Prevailing wisdom: This is a campaign and a candidate doomed to failure. HRC is inevitable. It’s all over. Done. Nice try, but pack up your bags and go home.
Maybe you just had to be there. Rock Hill, South Carolina, Saturday October 6th. Over two thousand people hopped aboard the O Train. It was quite a ride. Barack Obama not only came to town, he went to town and an overflow crowd was happy to join him on the trip.
The throng, in the heart of Democrat-deprived Red State Dixie, was diversity personified. Black and white, Hispanic and Asian, young and old. There were folks dressed to kill alongside the rural poor wearing clean but well-worn clothing. There was no division of races in the stands, no great blocs of dark faces and light ones. The affluent sat alongside the working poor. There wasn’t an empty seat in the Northwestern High School gymnasium and the floor was packed. Event organizers had to turn disappointed people away at the door. Standing room only. No one seemed to mind.
I was with the “standees” for about an hour before Senator Obama spoke. Press credentials dangling around my neck, steno pad in hand, I talked to Democrats, Independents and a surprising number of Republicans. Everyone wanted to talk about this man, this campaign and the future of the nation. Words, phrases, like “charisma”, “sound judgment”, “speaks to diversity”, “the need to heal”, “diplomacy over hate- and fear-mongering” were repeated over and again. “Obama spoke out against this war in 2002 when Hillary and Edwards got fooled by Bush into giving him a blank check to go to war!” was a common theme.
Republicans were as disillusioned with Bush’s war as were Democrats and Independents. They’d had enough and they like Senator Obama’s stance on phased redeployment ASAP. “We need a change in the worst way,” one of them lamented, “and there’s something about [Obama]…he makes sense.” I heard, far more than I expected to hear it, deep concern about the way the rest of the world sees us after 6+ years of this administration. They don’t want a Bush-clone in 2008. Conservatives were angry about the cost of the war. “Half a million dollars a minute–right down the drain!” one man snapped. Bush fatigue was thick as cigar smoke.
The Senator from Illinois spoke for nearly an hour. No podium, no notes. He spoke to the issues–war and diplomacy, health care and education, oil money funding terrorists and the bane of fossil fuels. The crowd was fully engaged, cheering, clapping; choruses of “Amen!” and “Yeah!” and “You’re the man!” punctuated his oratory. He got tough on parents and parenting, demanding that we step up to the plate and be responsible for our children. Every challenge for change was met with roars of enthusiasm.
And he dealt with the Big E: Experience. He’d had a little spat with Hillary, he said, about his willingness to meet with all world leaders–even the bad guys. After all, Ronald Reagan never stopped talking to the “Evil Empire”. “Naive Obama!” he declared, “Naive Obama will lose a propaganda war! Well, I’m not worried about a propaganda battle with some petty tyrant!…Strong counties and their presidents talk to their adversaries…we’re not afraid of any other country…Experience does not equal judgment! Age does not equal character!…[I should] wait longer? Why? To be more like the folks in Washington?”
The crowd went wild, their response deafening.
Obama slowed the pace. “[Change] won’t be easy…I’m asking you to make the sacrifice–’cause none of it will come cheap…I’m asking you to make the hard choice…to be responsible…to hold your president and your government accountable…”
The roar of approval, sacrifice or no, was ear-splitting.
“We can change the world!” Barack cried out. The masses responded in kind. The campaign mantra began: “FIRED UP! READY TO GO!!” The Republicans I’d spoken with earlier were swaying and chanting with the Democrats and Independents for all they were worth.
The crowd enthusiasm for the candidate, for change and for one another did not dissipate when the rally ended. Every race, every income level, every age and gender left unified–chanting, singing, high-fiving, eager for a new day, a new political landscape.
Pundits and pollsters tell us Barack Obama is unlikely to win the nomination. But they’ve been wrong before and, if the stunning reaction of over two thousand South Carolinians is any indication, they may well be wrong again.