The following piece was produced by the Huffington Post's OffTheBus project.
I don't want to do this. I've been dreading the trip all week.
Saturday, October 6th. A hastily rescheduled stump speech in upper South Carolina -- the do-over for the one Senator Obama canceled on September 20th so he could stay in Washington, vote again for futile legislation to end the war. I was disappointed then. I was eager for that rally; this guy had been pushing all my buttons for months. I wanted to be there, see it up close, feel it, write about it: "The Visionary Speaks!"
But I don't want to go now. Polls and pundits tell me this is a campaign -- and a candidate -- circling the drain. He might be a great guy, he might be an intellectual with soul, he might draw huge crowds, he might have garnered nearly a hundred thousand new donors in the third quarter and collected enough cash to raise the Titanic but it's a done deal. Prevailing wisdom says HRC's nomination is inevitable.
He's speaking in a very small southern city. In a high school gymnasium. And I'll have to tell the truth: A small, passive crowd, a tired speech. A tired candidate on his way out.
I travel the hour-long trip with a group of women. They are Obama activists. They are all African Americans, mine is the only white face in this small crowd. "It's frustrating," one of them laments. "I keep calling and folks are still saying 'I don't know yet...'". Much of the ride is silent. My stomach sinks.
We arrive at Northwestern High School, a large, multi-building campus. The first sign that there's life left in the Obama movement is the parking lot. Too many cars, too little space. It looks like Super Wal-Mart on Christmas Eve. Folks are parking across the street. I almost smile. Almost.
We walk some distance. There are Obama volunteers everywhere. I wonder if there are more of them than there are of us. We open the door to the gym and I relax. There is a thrumming, a pulse of sound and energy, a large gymnasium filled with people. We have arrived fairly early and already the seats are full, the floor a mass of humanity. It's a racially diverse crowd; black, white, Hispanic, Asian. There are young and old, the well-dressed and the rural poor in clean but worn clothing. There are small children riding the shoulders of their dads.
My friends go off to find seats, if they can. I pull out my steno pad and begin working the crowd. I meet Democrats, Independents and a surprising number of Republicans. About half of the twenty or so attendees I speak to are committed to Barack Obama. Many are "leaning his way." They cite his stance on the war, healthcare and education as primary reasons. I hear "charisma", "judgment", "speaks to diversity", "the need to heal". I hear, more than I expect to hear it, deep concern about the way the rest of the world sees this country after six years of George W. Bush. Republicans tell me they like Obama. "There's something about this guy..." they say. They can be swayed. The sole concern for any of them is one word: Experience.
I meet a twenty-four year old fellow who smiles and tells me he is most definitely Republican. He's a Huckabee supporter, he says, for one reason: "I'm pro-life -- and it means the world to me." On every other issue, he goes on, he's solidly with Barack Obama, especially in the areas of foreign policy and the war. "What if Huckabee fails to win the nod?" I ask him. He smiles again. "Then I'll vote Obama."
The music ramps up, Sam & Dave singing "Hold On, I'm Coming." The crowd noise swells with it. Congressman John Spratt appears on the stage, an enormous American flag on the wall behind him. He looks almost boyish, his cheeks flushed as he begins introducing the Senator from Illinois. It's hard to hear him over the crowd. There are, he tells us, over 2000 people here. I learn later that event organizers had to turn people away. We are an overflow crowd.
Barack Obama springs onto the stage and the roar is deafening. I'm a veteran of NASCAR crowds; I've sat on the second row at Darlington Motor Speedway when the green flag dropped and 43 muscle-cars sped by at 165 mph. I know noise. 2000+ Obama supporters and others give any race I've ever attended serious competition in the clamor department. A hush falls. Obama scans the room, grins at us. A lone voice hollers "How ya doin', Senator?" Barack laughs and waves. "I'm doin' good!" he hollers back and the tone is set.
This is no stump speech, no passive crowd of listeners. This is a 45 minute interactive revival meeting. We are in the "big tent" -- that all-inclusive space where the spirit takes flight and everyone goes with it. There is no podium in sight. There are no notes. Barack Obama, mic in hand, is a man in motion. He walks the walk while he talks the talk, gestures with his free hand for emphasis. Choruses of "Amen!" and "Yeah!" and "You're the man!" punctuate his oratory. He hears the crowd and they know it. I'm on the gym floor with the standing throng; I watch them react. They move to the cadence of Obama's words, rising from flat-footed stance to tip-toes, arms in the air swaying or clapping. The Republicans I've spoken to are equally taken with the mood. Enthusiasm like this is contagious.
He's had a little spat with Hillary Clinton, Obama tells us. It's about his willingness to meet with all world leaders, even the bad guys. It's about EXPERIENCE. "Naive Obama!" he declares, "Naive Obama will lose a propaganda war! Well, I'm not worried about a propaganda battle with some petty tyrant! Strong countries and their presidents talk to their adversaries! ...We're not afraid of any other country...Experience does not equal judgment! Age does not equal character! [I should] wait longer? Why? To be more like the folks in Washington?" The crowd goes wild.
The Senator from Illinois speaks to the issues of equal justice, war and diplomacy, healthcare and education, poverty, the environment and our dependency on fossil fuels, oil money for terrorists. He speaks to the need for parents to step up to the plate and be responsible for their children. The crowd grows louder, more enthusiastic with each challenge for change. Obama slows the pace. "It won't be easy," he warns us. "I'm asking you to make the sacrifice...'cause none of it will come cheap...I'm asking you to make the hard choice...to be responsible...to hold your president and your government accountable..."
The roar of approval, sacrifice or no, is ear-splitting.
"We can change the world!" Obama cries out. The masses respond in kind. The litany begins. "FIRED UP! READY TO GO!!"
I back out of the gym while Barack and the crowd chant the campaign mantra. I want to watch the exodus, measure the impact of nearly an hour of the Message of Hope. Folks come out dancing, still chanting. There are hugs and high-fives. "You hear that?" one man shouts. "He's takin' it to her about experience!" "Amen to that!" someone answers. I assume they are talking about Hillary.
It's over. We're leaving. Music pounds from the speakers again; Jackie Wilson this time. "(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher." I'm exhausted. My feet are swollen from two hours of walking and standing. But I'm singing along with Jackie: "Now once I was downhearted..." and I'm dancing my way two blocks to the car.
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