Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Obamarama

Barack Obama came back to San Francisco last Friday. You can hear my report on his visit, and the whole 33-minute speech he gave at Bill Graham Civic Auditorium, on Obama's page under Meet The Candidates (just click the Obama button, then click on what you want to hear under Featured Audio, in the righthand column). But here are some random observations:

He may be slipping in the polls, but Obama is still a rock star. A crush of Obamamaniacs, mostly women, crammed against the barricades in front of the stage after his speech, screaming as if they were at a Beatles concert, circa 1964. Grown men and women stood on tiptoe, reaching out their hands, hoping he would touch or shake them. Cell phone cameras clicked and flashed. Autograph pads were thrust across the barrier. If I'd had the foresight to set up a Sharpie stand, I'd be a rich man now. Senator Obama chatted and signed cheerfully, smiling, making small talk, moving quickly down the line, his Secret Service brigade nervous and watchful. I was in this same hall five months ago with Bill Clinton, when my band played before his speech on health care. Clinton drew a bigger crowd, and he relished the flesh-pressing more than Obama. Clinton seems to draw his very life force from contact with other human beings, especially adoring ones he can lecture. Obama was relaxed and comfortable, but he didn't linger and suck every last second out of each encounter the way Clinton does.

Obama also drew an eclectic mix of admirers, including literati and even a hoop star. I ran into a veritable Algonquin circle of Bay Area writers, each wearing a "Women for Obama" button, though most were men. I dubbed them the "Authors for Obama," which seemed acceptable to them. Berkeley's Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Michael Chabon ("The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay," "The Yiddish Policemen's Union" and "Wonder Boys," among others) was there, with his wife, writer Ayelet Waldman (Waldman went to Harvard Law School with Obama). So was Daniel Handler, who writes for kids under the name Lemony Snicket ("An Unfortunate Series of Events"). They were palling around with Craigslist founder Craig Newmark, and a couple other members of the local intelligentsia. And holding up a wall nearby was Golden State Warriors point guard Baron Davis. Obama joked that he would be rooting for the Warriors this fall - as long as they lose to the Chicago Bulls in the NBA Finals (long-suffering Warrior fans would certainly settle for that!).

There were Catholic high school kids in plaid skirts, aging Oakland activists in dreadlocks, eager college students in Obama t-shirts and jeans. There was also a dynamo from Stanford, Julie Lythcott-Hains, who's the Dean of Freshmen, who led the crowd in Obama chants and was the firiest speaker of the day. The campaign should hire this woman as a crowd-warmer, because she whipped them into a frenzy, with humor and passion, before Barack took the stage.

Lemony Snicket is not politically active, and told me he was essentially dragged there by Waldman and Chabon. He was noncommittal about Obama, but was intrigued enough to come, and impressed by what he heard. Chabon, on the other hand, is a True Believer. He said no candidate has ever inspired this kind of passion in him; finally, after 44 years, he is moved the way young people in the 60s were by Robert F. Kennedy. Chabon spoke eloquently about Obama, and told me that the Senator's books were the clincher for him. He's extremely impressed by Obama's writing, which is high praise coming from someone as creative and imaginative as Chabon. (I will post the audio of my interviews with Chabon and Handler/Snicket, so you can hear those later this week in the Featured Audio section on Obama's page).

As for the Senator himself, he's got a new stump speech, and he delivers it as well as the previous one. The last one focused on change, a fresh perspective, new ideas. The new one talks more about his experience, responding directly to what the campaign recognizes is Obama's biggest weakness - some voters just aren't comfortable with someone so young, and with such a short government resume. The Hillary Clinton campaign has been hitting Obama hard on his lack of experience in Washington, using words like "naivete" as often as possible. The Edwards camp focuses on "change." Bill Richardson is now describing himself as the perfect combination of experience AND change. So Obama's shoring up his experience plank, by emphasizing his social justice work in Chicago before he went into elective politics.

Of course, none of this is new. Bill Clinton was a "change agent" (I always pictured him with one of those little metal changemaking machines on his belt when he said that). Gary Hart had "New Ideas," FDR the "New Deal." I can't even count how many candidates have promised "Peace and Prosperity." Every four years, we are promised new and different, hope and change, often from an outsider who, once he gets inside, will return American democracy to its Jeffersonian ideal. Jimmy Carter was a peanut farmer who'd never even BEEN to Washington. George W. Bush was the "compassionate conservative" who would unite Washington the way he did Austin. Hmmm...why is it that the qualities that get someone elected are not always the same ones that make someone good at actually running the country?

Obama's new message actually IS "Hope and Change," with a dollop of "experience that matters" thrown in there. (But of course Mike Huckabee is actually FROM Hope...the same tiny Arkansas town that gave us Bill Clinton, so he's one-up on everybody. Is there a town called Change somewhere?) Obama is smooth on the stump, easy on the eyes, and is starting to develop a nice little tinge of Martin Luther King Jr. in his cadence and timbre. So he definitely still has hope...and judging from the San Francisco crowd, he's got a lot of passionate fans...but he's still got a long way to climb to knock Hillary off the top of the mountain.