklyn campaign yelled into the mike for a few minutes, but
there was no parade of local pols. then introduced Ben Harper, who came out alone with an
acoustic guitar. He talked a little, sang a couple of songs, then
started to say how honored he was to be sharing the stage with ... how
important the campaign was ...
And then before he could choke, there was the candidate, bing, just
like that, a man in a dark jacket and a white shirt, alone between
Harper and the statue. Obama hugged Harper offstage and then turned to
us. He didn't go to the stand -- he had a mike in his hand. "How are
you, New York City?'' We roared to indicate that we were, in fact, doing
really well. Obama looked genuinely delighted. "Back in the Big Apple!''
Then he spoke. That too was simple and direct. He doesn't sound
like a politician; he sounds like a preacher, with a pastor's way of
rising to high rhetoric and then swooping down to take in a heckler's
shout, fold it in to his sermon. He talked about universal health care,
about looking out for children's health and education (Iraq came third
or fourth) ... boilerplate stuff that felt fresh because of his
obvious pleasure in connecting with the audience, and our joy in being
part of this show.
"What about immigration reform?'' somebody shouted.
Obama shot back: "That'd be good too!'' Then he riffed: "You know,
this statue right here, this is what America . . . you know, this was a
gift from France, so don't be knocking the French, because this was a
pretty good gift.''
Then he told us a story.
"My first night in New York City, I slept on the street. New York
City will give you some stories. It was 109th Street between Amsterdam
and Columbus, and it may be gentrified now but it sure wasn't then. And
I got there and the person I was supposed to sublet from wasn't there.
So I waited on the stoop and I could see people kept looking at me from
their windows. So finally I went around the corner and I slept there, on
my luggage. In the morning there was a fire hydrant open and there was a
homeless brother washing his face and hands. So I sat down next to him
and washed my face and hands. And that was my first night in New York.''
"And the next day I went out to see the Statue of Liberty, and when
I got there, and I saw this statue, my heart filled up. I thought this
what represents the best of America, not a piece of land or a territory
but the idea that you don't have to accept things as they are, that you
can make things better. And that this people could unfurl across a
continent because of their dedication to a few simple ideas: Individual
rights. Egalitarianism. Here, equality means something.''
And then a swoop back up to the rhetorical heights, from 109th Street
and New York Harbor to the image of an America of ideals that always
wins out against fear and narrow-minded selfishness. People who
believed otherwise, he said, had undone slavery, won women the right to
vote, and labor the right to organize. Imagine a government from that
place, he said. It would go out to the rest of the world and say
And then he brought the riff to 1965's Selma to Montgomery marches, as
an example of ordinary people doing extraordinary things, overcoming
horses and billy clubs and tear gas. "They did that for me,'' Obama
said. "They didn't know me -- I was four years old in Hawaii -- but
they knew there would be kids like me.''
We were back now to the big theme: everyone's connected, we all have
responsibilities to each other. I thought about Larissa MacFarquhar's point that
Obama is, in an important sense, deeply conservative: He believes in a
duty to do right, in responsibility to humanity. And like a good
preacher, he makes this duty seem like the simplest and easiest thing in
the world. As if being brutal and indifferent and obsessed with
military might were kind of sad, wasteful and stupid -- like discovering
that in your commute you've been taking three different trains and
losing an hour because you didn't know you could catch an express a
block to the east. That's a talent more religious than political: To
make the moral choice seem the smartest, the most cool. Of course we
should invest in schools for all kids. Prisons cost more.
I think we were a happy crowd, not just because we were cheering and
hollering but because, at the same time, we still felt like human
beings, not just a roaring torrent of political atoms.
As Obama kept talking, I thought about something I had thought of
posting on my other blog, but now it seemed mean-spirited and negative,
and I thought, nah. I thought I should be kinder to everyone I knew,
and volunteer more -- it was clearly better in the long run. To my
right, a young couple kissed passionately (what better aphrodisiac is
there than hope?).
You could say "well, nice story, but he didn't say anything about ID
cards and border fences and other specifics on immigration.'' But if you
did that, I think you'd be missing the point. Presidents don't
legislate. And presidents face crises that we can't predict. Voters want
to feel the president can handle come-what-may, whatever that will be.
If you have that vibe, you can piss off a lot of voters and still win.
Because when you invite us to imagine a government that says "we're
back,'' I might imagine a secular version of what that means, and
someone from a church might imagine that it has a more religious tone,
but we'll still be imagining something together: A sense that the best
thing for each of us to do is the right thing, uncalculated,
unapologetic and honest.
My head tells me we need someone in command of the bully pulpit, not
a management guru with a 12-point plan. As for the rest of me, I
watched the candidate with a strange and unfamiliar feeling, like a
numbness departing a stiff limb. A feeling that took some time to name,
so far was it from my usual political experience. A really simple
emotion, actually. I was feeling: This guy, the actual person I'm
seeing and hearing, the man having this effect on everyone around me --
this is who I want to be President of the United States.