Monday, October 23, 2006

Listening to Barack Obama

This past Saturday I had a chance to see and hear Barack Obama, the junior senator from Illinois who has become such a big name in the Democratic Party in the past few years and who is mentioned as a possible presidential candidate (and he himself says he is considering it). He was appearing with Bob Casey, Jr., who would like to join Obama in the Senate, and Gov. Ed Rendell. The price tag was within my budget (free) and the event was sponsored in part by Gov. Rendell’s reelection campaign (or at least I got my ticket at his website, and without having to promise to contribute or donate).

I did not try to record everything that was said. Many of the speakers gave “get out the vote” talks and those can quickly become repetitive. So I only noted things that caught my interest or were unusual or striking in some way. It was a long event and I was jotting things down with paper on my lap. The young child behind me had a tendency to jog my elbow and that also made things difficult. I encourage you to read news reports of the event and hope that at least parts of it have been, or will be, televised. As always, my apologies for any errors or misinterpretations.

It was held in McGonigle Hall on Temple University’s main campus. Temple, a fine state institution, believes in frequently posting and maintaining campus maps. Just at the bottom of the SEPTA station steps my new train friend, the Woman in the Blue Jacket, and I found a colorful easy to read map. Were that not enough a policeman was stationed across the street to tell people how to find McGonigle. That is what I call service. So off we went, just as we were told (straight ahead, turn left at North Broad), and sure enough, there it was, just a brisk walk away, the time passed easily in casual conversation. We parted at the foot of the stairs so she could meet with her group.

Flyers and tickets gave the starting time as 12:30, and I arrived at 12:40. Those attending could stand around the base of the speaker’s platform or sit in the bleachers where the view was not as good but it was infinitely more comfortable. The people at the doors and those inside directing foot traffic were courteous but professional. I opted for the bleachers and found a seat on the aisle with a clear sight path of the speakers. At 12:50 Rep. Bob Brady (D-01), in whose district the event was held, the master of ceremonies, came out to welcome everyone. Joining him on the platform were Rep. Allyson Schwartz (D-13), Lois Murphy, Democratic candidate for the 6th congressional district, Joe Sestak, Democratic candidate for the 7th congressional district, and two men I didn’t recognize.

I had never seen Brady before and it was an experience. He encouraged the crowd to give the others “a warm Philadelphia welcome or I’ll come up and holler at you.” And so cheer we did, because I for one did not want Bob Brady to come up and holler at me. Brady introduced one of the men on the platform as Marcus Simmons who sang the National Anthem. He has a beautiful voice. The Rev. James Morehead of the Black Clergy of Philadelphia gave the invocation.

Then the onslaught of speakers began. Brady talked about the importance of bringing the House of Representatives back to the Democrats, the party of working people and those who want to be working people. He then introduced Joe Sestak (pronouncing it Sistak).

Sestak, running against incumbent Republican Curt Weldon, said he loved the warmth and loved the welcome. He talked about his work in the Clinton White House and the meeting Clinton had with survivors of Omaha Beach, and the stories they told of America’s youth persevering in the face of adversity. Then he shifted to the war on terror and I must have missed something because he was asking a series of questions like, “what about the terror of worrying about getting a pink slip, what about the terror of wondering which of your children you will cover with health insurance.” After his remarks, Sestak had to leave to continue campaigning in Delaware County.

Brady then brought out Philadelphia Mayor John Street who had to walk down a runway to get to the platform. Here is where it got a little surreal. Brady told Street he had to walk like a model on the runway. Brady, a man of substantial presence in more ways than one, put one hand on the back of his head and the other on his waist and gave a brief sashaying, swivel-hipped demonstration. I have seen many things at political events but this was a first. Rep. Brady is clearly a man comfortable in his own skin and that is a quality I admire. Street, however, chose not to follow the congressman’s example.

The mayor thanked Brady whom he said was the longest reigning party chair in Philadelphia history. He went on the discuss issues such as unemployment, saying there were 7 million unemployed which is 1 million more than when President Bush was elected. He also said people were working longer hours, were more productive but earning less money. I didn’t note his other remarks except for his statement that if you don’t vote you don’t count.

