Keene, NH -
I arrived at the Keene Rec Center early this afternoon after a long drive up from Cape Cod consisting mostly of New England's greatest road nemesis, I-495, with the quintessentially Northwestern New England glory that is coolly warm weather and partly cloudy skies, even in mid-August. A decent crowd was brewing up on the lawn outside, where a stage sat at the ready for some speechifyin', and humble placement of folding chairs held the promise of a ready-made overflow crowd. It was another New Hampshire political rally.
But then the rains came. Minutes after my arrival a slow sprinkle turned into a heavy downpour and, while it was fairly obvious that the tempest would last but few minutes, the powers that be made the decision to move the shin-dig inside. The crowds, maybe a third of which had umbrellas, rushed for the doors of the rec center only to wait in line to get inside under an open sky. I gladly took their place under the cover of a large tree canopy with the help of a kind photographer's umbrella and waited about ten minutes until the rain had stopped. Alas, by that point everything was moot and we headed, like lemmings, to the indoor venue where the candidate was slated to appear in a few minutes.
And so I traded the dripping of tree branches onto my head for my dripping hair onto my notepad. Inside was hot and smelled of wet hair, the result of 80+ degrees outside coupled with the sudden onslaught of some 350 people crowding into a small, cement-walled room. It was real humanity, you see, just a bunch of hot sweaty people jammed into a room with a makeshift stage and a ragged backdrop of blankets strung up to cover the ugly cement walls and support a New Hampshire for Obama sign. Jazz music played faintly in the background over a din of chatter that was so politely low that I couldn't even make out any legitimately eavesdropped conversations. Moments later the din became a roar as Barack Obama sneaked onto the stage from the left hand corner of the room.
That is when things really heated up. Just like in Laconia a month and a half ago Obama did the obligatory Granite cuddling, thanking the people for doing such a great job of test-driving the candidates and "kicking the tires" for the rest of the country. Not that we disagree. After his brief entry statements he went into a speech that touched on the issues that he wanted to tackle as President. Interestingly enough, he never mentioned that he actually wanted to do them. He just brought them up and it eventually became crystal clear that he was talking about his platform. This was precisely what I was looking for at the Laconia event last time but found lacking.
He touched on, in this order, health insurance, education, energy policy, economy, war and the restoration of America. Haven't we heard that before? Yeah, from every other Democratic candidate. As usual, it was peppered with witty campaignisms like how Bush "left the money behind for No Child Left Behind." He talked of our energy policy sending billions to oil companies and billions to politically unstable regimes. He even brought up Scooter Libby on the war front saying, "even Paris Hilton got some jail time." Let me tell you, that one brought the laffs.
Yet the first half of his speech could have been summed up in one word: Frustration. In a five minute span I did a quick mental scan of how many times he used the word "frustrated" and I came up with 13, and that was on the low end because I didn't think to do it until I had heard it five or six times already. It was the sort of thing that got the crowd thinking, 'yeah, you're right, I guess I am pretty frustrated. Frustrated with the rising cost of health insurance and the Iraq war and the unchecked power of the Presidential office.' Ah yes, he had them. He had us.
But issues, schmissues, the real draw of the Barack Obama campaign is hope. To paraphrase the great Ross Perot - you know it, I know it, the American people know it. At this point Obama delved into his assessment of our America. According to the Illinois Democrat, we are tired of "slash and burn negative campaigning." We are frustrated with being against something and we "want to be for something." Most importantly, we are our brother's keeper and we're "not on our own, we're in this thing together." Don't let the Washington press corps tell you any different. Enough with their mocking characterizations of naivety and "hope-mongering"! Instead, Barack wants to increase the hope, and he says, "as I travel the country I become more hopeful, not less hopeful...[because] Americans don't want that much. They're willing to work hard and make sacrifices for the future generations."
Obama launched more and more into America's desire to work hard for themselves and the future. We were a country who had lost our way and dammit we were determined to find it, and Barack was the one to lead us there. He continued on in this vein of what Americans wanted and hoped for, and with every sentence the crowd grew louder and his voice rose to match theirs. Passion filled the pipes, feeding the fury, and just like that the seed was planted.
After a brief pause Obama applied the diminuendo to the first half of his stump speech, gradually touching on the solutions to the six problems he had articulated earlier. In the same fashion, he didn't explicitly say that he had the solutions, he just began to talk about them. The rest was up to the crowd to recognize that we could save billions in health care through prevention, that the biggest problem in our schools is an achievement gap for youngsters to be fixed by early education, that a boost in CAFE standards to 45 mpg would take away our need for Middle Eastern oil. He even tossed a joke into the assessment that we need to bolster our infrastructure by saying that we need to "make sure cell phone service doesn't drop every time I drive out of Keene." Oh, and how!
Regarding America's standing in the world, Obama once again brought the passion. He re-hashed his recent tiff with HRC by continuing to cite the MSM's trouncing of his every move as naive, and subtly dismissing Clinton as just being wrong. "I'm not worried about losing a propaganda war with dictators," he said and then quoted JFK, "let us never negotiate out of fear, but let us never fear to negotiate." It was a powerful stroke by Obama, summoning his own inner Rove by taking his weakness and making it into his strength. What is better, it worked. Obama wasn't afraid to give an outline for his negotiating ploy. He wants to go to the UN and say "America's back," and tell world leaders "we want your people to be successful" and that "we want to work with you" on issues like Darfur, AIDS, building schools in the Middle East that taught math and science instead of hate.
"That's who we are." By that point, his speech had turned into an old-fashioned tent revival. His arm was flailing, the crowd was cheering, his voice was raising. I had goosebumps everywhere. I mean everywhere. And for what? The simple premise that we were frustrated and lost. According to Barack Obama we need to be found. O, Amazing Grace.
He closed with a story. It was the story of the Selma, AL to Montgomery, AL marches of 1965, better known as bloody Sunday. He told of his recent visit to Selma, where once upon a time state and local police brutalized a peaceful march of African-Americans hoping to exercise their rights to vote. As news reached beyond Selma, Obama mentioned, a generation of young people said "that's not what you told us about America," and they pilgrimaged by the tens of thousands to Alabama to march alongside their brothers. They marched for a brighter future, so that their children and grandchildren wouldn't have to see on television what they had just seen. He said that he was then just a 4 year-old who didn't even know what was going on, but now he is standing on their shoulders daring to have gone to law school, become a state Senator and, heck, even run for President. Right now, he closed, there is a 4 year-old wondering about his future, and we have to work for him and "if everybody here is nearly as fired up as I am" it could be done. Judging by the temperature of my own impartial skin, I think there is a good shot that they were.