We didn't think much of Barack Obama's chances of becoming president before he arrived at Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Phoenix on January 30. Because of one major obstacle: He's black. But Obama's like a lot of rock stars we've seen in our time — you don't really get him until you witness him onstage. It was such an experience at the coliseum that afternoon, when upwards of 20,000 people showed up to take in the Illinois U.S. senator and first serious African-American presidential candidate. Caroline Kennedy was there, so was Governor Janet Napolitano — up there on the dais with Obama, surrounded by screaming fans as Stevie Wonder played on the P.A.
What struck us about Obama was his cool as he riffed with the audience for an hour or so. No notes, no jitters, no sweat. In fact, we wonder whether he even sweats when he famously plays basketball games with campaign staff. This day, he bantered about hope, change, kindness, toughness, inclusion of all Americans in the system (the usual stuff), but it wasn't what he said that mattered. It was the style in which he said it.
He was the kind of speaker who won over voters that day with his elegant tone, the kind of speaker who thrilled the converted with his movie-star orations, the kind of speaker who didn't threaten the older white folks in the audience. President 50 Cent he wouldn't be. Past black presidential candidates, like Jesse Jackson, come across as insufferable hotheads compared to him; John McCain comes across as an insufferable hothead next to him.
It was if he were having an after-dinner conversation with us over a glass of brandy and a cigar, only there were many thousands of us, from floor to rafters. We felt reassured that he was somebody of substance, a characteristic we had questioned of this first-term senator before that moment. By the time we'd left, if we hadn't been jaded members of the press who needed to maintain our (um) objectivity, we would've admitted that Obama seemed wise beyond his political years, that he had charisma unseen in presidential politics since Ronald Reagan or JFK. We came away from the rally with the unspoken sentiment that we wouldn't want to be John McCain. Even then, it was clear that Barack Hussein Obama (despite the unfortunate middle name) possesses something Arizona's experienced senior senator will never have: commanding flair.