Sunday, September 17, 2006

Obama at Harkin Steak Fry, Part 3: The Main Event

Obama at Harkin Steak Fry, Part 3: The Main Event

Folks passing an Obama 2008 petition got some TV attention.

Harkin acknowledges Obama IS The Main Event with avuncular humor about “giving the kid next door a chance” after he couldn’t get Bono to headline. My notes say I noticed Obama glancing at notes earlier but I’m guessing that was just to be sure to get the local names right because I never though of it again till looking at MY notes.

During the obligatory props to everyone his first memorable line is that too many politicians “represent Washington to their constituents, instead of representing their constituents in Washington.” He notes how easy it is to get comfortable in ones position and let things go to your head (in praising Harkin for not doing so). For all I know this may be part of the boilerplate Barack Obama speech but it still resonates.

The extraneous chatter is absolutely dead – the only sounds are occasional airplanes, a little wind on the mic, and Obama’s voice. He talks about his first state senate race and how he was faced with two questions: “where’d you get that funny name” (he pulls off a Yo Mama joke about his name) and “why does a nice guy like you want to get into a dirty nasty thing like politics?”

Obama acknowledges that all of us, even the activists at this event, feel a cynicism about politics. He then introduces the woman who will structure this speech – a 105-year-old black woman born in Louisiana who he met the night before his general election win (and the Alan Keyes reference gets a good chuckle). He filters 20th Century American history and experience – flight, two world wars, the New Deal, the labor movement, immigration, civil rights – through this woman’s lifespan, showing how she kept the faith in “this idea called America” and kept the faith that “at some point it’s going to be my turn.”

“We don’t SETTLE in America,” Obama says, giving us a statement and a challenge all at once. The whole speech, really, is challenging and is ABOUT challenging – challenging us to live up to our ideals.

I may be too much of a speech-style person, as an ex-teacher and old college speech circuit hack. But I like oratory and consider it a lost art. And Obama’s style is special. Quiet, yet commanding. Fiery yet not over the top. Conversational and at the same time challenging. You can tell in the phrasing, the pronunciation, that this is a guy who fully absorbed Harvard Law while keeping the ability to connect to South Side Chicago.

Obama looks at the challenge and goes on the attack, making his case against Bush (who gets a chuckle) and the Republican congress who gets booed. I found those reactions interesting: Bush is a joke; the GOP majority is an enemy? In any case Obama says the Republican America is “a little bit meaner, a little bit poorer” and gets it all down to:

“They’ve got a different idea of America. They believe in different things. They believe government is the problem. They believe you’re on your own.” Obama says this is a tempting idea – since is doesn’t require anything from us. But he rejects that in Biblical terms in asserting “I AM my brother’s keeper… we understand that in our churches, synagogues and mosques, on our blocks… but we need to understand that in our government too.”

Like I said, this may be the boilerplate Barack Obama speech. But like the 2004 convention speech it’s a concise and moving statement of vision, of why one is or could be a Democrat.

From there Obama moved into the litany of issues, noting Newt Gingrich suggested that Democrats would do best campaigning on two words: “Had Enough?” (A phrase I saw on lots of Dave Loebsack yardsigns on the way… speaking of which I saw a lot more recorder, supervisor and state rep signs in rural Iowa than Nussle or Culver signs.)

Obama’s issue list was better than anyone else’s, was excellent, but wasn’t as stratospheric as his take on the Big Picture. The single biggest applause seemed to be for attacking the GOP on using terrorism as a wedge issue.

Concluding with the call to action that’s as obligatory as the props to the fellow politicos, he reached to the Big Picture again, back to the device of stating our values and challenging us to meet them: “the strongest thing we have as Americans is our ideals and our values.” After 32 minutes we were back at the biggest Victory Tableau of all and playing, you guessed it, more Mellencamp and that other 80s chestnut “Born In The USA.”

A couple slightly hipper selections emerged while the Obama handshake line stretched to near football-field length. There were rumors of post-event media availability depending on time. It soon became obvious that time wasn’t going to happen. My brother called not long after I got home, having watched the whole thing on CSPAN. His big impression was at Obama’s genuineness working the reception line – which I noted from about a three-people away distance just in the facial expressions – and in the sheer number of people begging him to run for president which I was too far away to overhear.

So that was my day. I hope I didn’t gush here but Obama was really damn impressive. The challenge is if he can stay that adored when the time comes that he steps into a presidential contest and faces others of infinite ambition.

P.S. Here's to the volunteers who do the thankless jobs. Thanks, garbage volunteer (sung to the tune of "Bud Lite Real Men Of Genius"). I hope you got a moment with Senator Obama, too.

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