The Virginia Democrats (www.vademocrats.org) want it bad. Their breathing is becoming heavy and unseemly tendrils of drool are stretching down towards their chests. They are hungry. The Commonwealth, by all rights, should be theirs. Virginia is finally offering herself up to them, and the state donkeys are in heat. Illinois Senator Barack Obama just might be their man, in all his sorta-black, sorta-liberal, Alfred E. Newguy, Don’t-Worry-Let’s-Hope, meet-you-in-the-middle, shining glory. Sweet Virginia, won’t you turn your Red state Blue?
Immensely comfortable speaking to a crowd, Obama eschews a preacher’s cadences, instead pausing often, then letting the silence hang for a moment. During those pauses no one speaks, and photographers lower their cameras and watch.
And so, on this Saturday night, February 17, upwards of 4,000 Democrats have come from all over Virginia to Richmond for one reason and one reason only, to see Him: The Natural, The Magic, The Rock Star. And the circus is in town. No really, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus is currently in full swing in the coliseum right across the street from the Greater Richmond Convention Center where the VA Dems are pitching a really big tent and waiting for The Charisma to appear. The Jefferson-Jackson Dinner is the big annual fundraiser for Democrats, and the previous largest turnout for the J-J in Virginia was about 1,400. The event has been moved this year to the biggest room in the center, the 178,000-square-foot main exhibit hall, which, at 4pm, is mostly empty of people, save for a small army of white-gloved, white- and black-outfitted, mostly African-American waiters, who are placing a salad of mixed field greens and a slice of thick cake at every place. A large press riser faces the stage and the three massive projection screens are currently filled with the Dems’ braying, demonic, cartoon ass. This will be, according to a PR flak, the largest plated dinner in Richmond’s history, and the air is thick with the cloying smell of cake icing.
Out in the hall, the Obama minions—young, multiethnic, clean, and no doubt articulate—are receiving instructions near a long table covered with The Charisma’s paraphernalia. “Remember,” their leader says, ”buttons are $10, not $5, and t-shirts are $20.” Immediately next door is a tiny table for John Edwards, where a silver-haired reed of a man smiles and tells me that the Edwards pins are available for a voluntary donation of any amount. I pull a penny from my pocket and walk away with a pin.
At this point, Senator Obama, presidential hopeful, is about six blocks away, inside the Executive Mansion, ready to step out and address roughly four dozen reporters arrayed in a small crescent in the driveway. Access to the press conference is guarded by two large policemen, who write down your name and ask to see your press pass, a pass you got by writing down your name back at the Convention Center, making the event slightly less secure than your average high school dance. The presumed media people place their mini-tape recorders on the podium, and stand around in the business grey cold of downtown Richmond waiting for The Charisma to speak. He appears, accompanied by Governor Tim Kaine and their wives, to the whir-click applause of speed shutters. Kaine says he’s endorsing Senator Obama for the party’s nomination, partly because he believes in “excellence that begins with values” and partly because their mothers both grew up in El Dorado, Kansas, pop. 12,600, give or take. The Charisma takes the mic, not larger than life, but about life size as he launches into a mini-stump speech (and not for the last time that day), saying things like, “Here we are in the heart of what was the Confederacy,” and, “I represent, in the minds of some, the turning of a new page.”
“Virginia,” he says, unclasping his hands and speaking more forcefully, “is representative of a fundamental shift taking place in American politics” from ideology to practical results. All the while, which is actually about 30 minutes, he smoothly avoids specific issues and emphasizes, instead, an ideology of practical results. And then it’s on to the big party.
“I’m pretty stoked,” Max Fenton says standing outside the door to the pre-dinner reception in honor of Democratic Senator Jim Webb. Fenton, a 20something, Downtown Charlottesville artist and self-described “piddler” saw The Charisma speak in May at pro-choice luncheon, where he brought the sold-out crowd to tears. Inside the reception room, Al Weed, holding a beer and looking relaxed, says that the presence here of Senator Obama “suggests that Virginia is in play.” Still, Weed, who lost two bids to unseat Republican Congressman Virgil Goode, describes himself as cynical: Many Southern Democrats are supporting Obama for the nomination mostly because he is not Hillary Clinton, who nobody thinks can win in a general election. He came close, Weed says, to skipping tonight’s event.
On Saturday night, two circuses played in Richmond. One was Ringling Bros. The other was the Barack Obama show.
Next up: a group of Charlottesville High School girls, many of whom are not old enough to vote, looking utterly mind-blown. “He’s here?” they say at the mention of The Charisma, “You saw him?” Yes, I say, he gave a press conference. I was, like, this close, and they make fluttering gestures at their flushed faces. I see the same reaction all night. People say they are probably supporting Clinton or Edwards, but at the mere utterance of His name their eyes light up, they clutch at their throats, and they whisper, “He’s here? You saw him?”
The theme of the dinner is repeated carefully and forcefully throughout the night. Virginia is now a player in national politics. Kerry blew it in 2004 when he pulled money out of advertising in Virginia because he figured it was a lost cause. Virginia Democrats want to make a difference, and they want it bad. Virginia is going Blue in ‘08.
