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Leesburg has been taken over by Obama supporters. They walk in the streets, spontaneously chanting “Yes We Can” and snickering at the occasional McCain/Palin yard sign. I’m headed with them to Ida Lee Park to see one of Barack Obama’s late-in-the-campaign appearances in this battleground state. Being apolitical, I’m curious to see if the candidate variously described as “the One,” “the second coming of JFK,” and a “rock star,” lives up to all the hype.
It’s a cold October day, colder still for the Republicans, who, short of a miracle, are about to be exiled to the political wilderness in two short weeks. There’s a group of GOP’ers huddled at the entrance to the park. Perhaps taking a cue from their candidate, they radiate malice as they wave mccain/palin signs and chant “Just Say No to Socialism!” I get the impression that they believe Obama is a socialist. A group of women wearing Obama Dr. Seuss hats and Obama Warhol-print scarves stands across the street trying to shout down the McCainiacs, but they can’t seem to settle on a retort.
“Is that all you got?” one of the women shouts. The McCain supporters don’t even look at them.
Getting into the penned-in rally area requires snaking your way through a maze of switchbacks and U-turns, delineated by thigh-high yellow police tape. At every U-turn there’s a bottleneck, and the relatively low, flimsy tape (long stretches of which had already been broken) begins to look like an invitation to just cut across. I hear several kids suggesting it but the adults aren’t going for it. Finally, three or four high-schoolers tear down a bunch of the tape and head straight to the entrance. I figure everyone else will follow suit, but no. There’s a lot of muttering that line-cutters suck, but even with no tape, everyone keeps dutifully shuffling through the traffic pattern, using the bare posts as a guide. I can clearly see that half the security checkpoints are going unused, traffic having been reduced to a mere trickle by the overly circuitous route.
After moving six inches in five minutes, I finally just cut across. One mother actually covers her child’s eyes. After a cursory wanding by a sheriff’s deputy, I’m in.
Whatever the opposite of sex is, that’s what a Barack Obama rally feels like. This is the realm of the open-mouthed grin, the unironic double thumbs-up, the jubilant fist pump, the white guy unselfconsciously dancing the running man. Chaste-looking high-schoolers holding clipboards direct traffic as generic pop-punk and late-era adult-contempo U2 play from RV-mounted speakers. The uniform is fleece, cheerful pastels, and aggressively heteronormative baggy pants, a look that is neither in nor out of fashion. Don’t tell these people that irony is dead; it never penetrated their sphere of existence in the first place. Up close, “Change” looks a lot like, well, the establishment.
I’m in the land of the uptight and upright, of good credit and better GPAs. The righteousness of the left is secular in nature but no less irksome than the right’s. As if to underscore this point, an older woman strides purposefully over and stands right in front of me, blocking my view.
“I saw you cut in line! This should be my spot!” She glares at me and then turns her back again. Her husband, looking embarrassed, shrugs helplessly.
“Two wrongs don’t make a right,” I mutter somewhat feebly.
“Yes they do!” says the woman.
I manage to worm my way almost to the front row, on the side of the stage where the speakers enter. Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine comes out to warm up the crowd. He surveys the masses and asks, “Is this Woodstock?” The crowd eats it up, their sense of nonconformity flattered. Indeed, the tired, neutered iconography of the counterculture is everywhere, from the rock ’n’ roll soundtrack to the tie-dyed Obama/Biden shirts, to the constant talk of “revolution” and “authenticity.”
Kaine says his piece, and then Mark Warner comes out to stump for his Senate candidacy. The crowd is politely indulgent but clearly impatient.
Finally, the main attraction appears, taking the stage to a hero’s welcome as more U2 blasts out of the speakers. Behind him onstage, in bleachers, is a focus-grouped assortment of Stepford Voters, all of them grinning like someone spiked their coffee with Ecstasy. People are holding up their cameras and feverishly texting their friends. I can just imagine what’s getting transmitted: dood omfg barry totally pwns mcsame lol buck fush roflmao change believe yez we can yez we can!!!1!11;)
Obama rattles off some small talk—“It’s great to be back in Virginia!”—and then goes down the list of party endorsements. Here’s Tim Kaine our governor, here’s Mark Warner, vote for him for Senate, and don’t forget Judy Feder, running for the something-something. The mention of specifics, of obscure names, drains the energy out of the crowd. They’renot here for details; they’re here to change the world!
Now someone starts a chorus of “Yes We Can” and it spreads quickly. A high-schooler with halitosis is yelling right in my fucking ear. A soccer mom-type nearby does a little jig and pogos up and down, pumping her fist. Another gyrates her hips as if spinning an invisible hula hoop.
As the chants fade and Obama picks up where he left off, a 747 passes low over the rally. Everyone stops cheering and looks up, thinking the same thing. I look around for a fat kid to pull down on top of me, but the plane continues on harmlessly.
The vaunted Obama charisma isn’t apparent up close. He has a high-wattage smile and a certain amount of poise, but this could be said of nearly every politician. Obama’s presence is too Boy Scout–ish, too one-dimensional, to really be interesting. I mean, ’70s-era Jack Nicholson is charismatic. Obama is Urkel with contacts, John Kerry with more melatonin. Which isn’t meant to be the criticism it may sound like, at least not of the candidate. After all, haven’t the last eight years taught us the perils of voting on charisma? The fact that Obama’s handlers and supporters have strained so hard to manufacture an aura of populist charm around their man speaks to the Obama campaign’s essential problem. That is, how do you sell a candidate whose primary qualification is his intellect to an electorate that is profoundly anti-intellectual?
