As I sat stuck in traffic on 14th street on my way to see the one and only Barack Obama yesterday, I was thinking, "God, I should have gotten here earlier." It was 3:30 p.m. on a Thursday -- Senator Obama was still in Washington -- and already he was making waves in New York.
I finally parked near Union Square and leapt out of the car at 4:45, bolting down to Washington Square Park. Sweating the entire way, I thought about designing myself an "I Exercised for Barack" t-shirt. I got to the East entrance of the park at 4:57 and found my friend, Marie, who looked fresh-faced and thrilled to be there. She handed me my "speed-pass" for entry, and I strode in. Yes! In three minutes I would see Barack Obama! Aaaaah!
Hardly. Marie and I waited, along with thousands of others, for two hours to get through security. The Secret Service had set up an airport-style screening tent, and they were fingering each person's bag at an abhorrently slow pace. (Surprisingly enough, I did not get arrested for my "More like Sucky Service!" comment.) We couldn't have moved more than 20 feet the entire time we were waiting. Every once in a while there'd be a surge and then nothing would happen. (Just like in Iraq.) As 7 p.m. approached, the crowd outside the entrance started chanting, "Let us in! Let us in!" Talk about the Audacity of Hope! Then suddenly, just when it seemed like all was lost, the security tent opened like floodgates and we all ran through. It was a cathartic moment, with people screaming and cheering like they'd never been so happy in their lives. My friend Michele was filming the rush when we accidentally ran into her:
The park was packed with mostly young people, dying to catch a glimpse of the rockstar from Illinois. At exactly 7 p.m., Barack hit the stage under a pool of bluish light, and he looked every bit the glowing presidential candidate I hoped for. The Times focused on what Barack said about his experience level and The Associated Press said in Newsday that he received "thunderous applause" when talking about the U.S. Constitution. But truth be told, I wasn't sure Barack realized who his crowd was until he started talking about making college education affordable and helping people graduate without $50,000 worth of debt. In my estimation, that received the biggest cheer of the night, and he felt it. Up until that point in his speech, though I was thrilled to be there, he hadn't really said anything specific or thrilling or enlightening. Just a bunch of "Social Security and healthcare are broken" stuff that only old people care about. Barack, if there's one thing you need to know about New York, it's that no one here is old -- not even the old people. (80 is the new 70, after all.)
He also got big responses while talking about racial equality, the environment, the war (of course) and got a nice big cry of support from the teachers present when he proposed paying them more. I think the most touching moments of his speech were when he acknowledged the middle class and our financial struggles. He seemed to truly understand how hard it is to be an everyday person in America and reacts to that with great empathy. He spoke about telling the truth, about bringing the change we need in Washington. He insinuated that Hillary wouldn't bring that change, and she won't.
The most interesting thing about Barack is that despite his gorgeous face and his Bill Clinton-esque charm, he remains humble. When he said, "I am reminded every day, if not by events by my wife, that I am not a perfect man. And I will not be a perfect president," he took a serious pause, reflecting on his life. In the silence I shouted, "Yes, you will!" The crowd around me laughed, and Barack must have heard it because I saw him smile and chuckle a bit. That chuckle, dear Senator, is what will help you win the White House. Be humble, yes. But know your power. W. has moved mountains on not much more than a chuckle! You know that you have what it takes for America to be the ideal you describe in your speeches, so don't let anyone tell you otherwise. No one is perfect, but you, Barack Obama, are perfect for right now.
He left us on a story that I can only imagine he must tell every day about a trip he made to a small town in South Carolina where he found himself at a rally of only 20 people. One of them was a 60 year old woman whose name escapes me, but whose chant I will never forget. "Fire it up! Ready to go!" Like an actor playing himself, really, Obama got the entire crowd of 24,000 shouting in unison, "Fire it up! Ready to go!" I haven't felt a collective moment that big in a long time, and my friend Marie and I both cried. If you can make girls cry, you're as big as The Beatles. And if you're as big as The Beatles, you can certainly be the next President of the United States of America.