Presidential contender Barack Obama rocks Phoenix's Veterans Memorial Coliseum.
The next President of the United States? I hope so... (photo by Jillian Sloan)
Part rock concert. Part college pep rally. That's what it felt like as Senator Barack Obama wowed a near-capacity crowd at PHX's Veterans Memorial Coliseum Wednesday evening. The almost 14,000 in attendance had waited over two hours to see the man from Illinois, the man who may be the Dems best hope to take the White House, the man who is six points away from Senator Hillary Clinton amongst AZ Dems most likely to vote this Tuesday, according to a recent Rocky Mountain Poll.
And the man did not disappoint. Speaking for nearly an hour and never unbuttoning his dark, charcoal gray suit, Obama made it look easy, answering critics such as former Prez Bill Clinton who think he's too green for the Oval Office by stating, "I am running because of what Dr. Martin Luther King called the fierce urgency of now." He also outlined an unabashedly liberal vision of an Obama White House, despite his pledge to have both sides of the political aisle working with each other.
He promised the troops home from Iraq in 2009, calling the Iraq war "unwise," while vowing to maintain "the strongest military on Earth" and to use that military in the unfinished conflict with al-Qaeda. He reminded listeners that, "I opposed it from the start," that "it" being the war, adding, "I don't just want to end the war, I want to end the mindset that got us into war."
Rarely has the left had a viable candidate so unashamed of his liberal pedigree, a candidate that the polls show is more likely than Hillary to kick John McCain's ass, assuming McCain's the Republican nominee. Commentators like to compare Obama to JFK. And Obama delivers his oration with such ease, such sharp aplomb, that the comparison to Kennedy is an obvious one.
Actually, seeing Obama do his thing, and work that audience like it was a client at Massage Envy, I was reminded of Ronald Reagan, whom I hated when I was in college and he was in office. But what Reagan was able to do is package conservatism and give it a genial, devil-may-care face. Such unbridled optimism is appealing, whether it's Reagan using it to deliver a right-wing message, Bill Clinton using it to offer a more compassionate and moderate one, or Obama, delivering a decidedly more leftist version.
Obama claimed, sarcastically, that his detractors refer to him as a "hope-monger," but then he pointed out that hope (read, "optimism") is part of the American birthright, whether you're talking about the revolutionaries who formed this country, the abolitionists who dreamed of ending slavery, or those who fought to end segregation in the South. He observed that "The odds of me standing here are not that high," and gave a thumbnail sketch of his early life history, his father leaving his mother when he was young, and so on. Here, Bill Clinton came to my mind, his recounting of his childhood, and that refrain in his 1992 speeches harkening back to his birthplace: "I still believe in a place called Hope." That Hope, being Hope, Arkansas.
Which makes Bill's role as hatchet-man in his wife's campaign so weird. Obama sounds more like Bill did in '92 than Hillary does. I remember '92 very well. I was an early and ardent supporter of Clinton back then. And I can tell you, people were very skeptical of Clinton, the well-spoken Governor of a "backwards" state. Bush #1 had more experience, but as Clinton pointed out at the time, you can have the wrong kind of experience. Ultimately, with a little help from having Ross Perot in the race, a plurality of the electorate agreed, choosing the fresh "kid" over the old, statist hound.
"We don't just need someone who's ready on day one," intoned Obama, in an obvious jab at Hillary. "But someone who's right on day one."
He dismissed the "fear" being peddled by his opponents about him, and took a swing at Bill, answering Bill's comment to Charlie Rose that an Obama presidency would be a roll of the dice.
"The biggest gamble," Obama warned, "would be to have the same old cast of characters doing the same old things."
I tend to agree. Hillary's a harridan. A calculated, practiced pol. A knife fighter in a knee-length skirt. You wanna know what she's all about? Watch Primary Colors, if you haven't already. I mean, there's something to be said for that Machiavellian stuff. I'm not totally knocking it. But her negatives are high, and she doesn't score as well against McCain as Obama does. Plus, I think people have Clinton fatigue. Hell, I think I have Clinton fatigue. And that's saying something, because I still have my Clinton-Gore wristwatch in the closet somewhere.
