In the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, U.S. Presidents campaigned with the whistle stop speech. The train pulled into town and the President stepped onto the rear platform to address local citizens. I wonder what went into planning that kind of stumping. Did the train just show up, blow its whistle and people came running to see who was there? Maybe a telegram went out to local newspapers, so people knew ahead of time to be down at the depot waiting for the train to arrive.
Friday, President Obama came to our town to give a campaign speech. He gave other speeches in Virginia that day, so I guess it was kind of a modern Whistle Stop Tour, except they flew in and out on Air Force One. I’m pretty sure this one required a little more planning.
On Tuesday before the speech, I got a text, an e-mail and then a phone call telling me I could pick up free tickets starting at five o’clock Wednesday evening. Cecil and I thought, What the heck? We’ve never seen a sitting President stump in person. So, he and a friend headed over to one of the three locations at about three o’clock Wednesday afternoon. There were already 250 people waiting. By the time five o’clock rolled around, the line snaked back and forth through the parking lot, went across the street and then down the sidewalk over there for as far as the eye could see.
Moods were generally pretty good, except for when people would mosey on up to the front of the line, act like they’d been there all along, and just take cuts. Who does that sort of thing? Cecil was having none of it. He marched up to one lady and said “Ma’am, the back of the line is about six blocks that way. Why don’t you go find it?” He looks too sickly for someone to choose off, what with the stem cell transplant and all, so there were no brawls, and we got our tickets.
On Friday, we decided to head downtown to the venue early. We didn’t know how many tickets they’d handed out or how aggressive people were going to be about getting there early. The line was supposed to start moving at five o’clock. Obama would speak at seven-fifteen. We pulled up at noon and the line had already formed to the left. We got lucky, though, when we discovered a separate line for VIPs and the handicapped. Cecil has been disabled due to his transplant, so we headed over to that line. I dare say we fairly milked the situation. Not too proud of it the next morning but, at the time, it seemed we needed to use whatever advantage we could scrape together.
So, there we were, first in line. It was a little before one o’clock. Just six more hours to sit in the hot sun and wait. As bad as that sounds, we were able to make the best of it. We’d brought canvas chairs, a deck of cards and books. The farmers market was around the corner and food trucks pulled up to the street. I think I gained ten pounds trying to fight the boredom. Cecil and I each had on our Panama Hats to shade our faces. We were those people who make everyone else mad because we were all set up, while they just had to stand there and be miserable.
From our vantage point, we could see a lot of what went into putting this little whistle stop together. Streets had been roped off since the day before. Cops stood guard at every possible crack through which people might try to sneak in. At one-thirty, a dozen Secret Service showed up carrying portable security equipment–big pieces, not crappy little scanning wands. I mean this stuff was taller than they were. Then came the sniffing dogs. After the apparatus had been assembled, and the dogs had checked things out, some fifty staff members, followed by another fifty volunteers, were led through security and around the corner to the actual venue.
A few stayed behind to recite the Rules to us over and over, in case we hadn’t been listening the first or second times, or maybe had just forgotten them since the last time they were yelled out over the din of the anxious crowd. There could be no liquids and no food, so Cecil and I started wolfing everything we had left. No chairs could come in. We made peace with having to leave ours behind when the time came. Umbrellas were a no-no, so that would be another loss. Hats were to come off. That meant my sweaty hat-hair would be exposed. Electronics turned on. They spelled the word ‘on’ several times to make sure the incredulous crowd got it…not off, we are saying on. Everything out of the pockets. Remove the jewelry. Bags open. Surprisingly, we got to keep our shoes on our feet.
I’m not one to go gaga over celebrities or politicians. I might feel a little excited if the Second Coming were about to happen, but otherwise I’m not easily impressed by people just because they are famous. I must admit, though, as the day passed, the collective excitement of the crowd started to get to me. When word spread that they were about to open the gates, the dog-eat-dog mentality snuck in amongst us all. Suddenly, our loose and meandering line had become a tight bunch of Johnny-come-latelies who had insinuated themselves up near the front little by some.
Cecil and I started getting protective of our front-of-the line status because, clearly, there were those who would take it from us if we let them. We packed up the chairs and ditched them in the bushes. Soon it became necessary to push back against people who were trying to nudge in a little closer. Finally, Cecil started talking loudly about how he was first in line. I kind of acted like I didn’t know him during these little soliloquies, though I secretly applauded the stand he was taking.
When the gates were opened and the lines started moving through security, it was like a free-for-all. No pushing or shoving–there were too many guns and dogs around for that, but there was a sense of urgency as people hustled around the corner and quickly made their way to find a good spot by the stage. Cecil shuffled along and had them show us to the handicapped section. The volunteer led us to front row seats right next to the stage. We smugly settled in, realizing we were clearly in the hand-shake zone for later.
