January 7, 2008

2 days in NH, part 3: hope-mongering

If Edwards’s event was a rally and Hillary’s was a forum, Obama’s appearance at Concord High School is an event. With school still in session, no one is allowed into the building, which makes enough sense, but it’s 30 degrees and no one seems to have any idea when we’ll be allowed in. As a result a line stretches from the doors down to the street and the crowd’s impatience breeds a level of expectation not seen elsewhere.Standing in front of us is a couple from Cambridge, Massachusetts and their young son, who I’ll call Billy. Imagine Jonathan Lipnicki from Jerry Maguire, and then drop him smack dab in the middle of the most intensely covered presidential campaign in history, and you have Billy. Our conversation goes something like this:Billy: Do you know who my dad is running for?Me: …who?Billy: My dad is running for Obama.Me: Oh.Billy: He says his name funny. Do you know what he calls him?Me: What?Billy: Ba-rack!Me: You know, I think your dad might have it right actually.Billy: [changing subject] We just saw a former president and someone who is running for president. Can you guess who we saw?Me: Jimmy Carter?Billy: No! We saw Bill Clinton and—and…[stumbles briefly]Me: HillaryBilly: Yeah! [walks away to climb snowbank].So there you have it. The 2008 Democratic primary in a nutshell: some dude with a funny name against that chick who married the old president guy.Adding to the atmosphere outside is a wide range of organized activists, handing out paraphernalia and talking to voters. They offer stickers that say “Ed in ‘08” for an educational foundation supported by Bill and Melinda Gates, and “I’m a health care voter,” and “I’m voting for kids” (which would seem to encompass both the education and the health care groups). There’s also a lady handing out pens and cookies to raise awareness of the ballooning defense budget. The pen doesn’t work and the cookies are stale, thus illustrating perfectly the perils of cutting costs on essential services.After an hour outside, we’re finally allowed into the building where, to my dismay, they’re checking names on a thick, official-looking list. “They” are volunteers who can’t be any older than me, endowed with an authority that seems to surprise and slightly confuse them. Apparently, this event is RSVP only and there’s no way anyone is getting in off of the waiting list. It feels like the scene in the Christmas Story where Ralphie waits an hour to see Santa only to completely blank on what he wants and ultimately ask for a fire truck, if that makes any sense.The doors to the gymnasium are barred by campaign staff who, if not particularly beefy looking, have the full support of the Concord police force, and for all I know they’re armed to the teeth with tasers. An altercation is out of the question. Somewhere close to me a middle-aged lady who can’t find her name on the guest list grumbles, “I was leaning toward Hillary and this seals it!” Moments later, we see her walk right in, unaccosted. After lying to the volunteer on duty (“yeah, we already checked in”), we’re in the clear. Hope never tasted so audacious.Obama's goal when he takes the stage in Concord is clear: find the undecideds and speak directly to them, even going so far as to ask them to identify themselves at the beginning of the speech so he can announce his intentions to convert them. “In four days time,” he implores at the beginning of each new thought, before musing once more on the possibilities of his brand of hope.There’s little about Barack Obama’s oratorical abilities that hasn’t been parsed over, analyzed, and discussed some more, but after Iowa and Hillary Clinton’s reactionary emphasis on production over prose, he has retooled his stump speech to pary her jabs with humor. He spins his opponents as grinches bent on crushing the dreams of the empowered voters and mocks their arguments. He muses, “they say ‘he talks about hope too much. He’s a hope-monger,’’ which earns him laughter and applause, as does the question, “Did JFK say, ‘that moon thing, it’s too far?’” (Answer: no). He’s not as fluid as Edwards, who speaks quickly and with few breaks. Rather, he thrives off of a certain choppiness, and his speech moves in an escalating series of crescendos, until finally, the expectations of the audience are met full on by the volume and the intonation and the substance of the skinny gentleman from the South Side with a funny name standing at the podium. At those points, the words hardly even matterHis performance in Concord and the crowd’s eagerness to embrace him solidifies my belief that New Hampshire is a foregone conclusion for the Senator. The next day, he speaks at a similar rally in Nashua, with a capacity crowd of 1,500 and another 1,500 crammed into an auditorium next door watching on a video screen. For now at least, the hope-mongering seems to be paying off.