Brady took the microphone again and recognized former Senator Hardy Williams, who was apparently among those standing near the platform. He then introduced Lois Murphy, although he said she was running for Senate not the House. She corrected him and then asked a series of yes or no questions (Do we need ……? Do we want …..?) designed to elicit a response from the audience. She also said elections were won on the ground and encouraged people to volunteer or be active in campaigns.

Brady returned to the podium and mentioned Patrick Murphy, the Democratic candidate for the 8th congressional district, who was campaigning and could not attend. Brady referred to him as a lieutenant but I believe his rank was captain. He then introduced Allyson Schwartz.

Schwartz said this election is a battle for what we believe as a country and who we are. She gave some biographical background. Her mother came to this country virtually as an orphan at age 16 and went to Girls High. America offered security and safety and economic opportunity.

Brady introduced Rep. Chaka Fattah (D-02) who talked about his first election which he won by one vote per precinct. The Democratic Party is not perfect, he said, but it is the best we have right now. He gave a rousing get out the vote speech. (Note, he mentioned Joe Sestak but pronounced it SighStack.)

Brady commented on the time the headliners, Casey, Rendell and Obama were expected and said first he was told to wrap it up and then asked to take up more time. He then brought out Philadelphia Councilman Darrell Clarke, who represents the city’s 5th district, who said the 5th district was the best district in the city “second only to yours” he said, getting a laugh. He also said the talking heads on the Sunday morning shows were talking “crap” and we need to elect the Democrats on the stage so they can be on the Sunday morning talk shows.

State Senator Shirley Kitchen, of the 3rd district, also spoke, saying that social programs were not an expansion of welfare, increasing the education budget is not an expansion of welfare. Her remarks were good and I’m sorry not to have recorded more of them.

At last and finally, at 1:50 p.m., the big three arrived. Rep. Fattah introduced state treasurer Bob Casey, Jr., who is running for senate. Casey talked about living near Temple 25 years ago. He also showed signs of humor. He said last night he and Rendell were on the same plane coming back from Pittsburgh and that while a state trooper escorted Rendell to the plane there were no troopers on the plane. Casey said he provided security for the governor, and he held the camera when people wanted a photo with Rendell.

Rendell took the microphone as the crowed shouted “4 more years.” He said the only thing wrong with that chant was its association with Richard Nixon. I’m not sure if I heard him correctly but he said we needed more of the same in Pennsylvania except with a Democratic state house of representatives. He also told a joke, thanking everyone for coming out to see him and that he would give us all amnesty on our state income tax for waiting so long. Marcus Simmons, who sang the national anthem at the start of the event, also sang at Rendell’s inauguration. Rendell said he hoped to have Simmons sing at his next inauguration as well.

Here Rendell won my heart. He brought up onto the stage 3 young students from Overlook High School who, earlier this year, went into a burning building to rescue a woman trapped inside. Rendell said people only hear the bad things about Philly and he wanted to highlight a positive occurrence. Billy King, president of the 76’ers had promised them tickets to the first championship game (the crowd rumbled and Rendell said something along the lines that we needed to have some hope). In the interim, King, who also came to the platform, gave each of the 3 a certificate for 2 tickets each to the opening game and they will be able to go into the locker room and meet the players.

Rendell told the same hypothetical story he told earlier in the day, about the tragedy of being a parent whose child is diagnosed with pediatric leukemia, which is treatable, but only if you have insurance that will pay or can afford treatment out of pocket. He said it would only cost 100 million dollars to provide all children in the state with health insurance but Republicans say it might be too expensive, yet they want to cut the estate tax, which would cost 700 million dollars.

