Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Obama-rama (part the second)

One of the perks of doing freelance work for a couple of area publications is that I get to moonlight as "press" now and again. Last night, on the eve of his victories in the "Potomac Primaries," Barack Obama swooped into Madison for a big rally and speech at the Kohl Center. Normally, the center plays hosts to sporting events and the like, and its official capacity is listed as 18,000 people. By the time they stopped letting people in, the count was a couple thousand over that, and so an overflow room was created for the extras. The place was absolutely packed (click here to watch a short video that captures the size of the event pretty well).

I came straight from work and arrived around 5:45pm, at which point I signed in, got the wand and the pat down, then received my press pass and was ushered into the "pit" out in the arena where my fellow reporter types were being housed. Our fenced off section took up one half of the arena floor, while the other half held the podium and an open space for the teeming masses. I wandered in, feeling a little lost, but soon found my bearings upon spotting a familiar face. A friend who works for one of the publications I freelance for was set up with a laptop on a folding table, readying himself for some live blogging action. Between him and a photographer friend, they gave me a basic idea of what to expect and a place to stash my jacket and bags.

I then proceeded to pull out my companions for the evening: two Nikon D70's, one with a wide-angle lens and one with a 70-200mm zoom (it should go without saying that only one of the cameras actually belonged to me, and that the other one and the zoom were most certainly borrowed). The zoom, thank God, had a stabilizer built in, so my negligence in not bringing a tripod was not an issue.

Shortly after 6pm, the first clumps of spectators began to filter onto the floor and then into the risers. I would later learn that those people who ended up on the floor had arrived first, been held inside, then passed through metal detectors before being let into the arena. Everyone in the risers had arrived slightly later and were allowed to enter without as much scrutiny. Unfortunately for these people, though, there was apparently no line control outside, so the minute the doors opened, mob mentality took over and there was a mass crush. Friends of mine who'd been waiting since 5pm ended up waiting outside longer than a bunch of people who arrived late and just decided to push their way through to the front. Hey Obama/Kohl Center organizers? Next time, be sure to invest in some bloody cattle gates, yeah?

Anyway, I was pleasantly surprised when the Kissers, local Irish rock superstars, played a set while we waited. I thought it was a nice touch, and their tunes fit the mood nicely. I found a place along the front fence between the press pit and the crowd space and set up shop for the evening. The fence had handy little steps built into it so that I could stand slightly above head level for better shots.

My friend Kat, who I know from college and who does quite a lot of freelance writing work around town, showed up then and we struck up a conversation about the elections, the race, and trying to make ends meet through freelancing (not easy). It was good to have a familiar face nearby. I also made the friendly acquaintance of a political blogger with (I assume it was Angelo Carusone, since he was the one who wrote their live blog of the event?) who helped pass the time by making snarky comments with me.

There were speeches by one student and one local organizer, then a long break full of inspirational Obama videos up on the Jumbotron (including the now ubiquitous piece), and then finally, around 8:30, Gov. Jim Doyle got up to introduce Obama. The crowd went nuts when he announced that Obama had won the primary in Maryland (they would go even more nuts when Obama announced having won all three of the Potomac primaries). Doyle is not exactly my favorite public speaker, but he did a fine job of it.

When Obama himself finally made his grand entrance, the handful of young college girls standing in front of me (on the other side of the fence) started screaming and jumping up and down like there was a dreamy movie star in the vicinity. That sort of reaction is fascinating to me, and, I think, somewhat unique to the Obama candidacy. I don't suppose McCain or Clinton elicit similar reactions from their supporters. My blogger friend leaned over to me at one point and asked, "Since when did politics become cool?" I laughed and said I didn't know, but that everything gets co-opted eventually (and hey, better the enthusiasm for this rather than, say, Ugg boots).

Obama's speech mostly echoed the same stuff he's been saying for weeks now, elaborating a bit on wanting to make college accessible and affordable for everyone interested, but that students have to earn it by giving back to their community through public service of some kind (couldn't agree more). The most amusing anecdote of the night was when he mentioned gathering support from "Democrats, Independents and yes, even some Republicans." A few people in the crowd waved their hands. "We call them 'Obamicans," he went on. "I meet them out on the road all the time. They come up to me and say (whispering), I'm a Republican, but I support you. (regular volume) And I say, (whispering again) thanks!"

Apparently, these "Obamicans" even have their own little movement with a website. They were positively chuffed over his direct reference to them last night, posting on their blog that "...we are an actual demographic and we need to be so proud of ourselves and our candidate, Senator Barack Obama, because we epitomize change. Changing party's [sic], changing our mind set, and changing our world."

That's pretty cool, if you ask me.

All told, the speech lasted just over 20 minutes, and then he spent a significant amount of time glad-handing the crowd on his way out. I couldn't help but notice the serious amount of security he's got around him. Apparently, there have been number of serious threats made against his life. That absolutely disgusts me, but I (very sadly) can't say that I'm surprised. I really wish I was, though. It sucks that, in 2008, there are still people out there so bigoted and so afraid that they would consider hurting someone based on the color of their skin (or any other superficial reason--not that violence ever has a good reason).

In the end, I was impressed by his eloquence and ability to inspire a crowd. The sheer volume of cheering and applause inside the arena was breathtaking at times. Madison knows how to turn out for an event like this. The next week leading up to the Wisconsin primary is going to be interesting, and I honestly have no clue how the state will vote. But I admit--I'm a little caught up just in the energy and history making nature of this race. Either way, the Democratic Party is on the verge of nominating a positively historical candidate for president, and it's great to be around for that fact.

Be sure to head over to for in-depth coverage of last night's rally, including (eventually) a series of the photos I took inside.


Anonymous said...

Emily, I'm glad you were in the press pit, too! It's a gnarly place...I'm pretty sure the Fox News reporter was wearing more tan and more make-up than I've worn in the past 6 months. I also enjoyed watching him pick at his earwax before going live. It was almost better than seeing Obama in person.

Anonymous said...

I'm a 56 year old white guy living in the South and I voted in my first primary ever this year --- for Obama.

I can barely remember the Kennedy vs. Nixon race. The main thing that I recall is kids on the playground playing out the politics. I was 7 years old.

Living in Arkansas, we watched this speech on TV; Our daughter, son-in-law and grandkids were in the stands for it.

The following week, our 7 year old grandson was so interested in the political process that he asked his dad to take him to the polls before school.

Emily said...

MIKE - That's a great story. Stuff like that always reaffirms my faith in humanity, and our ability to come through when it counts. Regardless of who you vote for, just that kind of involvement and passion is what matters (OK, so I care a little about who people vote for, but you get my point). :)

KAT - It was great fun to be there, and a bonus to have a familiar face nearby. I'm always amused at just how much makeup the TV reporters have to wear. They're doomed once HD really gets kicking.

The Lost Albatross