I looked around. In front of us was the stage with sound equipment and a podium. Behind us were large lifts loaded with stage lighting that went a good twenty feet into the air. Huge banners adorned everything and an American flag stretched a couple stories high at the end of the block that had been cordoned off. Bleachers rose here and there. A dozen porta-potties sat over to the side. Water stations had been set about and several medics were on hand. Secret Service, cops, stage hands, and countless others with matching shirts and pins on their chests milled about. FDR and other whistle-stoppers would have stood in awe.
The crowd filed in and waited anxiously for the next two hours. We chatted with those around us. The woman behind me became my new best friend. A lady came in with an umbrella. Oh how my new friend and I complained and sniped at how special the woman must think she is. When it became apparent she was the signer for the deaf, we stopped bitching. Volunteers brought us water. We started asking for martinis. When it started to rain, our friend offered to share her poncho, but Cecil and I had brought two black trash bags that we whipped out and customized with holes for our heads and arms. We were as stylish a pair as you’d ever want to see in the front row before the President.
A band played a set. They were pretty good and the audience tolerated them, but music was not what we’d come for, so anything past the second or third song was too much.
When snipers appeared on the rooftops, the crowd hushed for a minute, then let out a collective burst of energy. A few minutes later the Presidential helicopter flew over top of us and you’d have thought Santa himself had been spotted. Cheers rang out. Cameras snapped wildly. The looseness around the stage closed up and the poor souls who were standing in the ‘at large’ section could no longer raise their arms or turn around. I’m surprised they could breathe. Any pickpockets in the crowd likely made a killing.
The Campaign teased us with tidbits for a few minutes. The podium’s rain gear was removed. The Presidential seal was hung on its front. Now they were ready. We heard from a candidate for Senate and then from a U.S. Senator and then, at long last, the moment arrived. The excitement outsized the audience.
The new best friend behind me leaped out of her seat to the black draped barricade in front of our section. She stood blocking everyone else. I tapped her on the back and asked her to please sit down. “Not until he’s come out and I’ve gotten a picture,” she snapped. “But the rest of us can’t see,” I explained. She was unmoved. “Sit down,” a man yelled angrily from a few rows back. She never budged, but yelled back “Shut up. I’ll move after I’ve gotten my picture.” “What are the rest of us supposed to get?” The angry man called back. “Shots of the back of your head? Or maybe your fat ass?” A volunteer intervened. The woman grudgingly squatted down at the barricade, but popped back up the instant the volunteer left.
And so it went. We were joined with thousands of strangers in an American event. It was enriching. It was volatile. I wasn’t even sure why I was there.
And then, there he was. The man we had all come to see. He dashed on stage and spoke to the crowd as though he knew each of us well. He flashed that magnetic smile of his and people swooned. When someone yelled ‘I love you, Barack’, he said ‘I love you back’. When he saw someone go down from the heat, he stopped mid-sentence and directed medics to the fallen fan. He measured the crowd and swept it along. He was comfortable. They were infatuated.
Sometimes it is the message that draws people. Sometimes it is the one who delivers the message. It was clear to me that the aura surrounding President Obama is much more involved than just what he has to say.
I found myself torn between watching him and watching the event. He was captivating; I had to admit. But the captivation itself was just as interesting. When Obama left the stage and worked the ‘rope line’, those of us standing there jockeyed for position, cameras ready. As he came to our section, we reached and clamored and snapped picture after picture. It was a frenzy. He was elegant and warm throughout, moving with the ease of a relaxed man, or a skilled politician, or both. When Obama came to Cecil, he moved past after the handshake, as with everyone else. Then, he stopped and looked back at Cecil. Even in the midst of all the frenzy, it had dawned on him that Cecil is ill. He leaned back in our direction. “Hang in there, Man,” he said, as he smiled directly at Cecil and gave him a thumbs up.
As I watched that exchange, looking right at Obama’s face from about twelve inches away, I felt kindly toward him. He struck me as a nice man. I realized I see him as a bridge between our country’s tragic past and the future we seek. It was going to take just the right person to close the gap created by the racial divide. It wasn’t going to be Al Sharpton or Jesse Jackson. Obama was the one: half white, half black; simple yet elegant; humble yet sophisticated. Non-divisive. I say all this regardless of his politics, or mine, or anybody else’s. I’m not talking about politics.
After hours in the sun, coveting our enviable position, sensing excitement I rarely feel and all but gushing like a school girl as he shook my hand, I realized I see Barack Obama as an icon. This country used to openly treat people of color as though they were lesser human beings. Now a black man is President. No matter what he does or doesn’t do for this country in terms of policy, Barack Obama has taken us as a People somewhere we should have gone a long time ago.