Inside the massive room dinner is underway, with the usual rainbow coalition of Democrats in evidence: Dominion and Anheuser Busch execs chewing on crab cakes with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, Local 666 (come if you dare, Satan. Obama is in the house tonight!) and official Celebrities With Good Politics, meaning John Grisham and Boyd Tinsley. Full freight, carrying a promise to press The Charisma’s flesh, maybe, went for $25,000. Some have paid only $1,000, so they don’t sit as close to the action. Dinner also includes filet and $30 bottles of, trust me here, atrocious wine. The first speaker hits the stage at 7:43, party Chairman Dick Cranwell, who just the day before endorsed John Edwards. That fact, as well as the small but energetic presence of Clinton, Edwards and (hello?) Wesley Clark supporters indicates that The Charisma may have His work cut out for Him when it comes to Virginia. It’s the number of votes that will ultimately matter, not the size of the fan club.
Cranwell introduces Del. Dwight Jones, who introduces former Governor now Richmond Mayor Doug Wilder, who introduces Del. Jennifer McClellan. McClellan, who is a rising star in the party, announces the Grassroots Awards, including one for “Committee of the Year—Small,” which goes to the Charlottesville Democratic Committee.
After McClellan we get the party VIPs—Webb, Mark Warner and Kaine. Warner, the party’s previous anti-Hillary until he decided to put his kids first, makes an unfortunate “He’s a Barack Star” joke (it will later be agonizingly repeated throughout the crowd), before introducing Kaine. Kaine tells the crowd that “the stakes are very, very high for this election,” and then proceeds to scale them rhetorically, which takes a very, very long time. I ache for just a touch of something truly thrilling, or an alcoholic beverage, whichever happens to come first.
Finally, Kaine introduces (Is he here?), live on stage, (Did you see him?), The Great (not Red, not Blue) Purple Hope, Rhymes-with-Osama, Loves-His-Mama, Yes Virginia, Mr. Not-Since-Kennedy himself, Barack Obama!
The Charisma has arrived.
The principal criticisms of Obama up to now have been his lack of experience and his preference for theme over substance. Tonight’s events will do nothing for the substance issue. New to the stump speech this evening: Virginia, he declares, is a player. He mentions progress. Today a black man can stand in a Confederate state and run for president. Then he plays the current Democratic hit single, which, sing it with me, folks, includes the Global Warming intro, the “tragic mistake” anti-war sing-along chorus (featuring Obama’s own special “I never voted for the war” guitar solo), and the Katrina string section. Obama, of course, plays his “Audacity of Hope” re-mix (place your bets now on how sick of that phrase we will all become before the year is out.) Tonight he is not fiery—more intimate and friendly, really. He eschews a preacher’s cadences, instead pausing often, then letting the silence hang for a moment, and during those pauses no one speaks, and photographers lower their cameras and watch. He laughs often. It is a great laugh, earthy and utterly unforced.
In endorsing the Illinois Senator, Tim Kaine made the Obama-Mama connection. Kaine’s mother and Obama’s both grew up in El Dorado, Kansas. (Don’t be silly, that’s Obama’s wife, Michelle, at the Executive Mansion with them.)
Obama has a habit when he speaks of stopping now and then and looking up and to one side, giving the impression of having just realized something enormously important and difficult. Perhaps it is instinctual, this move, perhaps it is a rehearsed pose, but however he comes by it, it’s incredibly presidential. But more than anything, it’s his confidence that stands out. Not the desperate confidence of a fanatic, but the strong, silent confidence of someone for whom certain things come easily. Which for Barack Obama is talking to people, be it one person or close to 4,000. He ends his speech on this night with a Let’s Turn Virginia Blue war cry, another mention of Hope, and then a quiet thank you. From over in the small cluster of Charlottesville and Albemarle tables, Max Fenton reports that he is “still stoked.”
Yes, the Virginia Democrats want it bad. They want The Magic, The Charisma. After the speech a large crowd immediately forms at the foot of the stage where Obama is now protected by a metal barrier. The crowd presses together, following Him en masse as he moves back and forth along the barrier signing autographs. Hands reach out to try and shake His, books and programs and pictures get pushed forward desperately, and hands hold cameras aloft to try and capture his soul. He is there for maybe 20 minutes, and the swarm moves silently, no one shoving or yelling, but everyone leaning forward intently. I worm my way through inch by inch until I am up very close, until I can see his face clearly, maybe 3′ away, a handsome face with light brown skin, the top half in shadow, the bottom half limned by a weird blue light. Through the forest of arms and cameras, in that frozen moment, I look into his eyes and see someone who seems to occupy two places at once; He’s here, in the crowd, and also somewhere in the back of the hall watching this madness with the calm certainty that everything is happening according to plan.
In his book The Audacity of Hope, referring to his only political loss, a congressional race in 2000, Obama wrote this: “There is…an emotion that, after the giddiness of your official announcement as a candidate, rapidly locks you in its grip and doesn’t release you until after Election Day. That emotion is fear. Not just fear of losing…but fear of total, complete humiliation.” Virginia hasn’t gone for a Democrat for president since 1964. The Virginia Dems want to win the presidency so bad it hurts, and maybe, just maybe, Barack Obama is the man to do it. But how badly will it hurt, how crushing will be the blow, if the candidate they’ve pinned their hopes on loses?
Be wary, Virginia. The Charisma has left the building.
For more information about Barack Obama’s campaign and his voting record, go to: