Like all major campaign events in recent years, Saturday’s rally in Springfield where Barack Obama introduced Senator Joseph Biden as his choice for the Democratic vice-presidential nominee was meticulously covered by the media. This was, of course, no surprise. But I was surprised by my response to attending the rally. News coverage devotes so much time to the logistics, stagecraft and “messaging” of campaign events that I felt strangely disconnected witnessing one in person.
As I prepared for bed the night before the rally, CNN’s John King reported that two Democratic sources had confirmed Obama’s choice of Biden. I received the much-touted text message announcement from the Obama campaign at 2:37am. How anti-climactic. As my companions and I packed up for the trip to Springfield, Fox provided live shots from a helicopter above Biden’s home in Delaware. During our drive, the radio reported early reactions to the choice of Biden.
Springfield’s streets were quiet and mostly empty. The blocks surrounding the Old State Capitol are sparsely developed, mostly small business and light industry. The area seemed far from a natural fit for an appearance by a politician derided for his rock star status and international appeal.
I expected massive traffic delays. Cars were backed up only to 11th and Jefferson streets, roughly one mile from the rally site at the Old State Capitol. Heat substituted for congestion, however. The temperature was 90 degrees when we parked our car at a deserted Catholic charity office. The weather report predicted thunderstorms but the sun was bright and relentless.
The line to enter the rally snaked around two city blocks. We joined it just after 12:30 p.m., 90 minutes before the rally. Peddlers hawked merchandise along the route: Obama buttons, T-shirts, baseball caps, even a Teddy Bear. A trio of folk singers performed with guitars and fiddle under the precious shade of a small tree. The Springfield Fire Department had opened hydrants and sprayed one of their truck hoses into the street. Children played in the cascade, and the occasional adult also cooled off in the water.
At the entrance to the rally site the volunteers (who appeared to be sweltering in the campaign’s standard issue navy blue T-shirts) directed us to empty water bottles and leave our umbrellas in a nearby clump of bushes. This was the big time—security was tight. The Secret Service worked the make-shift gates, searching bags and directing each person through metal detectors. Snipers were visible on the rooftops around the capitol complex.
My companions and I staked out a position on 6th Street, between the Old State Capitol building and the bank. The stage was obscured by the crowd that pressed against the police barricades. Campaign volunteers told me that a long line of people had already assembled when they arrived for duty at 9 a.m.
Behind us, a four-story American flag was draped over an office building at the corner of 6th and Washington streets. To our left, a large group from the Illinois Association of Fire Firefighters stood with their families, all clad in yellow union T-shirts. As we waited for the rally to begin, a cloud moved in front of the sun, drawing cheers and applause from the crowd.
Standing next to me was Terri Evans, who had brought her 18 year-old daughter to see Obama and Biden. Evans, from southeast Wisconsin, had an Obama button pinned to her shirt and a bright red Obama T-shirt tucked into the backside of her belt. She had been “torn during the [primary] debates” but now supported Obama “100 percent”.
The previous day Evans had closed her office early and driven five hours to Springfield. Her daughter recently graduated from high school and moved to the area. Evans hoped the event would spur her daughter’s political engagement.
“I wanted her to see the stuff that’s not on TV,” Evans told me.
But television viewers could see much more than the crowd from its street-level view. While I was talking to Evans my mother called from Pennsylvania. She was watching on C-SPAN and informed me that Michelle Obama was at the base of the stage greeting the crowd. Minutes later we heard the voice of the Springfield’s mayor, Tim Davlin, as he began the rally.
“Is it a great day to be an American?” Davlin asked, drawing cheers. The crowd filled in tight behind us. Davlin introduced Jim Frazier, a former Marine and advocate for veterans’ care. Frazier, whose son Jacob was killed in Iraq while serving with the Illinois Air National Guard, led the crowd in the Pledge of Allegiance. “[Obama will] lead our nation in a new day and we should all, all, be glad for that,” Frazier told the crowd.
Then a local Lutheran pastor offered the invocation. His prayer began relatively neutral (“We pray for leaders who will lead a transition in our country”) and ended with a wish list of Democratic policy prescriptions relating to taxes, the environment, and food safety.
After the invocation, I talked to Kathy Gossard, a Bloomington resident. Gossard attended the rally with her husband, daughter and three grandchildren. The three children fidgeted at Gossard’s feet while she talked, their sweaty, blond hair matted to their foreheads. Gossard has supported Obama since before the primaries. “We’re true blue Democrats,” she said.
Gossard began to follow Obama after his speech at the 2004 Democratic convention. “We’re excited about this campaign and excited to have someone with a different skin color,” Gossard explained. “It shows movement in the country.”
The mayor returned to the podium to introduce Obama as the sun came back out. The crowd had filled in behind us. The only things visible above the wall of people were the occasional toddler on someone’s shoulders and numerous cameras held high over head.
“It’s good to be back in Springfield,” Obama said over the cheers. “It feels like I’m coming home again.” He launched into an abbreviated version of his standard stump speech. Then Obama led up to his introduction of Biden by described his last year of campaigning.
“For months I searched for a leader to continue this journey with me,” Obama said. “Today I came back to Springfield to tell you that I found that leader.”
I stopped taking notes for a short time to shade my balding head with my notebook. Sweat was stinging my eyes. A woman next to us seemed ready to faint. Several people helped her to a seat at the curb. A young boy nearby began to cry.
Biden took the microphone. Three teenage girls in front of us jumped up and down, trying to catch a glimpse of Obama. They shrieked when one of them succeeded and became indignant when a man nearby hushed them.
Biden praised Obama, slammed the Bush administration and affirmed the decency of ordinary Americans. “When have Americans ever let their country down when they had a leader to guide them?” he bellowed.
After acknowledging his friendship with McCain, Biden took several jabs at the Republican nominee.
“These times call for more than a good soldier,” he said, “they call for a wise leader.”
Biden concluded by taking aim at Obama’s reputation for naiveté and inexperience. Obama, said Biden, is a “clear-eyed pragmatist who will get the job done.”
The sound system played U2’s“Beautiful Day”. The crowd quickly fled the heat. From our spot, it was
impossible to see how long the candidates stayed to shake hands.
At the corner of 6th and Washington streets I found Elaine McGregory and Alice McBride, two Obama volunteers from Chicago’s south suburbs. They had left home at 6 a.m. to work the event and now rested amid the departing chaos. Nearby the fire department had opened another hydrant. People circled around the spout, filling bottles or drinking straight from the stream.
McGregory said Saturday was her birthday. She had collected volunteer forms from the crowd during the rally. McGregory told me that weather did not slow down her volunteering. “I was in the cold and snow in Iowa,” she told me, recalling her work during the January caucuses in that state.
A small crowd gathered near the stage, gaping as television correspondents filed their reports. A BBC reporter fielded questions from two women but CNN’s Candy Crowley was the crowd favorite.
She drew multiple shouts of affection from passersby. Several people photographed Crowley as she addressed the camera from a platform above the sidewalk. In a tent on 6th Street next, several news people hunched over a laptop and monitor, watching footage of Biden’s speech.
Behind them, a long line of satellite trucks filled both lanes of the street. An Asian film crew interviewed an Obama impersonator across the street.
I didn’t catch a glimpse of the real Obama, or the real Biden. But I did get a backstage look at the people who help make them famous. As we drove back to Champaign the radio played highlights of the rally.
Later that night I watched clips of the speeches on television.
Photos by Kat Schwartz