The press are checking email, reading Politico and stifling a yawn or two even though it is clear that Barack Obama has caught a live one in Beaumont, Texas. The audience of 750 or so in the Rogers Theater is old school--feisty, vocal and brimful of tough love. Only a few minutes into his opening remarks, a bit of boilerplate about current economic woes, Obama trots out a stump fact: the average American owes $8,000 in credit card debt. "I owe more than that!" shouts a lady from the back rows. "You owe more than that, huh," Barack says, in that amused, non-judgmental but assessing way of his. The tone of the town hall meeting has been set, and the audience greets Obama's remarks about health care and Iraq with cascades of amen and you got it right.
Quickly, Obama moves on to questions, and thirty-five minutes into the meeting, a young woman takes the mike and says, "My sister went to college, and she was not prepared for it. What are you going to do, as President, to help those students in high school get ready so they can succeed in college?" People cheer--they know this problem well.
Obama and his audience are sailing fast into a spontaneous and inchoate moment. This is a campaign rarity, but the press don't see it coming because everything about an event is usually so scripted. The traveling press have just come from an Obama town hall meeting on the economy in Austin, and even as they were watching, the Obama Campaign was emailing them and the rest of us the talking points. Like cathedral bells, the campaign chimes in on the quarter hour, in case reporters are catnapping or otherwise missing the point.
"This is a critical part of our economic agenda. Now keep in mind, if we don't become better trained, smart, effective workers, it doesn't matter what I prescribe as President, our standard of living will go down, because we live in a knowledge-based economy now," Obama says, prefacing his remarks, and then he is off and running with one of his favorite topics. He has lots of plans: early childhood education, modifying "but not completely eliminating" No Child Left Behind, adding art and music and phys ed to the curriculum, increasing teacher pay and improving after-school and summer school programs. "But can I make this one last point? And I hope I'm not offending anybody," Obama says. His audience--the women anyway--know where he is going, and they begin to call out. "Come on now--" Behind me, a lady with a voice that can be heard as far as Dallas offers encouragement.
"It doesn't matter how much money we put in--"
"Come on now--"
"--if parents don't parent."
Shrieks and trills from every corner again interrupt.
"It's not good enough to say to yourself, it's the school, and you don't turn off the TV, you don't help with the homework, there's not a book in the house--"
"COME ON NOW--" In my ear, she's stentorian, bossy and encouraging, like a rancher birthing a calf. Will Obama be able to utter the truth? To get it out? She's sure he has it in him.
"You got a video player on--"
"Come on, Obama! Come on, Obama! Come on!"
He is drowned by the roar, loud as falling water, and now the traveling press, realizing that something is actually happening, snap to. They sit up, swivel and stare. Unfortunately, the standing cameras are trained in the wrong direction, on Barack. One photographer hoists a big hand camera that he turns on the crowd, out of their seats and gesticulating, leaning forwards and back in a kind of a dance.
"So turn off the TV set, give the video game away, buy a little desk, or clear the kitchen table, from September help with homework--if they don't know how to do it, give them help. If you don't know how to do it, call the teacher. Make them go to bed at a reasonable time. Give them some breakfast. . . . If your child misbehaves at school, don't cuss out the teacher. Don't cuss out the teacher."
"OBAMA! OBAMA! OBAMA!" These 750 in Beaumont are louder than the 20,000 in Houston's Toyota Center last week. The din stuns. Stupefies. Really, there aren't words to describe it.
A few minutes later, Obama, in answer to a question about diabetes research, tells the crowd, "we can't keep feeding our kids junk."
"Hold on! Hold on! Come on! TELL THE TRUTH!"
"Eight sodas a day . . . Popeye's for breakfast." He pauses and waits for a little opening. "I know some of y'all--"
Obama's accent has been growing southern. The crowd loves it. They love the straight talk. They love how easy he is in his own skin. In answer to a question about gay rights, he says, "Now I'm a Christian--I praise Jesus every Sunday--but I hear people saying things I don't think are very Christian." You know who you are. In answer to a question on energy, he says, "I'm going to tell you not just what you want to hear but what you need to hear." This is classic cautionary Barack. The people of Beaumont drink in the admonition.
As soon as Obama winds it up, reporters--the traveling press jumping over the backs of their seats--converge on the women, who are today's one-minute wonder. I spend my minute with Lois Roy, asking her what specifically she would like to see Barack Obama, if he is elected President, do for African-Americans. "Nothing," she says. "What needs doing, we got to do it ourselves. He just needs to be himself. Be a role model." She stops herself on second thoughts. "Well, health care--that would go a long way to help education, too."