Barack Obama came to the University of Vermont today, and it was honestly one of the most amazing political events I’ve ever seen. A major, major coup for Peter Welch and Bernie Sanders: Obama electrified a capacity crowd, and that energy will drive the two campaigns for months.
Below you’ll find a longer narrative, quickly written, but I wanted to congratulate the House and Senate campaigns here: Welch and Sanders each delivered short, yet meaty remarks, and the two operations worked seamlessly together.
And that’s the best hope for taking both seats in November. Thanks to all involved for gripping political theater, and heartening political vision.
Notes from the New Vermont
Commentary #176: Deep Inside the Obama Effect
When I heard that Barack Obama was speaking in UVM’s Ira Allen Chapel at noon, I thought: Get there at eleven.
Obama is not merely the junior Senator from Illinois, he’s a very fast-breaking cultural phenomenon: boyishly handsome, photographed with Bono, routinely touted as a potential President.
The crowd could be pretty big, I thought, and I didn’t want to risk missing the speech. An hour’s lead time seemed about right.
But by the time I reached the chapel, the line stretched back about a quarter of a mile. Buses were parked in front of the chapel, full of people who’d driven from the southern part of the state to watch Obama do his thing.
It didn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that anyone who got on line now was never going to see the inside of the Chapel. That’s when the Obama effect kicked in for me: I realized that I, personally, was willing to lie and cheat to get inside.
And so I avoided the line altogether and went directly to the basement entrance I discovered a few years back while sneaking in to see something else.
Once inside the chapel, I got one of the few remaining seats. Behind me a riser held six or seven television cameras; WCAX had another camera roving through the aisles, recording the mayhem. The crowd was studded with politicians: Peter Clavelle, Deb Markowitz, mayor-elect Bob Kiss, Howard Dean, home from the wars, looking a little grayer around the temples, Peter Welch, Bernie Sanders. Security prowled the aisles in yellow windbreakers with EVENT STAFF emblazoned across the back.
Behind me a UVM student frantically dialed her cell phone. The verbatim one-sided conversation: “Hey, it’s Emily. Guess who I am about to see right this minute. Guess. Barack Obama. You don’t? Oh my god, dude, he’s this gorgeous senator from Illinois who is so amazing, and he’s about to walk in the door right here.”
But Obama didn’t walk in: it seems that the hundreds of surly people who’d been turned away at the Chapel entrance weren’t leaving. Instead they were milling around aimlessly outside.
So the event was delayed for about 20 minutes as Bernie and Obama and Welch went out to shake hands with anyone who didn’t know about the basement entrance. It was a very canny political touch: to give all of those committed people the right to say that they’d seen Obama, heard him speak, if only for a minute or two in the stiff March wind.
Only after all of those unlucky people had gotten their fair share did Obama come in to the rest of us. Obama is quite tall and quite thin, with closely shorn hair above high cheekbones and a brilliant smile. He wears his dark suit and white-white shirt like a second skin. His looks aren’t just good — they’re great, male-model-quality looks, looks that are meant to be looked at kind of looks.
And of course, everyone’s looking. The large room is slightly darker than it would be because outside students have climbed up and are now actually standing on the sills of the chapel’s tall windows. More than one of these students is holding up a cellphone, streaming whatever of the event they can capture.
As Obama enters and the cheers go up, these students start pounding on the glass.
And when Obama speaks, he doesn’t disappoint. His voice is cultured and well-modulated, but also familiar and at ease. He tends to talk through applause, carefully managing it rather than basking in it. If Bernie Sanders has built a career on the ability to take his voice quickly into overdrive, Obama relies almost exclusively on second gear. Yet it is a deeply satisfying second gear: Obama gives the sense that he could thunder if he needed to, but just now he’s with friends, and so his tone remains just above the conversational.
And that conversation ranges over poverty, war, and the fraying of the American dream. It is by turns impassioned, and ironic, and heartfelt, and it is impossible not to be moved by the simplicity of the man’s vision: “It turns out that the American people’s expectations are extraordinarily modest. They know that government can’t do everything for them. They know they have to work hard. But government can help, and that’s all they’re asking.”
He closes on a story about the senior Senator from Illinois, Dick Durbin, who campaigned with Obama in one of the cities in Southern Illinois infamous for racial violence during the sixties. The two men are driving through dark streets, and finally they come upon a crowd in a parking lot. It’s a tense moment, as they can’t tell at first what the crowd has gathered to do.
But the end of the anecdote is a happy one: instead of angry racists, Durbin and Obama encounter black and white voters celebrating together, ready to help Obama win his tight race, ready to elect the only African American in the US Senate.
The story is well told, and moving, but there’s obviously something larger at work here than anecdotes and speeches, the standard stuff of politics.
As the audience applauds, the students glued to the windows outside begin to drum again on the glass, with both hands, and as the volume rises, I’m really worried that the glass will shatter and one or more of them will come crashing down into the pews below.
Only then do I truly understand the Obama effect: I realize how hungry we are, all of us gathered inside and outside this consecrated place, to hear someone in a position of authority say something that makes some sort of sense, any sort of sense at all.