The following piece was produced by HuffPost's OffTheBus.
When Barack Obama visited Austin, Texas on Saturday, November 17 on a fund-raising jaunt, his campaign chose the venue "The Backyard," a live-oak shaded, outdoor concert site that has hosted such music stars as Willie Nelson, Lyle Lovett, and Sheryl Crow, for the appearance. The crowd (estimated at about 3,500) who gathered there for the event resembled what you might see at such a concert--a hodgepodge of age, race, gender, ethnicity, and party affiliation that might very well represent the changing face of the Texas electorate. And though the speech he gave mirrored the one he'd given at the Jefferson-Jackson dinner in Iowa, and offered no dramatic new revelations, the crowd's explosive reaction to his performance too was reminiscent of a concert setting, as if a beloved headlining act was cranking out a series of crowd-pleasing hits.
The event was scheduled to begin at three p.m., and the standing crowd was warmed up for about an hour by local band Fastball, who got big laughs when they dedicated the song, "White Noise" to Bill O'Reilly: Like nails on a blackboard/I hear your voice again.
By this time, the grassy area in front of the stage had collected a good-sized crowd--and then it started to rain. And nobody budged an inch. Blue Change You Can Believe In signs that had been passed out by the campaign became improvised umbrellas. People laughed, conversation was animated, and nobody complained--even though they had to stand there in the rain another half-hour after the band had packed up and left the stage. The campaign threw T-shirts out to the crowd, to a similar effect as beads from a Mardi Gras float.
A well-organized cadre of volunteers lined the trail leading from the front gate around to the stage, cheering, clapping, and high-fiving attendees as they entered. A big tent selling Obama paraphernalia and heavily staffed by more volunteers stood just inside the gate. About every twenty feet or so leading around to the stage, an enthusiastic volunteer hawked for more volunteers, crying, Do you want to be on the front lines for Obama? Not far from the stage area was a booth soliciting precinct captains, and moving throughout the crowd were volunteers carrying voter registration cards for the many college-aged young people in attendance.
There was some attempt at top-down campaign message control. Members of the press were corralled well away from the entrance, down a path and around to a position facing of the stage. Print media had chairs to sit in and tables for laptops, and camera crews were placed on risers beside them. From that vantage point, the media could see the stage, but they had no access to volunteers on the other side of the venue. When I attempted to interview volunteers a couple of hours before the gates opened, I was told that the press was not to speak to the volunteers, and I was literally led away and banished to the press pen. They told me that I could question volunteers after the event, but the truth is that the venue operators cleared out the area as quickly as was safely possible after the senator left and there was little time to interview anyone then.
It is easy to fall into the lazy habit of referring to Barack Obama as a "rock star," but when he took possession of the stage in that outdoor music-concert venue beneath misty Hill Country skies, it was hard not to make that comparison. There are adjectives that seem tired for their descriptive powers--until you are standing in the middle of a crowd of people who become...well...electrified at the sight of him.
What set Austin apart from most repetitive stump-speeches was the organic, one-on-one intimacy of Obama's relationship with the crowd. As he spoke, his voice took on the cadences of an old-style preacher, but it was the cheers of the audience that created the rhythm of the talk.
Sometimes they cheered so loudly he had to shout to be heard; sometimes the cheers drowned him out; and sometimes--such as when he spoke of his mother's dying of cancer and worrying at the same time that her health insurance wouldn't cover her illness--the audience was utterly silent. He often used the term "Austin" as though it were the name of a friend, and the audience responded in kind.
That's why I need you Austin he cried at the end, to STAND with me, to WORK with me, to MARCH for me--cheers beginning to gain momentum with each phrase--to VOTE for me--cheers and applause growing louder as his voice raises over them--to not settle for what the cynics say you have to accept in this election, at this moment, right here in Austin,Texas, let's reach for what we know is possible--his voice drops, the crowd grows silent--a nation healed, a world repaired--voice drops again--an America that can believe again. Thank you very much Austin--deafening endless roar.
I had moved closer to the stage earlier in order to get a more accurate feel of the pulse of the crowd than what was possible in the press pen, and as the Secret Service moved into the rope-line crowd closest to the senator and he began to make his way down the line, a sudden crush from behind grew so powerful and all-encompassing that I actually felt a bit frightened. Again, it was much like being caught in the mosh pit of a rock concert, with bodies pressed against you on all four sides. He took his time, shaking hands not just with the first row of bodies, but reaching over and beyond them, so that even I was able to clasp hands briefly, and there must have been at least three people crammed in front of me. As he moved his way on down the line, I turned and glanced at the people stretching forward.
Smiling, laughing, cheering, reaching, their faces bright and hopeful, hair wet and bedraggled, holding up cameras and copies of his books, pressed together with urgency toward a common goal--touching him--I flashed instantly to another Democratic presidential candidate forty years ago--Bobby Kennedy. Like those earlier crowds, the faces and hands reaching toward this candidate were black and white, Hispanic and Asian, fresh-faced and gray-bearded. And in that moment, they really were unified.
After the senator had left, I buttonholed people who were not wearing Obama T-shirts or buttons. Some were curious Republicans, some Independents, and some undecided. They were all willing to be inspired, but not all were satisfied. One undecided college student complained that there had not been more specifics in the speech; another said she was still weighing Obama versus Hillary.
Texans now have 16 years of experience with the current occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. There is widespread disillusionment with the man and his policies, not just in a college town like Austin but within the Texas GOP's rank and file too. The voters I saw in Austin on a rainy Saturday afternoon seemed searching for more than just an alternative to the status quo. They appeared thirsty for inspiration. Obama's performance was certainly conducted with an awareness of this -- and undoubtedly with the hopes that voters will see in Obama a means with which to slake that thirst.
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