Obama has learned this lesson well. He may be a cerebral type, but he bypasses the head to go for the gut. A drawl creeps into his voice, and he drops the occasional “g” in his gerunds. Rustic colloquialisms pop up in his ad-libbed utterances. “I don’t like to count them chickens before they hatch!” His speech, like most stump speeches, is the rhetorical equivalent of a girl with breast implants, peroxide blond hair, and a fake tan—all the most obvious notes are engineered to appeal to the widest possible demographic. “Believe in yourselves! Believe in the future! Together we can’t fail! We can change the world! We’ve got a righteous wind at our backs!” This isn’t Professor Obama; this is Barry Six Pack, a canny PR construct calibrated to ignite an electorate that insists on treating presidential elections like the season finale of American Idol.
The crowd loves it. Theatrics aside, Obama has the good fortune to be following maybe the most incompetent administration in history, running against an opponent who comes off like a mix between Gollum and Grandpa Simpson. Even if Obama weren’t the best candidate, it would be hard for him to lose. It’s just that in an election where the terms “authenticity” and “integrity” have become a drumbeat, seeing a guy like this pander so obviously does nothing to lessen the cynicism a lot of people feel about the whole process.
One final “God Bless America,” and Obama is hustled off to a waiting Suburban. Everyone makes for the exits. A bunch of people are selling Obama T-shirts and hats and scarves as fast as they can physically complete transactions; hope and change are big business. Even the poster guy is making a killing, despite the fact that his depiction of Obama looks like Walton Goggins with a tan. A car drives by with yes we can! written on the sides and a peace sign painted on the back windshield. At least, I assumed it was supposed to be a peace sign; the bottom part only had two spokes, but I couldn’t think of any reason for them to have painted the Mercedes-Benz logo on their rallymobile.
Days later, I head to a phone bank event at the Warehouse Theater in downtown D.C. Even with the torrential downpour, turnout is healthy. As of midafternoon, more than 200 people have shown up to make calls on their own cell phones to Virginia voters.
The volunteers are spread out among several rooms on three floors, calling people on voter registration lists and reading from a script. Chanting and buying T-shirts is one thing, but calling strangers up on your own time—that’s commitment. As a former telemarketer, I can testify to the fact that there are few things more unpleasant than cold-calling.
There are college students and senior citizens and people of every ethnicity. I circulate, talking to people about why they’re supporting Obama. The majority of them seem to be more against the Republicans than for Obama, though there are plenty of them who go positively starry-eyed when they talk about their candidate. Just as the McCain counter-ralliers mirrored their candidate’s low-road nastiness, these Obama volunteers reflected their man’s insistence on staying positive. Even though many of them were clearly contemptuous of Bush, McCain, Palin, et al., to a one they refused to make any derogatory remarks, preferring instead to highlight Obama’s credentials. It was all very good for the campaign’s squeaky-clean image but very bad for my story. I drifted over to the catered layout and helped myself to half a rotisserie chicken and two bags of chips. Not volunteering is hard work!
As I stood there gorging myself on free food, it occurred to me that if there’s anything revolutionary about the Obama campaign, it’s that it’s managed to harness the youth, black, and far left communities—traditionally the cornerstones of the antiestablishment—and channel their energies into a thoroughly establishment, corporate-structured campaign. After all, in many ways—Ivy League undergraduate, Harvard law grad, senator from the Midwest, relentlessly ambitious—Obama is the ultimate establishment candidate. Though ostensibly liberal, the Obama campaign is a fundamentally conservative undertaking in that the people who work in it believe that the system isn’t broken, the structures of power aren’t stacked against the little guy, the world can be changed by pulling a lever in a voting booth, a bloodless revolution by spreadsheet overseen by teenagers with clipboards. “The Man,” isn’t the problem; we just need the right man, and everything will be all right—no more war, no more injustice, health care for all, the lion will lay down with the lamb and pigs will shit rose petals. These groups have flirted with mainstream campaigns before, but never on this scale, and never with this degree of success. Whether this alliance represents a newfound pragmatism or the ultimate sellout depends, I guess, on your perspective.
Searching for Anyone: The McCain Campaign
A representative for John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign is on the line. I am looking for basics, like the address of campaign headquarters and information on upcoming canvassing events. The rep refers me to McCain’s mid-Atlantic communications director, the alliteratively named Gail Gitcho. I leave a message for Gitcho and wonder how quickly she will get back to an alt-weekly freelancer who’s not from a swing state or, in my case, not from a state at all.
Through johnmccain.com, I request an invitation to the only “McCain Nation” supporter-sponsored event scheduled within 25 miles of my home that evening. Within the hour, Dan Willard, the McCain campaign’s Maryland Capitol Region Director, calls to invite me to a volunteer orientation at his law office in downtown Rockville. Though he fights an uphill battle as a Republican in a state that’s voted Democratic in every presidential election since 1992, the attorney expresses confidence about his candidate’s prospects.