At around 2:07 p.m., Rendell introduced Sen. Obama. The crowd loved Obama. There were occasional calls from the audience for him to run for president. Obama’s Kenyan heritage shows in his build. He is not very tall. From where I sat he looked about as tall as Allyson Schwartz, and he is very thin. His suit jacket hangs loosely from his shoulders. If he weighs more than I do it can’t be by much. In photos it looks like his ears stick out and indeed they do. You would think that a skinny guy with ears like that wouldn’t catch your eye in a positive way but he does. He moves easily with grace and confidence.

Obama started off with comments about Philadelphia, including pointing out that Donovan McNabb is from Southside Chicago. He mentioned Congressional representatives Schwartz and Fattah, and candidates Lois Murphy, Patrick Murphy and Joe Sestak (pronounced correctly). He said Ed Rendell was one of the best governors in the country and that he couldn’t say THE best because he would get into trouble from other governors. Rendell, he said, showed that you can run an efficient and compassionate government at the same time. He also said Bob Casey will take the Capitol by storm. Let me say that I want front row seats AND the popcorn concession for that. At this point Rendell whispers something in Obama’s ear and Obama said he forgot to acknowledge Rep. Brady which he now does. Having heard his televised speech at the Democratic National Convention in 2004 I was a little disappointed in the choppiness of his remarks so far.

However, here the timbre of Obama’s voice changed and he moved into what I assumed would be a standard stump speech. If it is, I would gladly sit on the stump and listen for hours. His oratory skills are phenomenal. I tucked my pencil behind my ear to just sit and take his words in, but sometimes something he said was so remarkable that I jotted it down. Here are a few of the things he said:

The country is in a somber mood. (This wouldn't have been remarkable if anyone else had said it -- it wasn't so much the words as the tone.)
The people believe in limitless possibilities but aren’t sure if their leaders do; they believe in big dreams but aren’t sure if their leaders do.
When asked to run he prayed and asked his wife.
At most people hope the government does them no harm.
Parents must parent. Students must hit the books; education is not a passive endeavor.
We also believe we have some stake in each other.
Children deserve some level of support from all of us.
He is struck by how decent the American people are at their core.

Obama told a number of stories. Those who study rhetoric know that the ability to tell a good story is a necessity in holding and keeping an audience’s attention. Obama’s unique experiences provide him with an authenticity and give him the raw material for a number of stories that, at present, only he can tell. His earnest and hopeful qualities put a positive spin on those stories that let us all believe anything is possible. He had all of us eating out of his hand. I would buy anything he was selling. I would vote for him for any office. If anyone so much as coughed while he was speaking I didn’t notice. I couldn’t even tell you who was on the platform with him while he talked. They just blended into the background. After he finished speaking Obama took the time to sign photos that people on the floor were handing up.

I let the crowd thin out and then started back to the train station, where the SEPTA employee on duty cautioned me nicely against running up the stairs. This event was definitely worth the effort. It was free, gave me an opportunity to see a number of officials and candidates that I hadn’t seen before, listen to a talented and skilled speaker who may be a future president, and meet some nice people. If you think that only the wealthy, the connected, and the powerful can hear these people, you are wrong. These opportunities are out there, though you may have to look for them a little bit.


ACM said...

I have no idea whether Obama could ever become President, through the primary and the general and all that goes into that type of race. But I have to say that our country could get a lot out of having an orator like that -- a lot of restoration of pride, a lot of healing of rifts, a lot of rekindling of hope. I think the nation could use a good dose of that stuff; I'm just not sure that the system is prepared to make it available.

AboveAvgJane said...

It certainly would make listening to the state of the union addresses and such more bearable wouldn't it? People might actually listen to the president's weekly radio speech.

BTW, ACM, I think you left cold germs on this blogpost. My throat is starting to feel scratchy.

Anonymous said...

I just found your blog today, googling for the height of Barack Obama. It's been 15 months, so maybe you have already discovered that Obama is about 6'2" and is a former basketball player. You wrote that he is "not very tall." OK, I guess it's not very tall, but he is somewhat tall!

AboveAvgJane said...


Thanks for the detail. So many people seemed interested in the topic that I did eventually write up a separate post giving his height -- around 6' 2" just as you say.