Sometimes politics is the most intriguing theater.
By Kay Kipling; photographs by Ian Dean
Ordinarily, of course, I write about theater in this spot. But, given the chance to attend the Barack Obama rally at Ed Smith Stadium on Thursday, Oct. 30, I immediately saw it as a chance to write about another kind of performance. After all, what is a political campaign but theater, complete with moments of high drama and low comedy? A nearly two-year-long presidential campaign is one of the longest-running shows there is, and when it comes to town, you want to be in the audience.
The crowd at Ed Smith Stadium.
The stage was certainly perfectly set Thursday morning, a cool, crisp, sunny beginning to the day. Lines of cars and lines of people converged at the stadium, and anticipation seemed high among the theatergoers thronging in past those hawking merchandise and passing out campaign literature.
Obama was to speak from a stage set up on the baseball field, and my photographer and I ended up pretty close to that stage. This meant a long time spent standing up, rather than sitting down in the stands, but it also provided front-row seats, and what theater lover wouldn’t love that?
When music started blasting from speakers near us, it felt as if we were at a rock concert, rather than a political performance. As we saw the plane carrying Obama approaching, about 10:30 a.m., cheers went up from the crowd, anxious to greet the star of the show.
The plane carrying Obama approaches.
But first there were the opening acts. The Rev. Henry Porter led a group of vocalists in singing the national anthem. The Pledge of Allegiance followed, and then came the parade of candidates paying tribute to Obama, each getting their moment in the spotlight: Congressional candidate Christine Jennings, dressed in a power-red suit; State Rep. Keith Fitzgerald, who said, apropos of the stadium venue, that in this election, hope must win when “Fear strikes out”; and finally, Florida Sen. Bill Nelson. A small ripple of disappointment rippled through the crowd near me when Nelson strode up; they were expecting Obama to be next, not another supporting actor.
But Nelson delivered his lines swiftly, and then, as Obama approached, a quick hug was exchanged before the Democratic candidate for President began his speech.
The candidate speaks.
“Five days,” he reminded the crowd. “We’re five days away from changing America. In five days you can turn that page”—a page, he went on to add, where greed and irresponsibility on Wall Street had caused the hard-working Americans of Main Street to suffer.
As was natural, Obama’s speech, well-rehearsed and delivered, leaned heavily on the economy, and on promises that the financial rescue plan approved by Congress must aid the average citizen, including Floridians whose homes have gone into foreclosure. “What are you gonna do?” shouted one man near us. “I’ll tell you what we’re gonna do,” Obama responded with the aplomb of an actor used to the demands of live theater. He then presented the analogy of the Bush administration’s policies having driven the economy into a ditch, with Republican rival John McCain in the passenger seat. At the mention of McCain, boos were heard, and Obama again responded with an ad-lib of sorts: “You don’t need to boo, you just need to vote,” adding, “It’s time to change drivers.”
Sure applause lines like that one worked with the audience, as did comparisons to the more prosperous economic times during the Clinton administration and a promise to return to those days. Obama proved once again he knows when to pause for dramatic effect; when to get a laugh (referring to tax hikes for rich people, he said, “Don’t get me wrong, I love rich people”); repeating a popular line about the McCain camp calling him a socialist (“Next they’ll say I’m a Communist because I shared my toys in kindergarten or my peanut butter and jelly sandwich in sixth grade”). But perhaps the biggest cheer of the morning went up when he said simply, “I will end this war in Iraq.” A few lines and much applause later, he was on his way to his next appearance—to the exit tune of Stevie Wonder’s Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours. A little Motown never hurts a show.
P.S. Lunch followed at the Hob Nob on U.S. 301, where a number of Obama supporters had gathered—and where CNN quickly showed the scene we had just witnessed. And Obama? He went on, according to reliable reports, to buy a pumpkin downtown near Five Points.