When it came to the liberal economic-speak, Obama was saying things that would've had him tarred and feathered back in the '80s, or even the '90s for that matter. He promised to lower everyone's insurance premiums by $2,500 during his first term. Everyone making under $75K would receive a tax break. If you're disabled or a senior and make under $50K, you shouldn't have to pay taxes at all.***
"If you work in this country," said Obama. "You should not be poor."
What, is this, like, the Netherlands or something? This is the sort of talk people who read The Nation and Mother Jones salivate over.
The crowd was packed with students, so they loved the part about making college affordable for everybody. Affordable? What happened to free, dood? I reckon he hedged on that one. I did like the part about making students do some public service in return for a college education. "We will invest in you," he told them. "You will invest in America." There go those echoes of JFK again. You know, "Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country."
Uber-MILF Caroline Kennedy was on stage, having spoken before Obama came out. Governor Napolitano was seated beside her, having officially introduced the presidential contender. Despite Obama calling her "one of the best governors in the country," she looked like a donkey at the Kentucky Derby up there with Obama and JFK's daughter. Whew. Thankfully, considering her age and presumed orientation, Nappy's unlikely to ever reproduce.
I liked how her mug froze when Obama started talking about how we need "an intelligent, effective and humane immigration policy." It ain't like Manet's been the best friend to those of Hispanic descent, seeing that she signed the employer sanctions law. Indeed, one prominent Hispanic intellectual in Phoenix suggested in a widely-distributed e-mail that Hispanics in the crowd boo her or at least sit on their hands. Alas, it didn't happen.
I dug the crowd. It was diverse, enthusiastic and friendly. The Maryvale High School Marching Band danced and blew their brass in the stands, and when they were not thumping out a martial roar, the stereo system blasted Stevie Wonder's "Signed, Sealed, Delivered, I'm Yours." Folks grooved to the tune, and others like Sam and Dave's "Hold On, I'm Comin'." It was a positive vibe.
Well, save for one low point, when I saw my good buddy Fronzo West, a.k.a., "the Fonz" being taken head first out of the coliseum by a squad of po-po. The Fonz is a local activist, best known for his "Fuck the Police" attire and van. He roller-skates everywhere, and videotapes nearly every public event. Because of his unconventionality, he's been arrested and assaulted by the cops numerous times. I tried to follow them. By the time I got outside, they'd disappeared. I asked Sean Smith, Obama's AZ communications director, why Fonz was taken out. He said it was because Fonz had on inappropriate attire, and refused to move when they told him he couldn't set up his video camera tripod on the floor.
Was this really necessary? Local activist "the Fonz" being escorted out for having "Fuck the Police" on his attire. (photo by Jillian Sloan)
Personally, I think that's bullshit. The place was packed. Who's gonna notice one black man with a "Fuck the Police" shirt and cap on? I told Smith Fonz was a local character and expressed my worry that he might be arrested. Smith said he didn't think that would happen. I hope that's the case, because otherwise the irony of a black man being pinched for something so frivolous at an Obama rally would be highly ironic.
Some of Obama's coolest lines came at the expense of the current administration, such as, "Whatever else happens, the name of George W. Bush will not be on the ballot." Everybody loved that one. As well as his quip that, "The name of my cousin Dick Cheney will not be on the ballot [either]," this referring to a story tracing both men's genealogy and linking them as distant cousins.
Look, I've never liked Hillary, and nothing she's done on the campaign trail has changed my mind about her. I think with her as Prez, everything would be a battle, from the first day of her presidency to the last. Obama has that sort of charisma that unites people. I even hear Republicans talking about it. I always get the feeling Hillary's trying to force herself down the gullet of the body politic. Not only doesn't Obama do that, he doesn't have to do it. For that alone, he gets my vote.
***Originally, this did not include the reference to the disabled and seniors. VCubed corrected me. See below.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Phoenix New Times' biggest stories.