A Chance to See One or Two Presidents
Barack Obama speaks to a large and enthusiastic group of followers.
By Michael Stillman
For those fascinated by American history, there are few events more exciting than a presidential election. However, here in Texas, particularly a far corner, presidential elections are a distant spectator sport. Nobody important comes here. Nominations are sewn up before our primary, general elections a foregone conclusion. Not this year. For a brief time, a bizarre twist of fate has made us the center of the political universe. We matter. We are somebodies.
The South Texas town of Corpus Christi is a place you can't locate without a map. The closest we have come to having a visit from someone politically important in many years came when they brought Dick Cheney's shooting victim to our hospital. All that has changed. You would think this was New Hampshire if it weren't 90 degrees in February. In the past week and a half, we have been visited by Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, Ted Kennedy and Bill Clinton. And these were not fundraisers, meeting behind closed doors with a few moneyed people. These were public forums where each side made their case. Perhaps if the Republicans had a contest we would have seen John McCain too, but that wrapped-up election has allowed him to get back to the serious business of raising money.
I would like to have seen them all, but time constraints limited me to a representative sample. And, I did get to hear one, maybe two, presidents - Barack Obama and Bill Clinton. At this point I must throw out a caution. If you like the Bush administration, there is not much more here for you. The watchword for both candidates is “change.” If you are hoping for a continuation of Bush policies, neither has anything to offer you. Their appeal is targeted strictly to those who want a change from George W's administration.
On Friday afternoon, I went to see Obama. The line began forming 12 hours before he was to speak. When I arrived four hours early, it was already snaking around the large auditorium, home to the local hockey team and the major concert venue, where he was to speak. Dedicated, well-organized Obama volunteers kept everything in order, from plying the lines selling buttons and drinks, to ushering us to our seats when the doors finally opened. Along the way, security guards forced us to empty our pockets and raise our arms while they patted us down with handheld Geiger counters, or whatever those metal detector things are. I was required to throw away a small penknife I had attached to my keychain before I could enter. I'm not sure what they thought I might do with it. Throw it at Obama from the stands? These guards could not be reasoned with. Into the trash it went.
We were led in an orderly file to our seats by Obama volunteers to wait another hour and a half for his arrival. We were given a brief talk by a state senator, a gentleman who went to law school with Obama. Otherwise, no local officials spoke. A college student provided the introduction. This did not bother the crowd, which had little need for established politicians. When Obama arrived, a mere ten minutes late, the crowd erupted with a standing ovation, and did not sit down again until Obama instructed us to sit.
A Chance to See One or Two Presidents
Bill Clinton makes a compelling argument for Hillary from the back of a flatbed truck.
Obama is a spellbinding orator. He may be short on specifics, but he is long on hope and dreams. He paints a picture of a better world, where we all stop fighting with each other and work together for the common good. If it is not entirely clear how that world will look, or how we will get there, he leaves his audience with no doubt that we will. Yes, we can. This is change we can believe in, not change we can't believe in. I am not sure exactly what the difference is, but you cannot hear him and not believe this is a good man, a smart man, with solid values and a determination to do what is right. His future is a better place, and if we do not know precisely how he will take us there, we are convinced that surely he will. If leading means getting others to follow, this man is truly a leader. He reaches our hearts like no one since John Kennedy, and if JFK was perhaps not quite ready to be president from day one, those old enough to remember him revere how he made us a better people. Ask not... We long for someone who will remake us as a people the way Kennedy did.
At 8:00 the next morning, I went to hear Bill Clinton. There were no long lines, no intimidating security, no organized volunteers. He spoke at an open park, to a large walk-up crowd, though not nearly the size of Obama's. Every imaginable local official came to endorse his wife. Our local congressman, several state legislators, county officials, three city councilmen, even the local tax collector (who, naturally, was booed). We all just walked up to the flatbed truck where he stood to speak, and waited for him to arrive. No one told us where to stand or patted us down. True to his reputation for tardiness, Clinton arrived promptly 45 minutes late, even though this was his first stop. I felt sorry for those who would be waiting to see him at the end of the day.
Like Obama, Bill Clinton is a powerful speaker. He makes her case clearly and logically. He does not speak like Obama. Obama goes for the heart, Clinton the head. He lists her numerous accomplishments, focusing on what she has done for people like those in the audience. He hits on what he achieved – balanced budgets, peace, growing incomes at all income levels, international respect - all the time giving much of the credit to Hillary. He clearly resents Obama lumping his administration together with that of Bush as part of the old way of doing business, as if there were no difference. If he once strayed in the flesh, he is fiercely loyal to Hillary in the heart, and you come away with different feelings about both her and him after hearing his spirited defense. If he has not been able to capture your heart in the way Obama does, he at least makes you respect her years of work and accomplishments, rather than think of them as a badge of dishonor. If Obama is the conciliator, Clinton is the fighter. Who knows which would be more effective at bringing about change?
If you still have a primary ahead, get out and vote. Even more importantly, be sure to register and vote in the general election in November. There will be a clear choice, and your voice needs to be heard.