11.03.08

Barack and the Boss

Four years ago, John Kerry, bolstered by Springsteen, spoke in Ohio to a similar crowd. Today, Obama knows exactly what to say.

Four years ago, John Kerry, bolstered by Springsteen, spoke in Ohio to a similar crowd. On Sunday, Obama knew exactly what to say.

We stood, tens of thousands of us, belly to belly for four hours during Sunday’s unseasonably balmy afternoon on the great public mall in downtown Cleveland. For most of that time our main diversions had been watching fathers hoist and un-hoist their four-year-olds and Secret Service sharpshooters take up positions on a roof behind the speaker’s podium.

At 3:45, local politicians—Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown, Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson—made half-rousing appearances that barely prompted a “Yes, we can!”

At 4:45, Bruce Springsteen, lithe and coiled, struck a deeper cord with an ode to the empty mills of Youngstown, a neighboring city ravaged like Cleveland by the collapse of a once-thriving manufacturing economy. Shedding his guitar, the Boss segued into the most eloquent political introduction I’ve heard during this long, long campaign: “Senator Obama,” he said, “help us rebuild our house!” The crowd, the foreclosed and the unforeclosed, erupted with the equivalent of a mighty “Amen.”

From the candidate: an admission of guarded optimism: “Everybody's got a smile on their face—you start thinking that maybe we might be able to win an election on November 4th!”

The candidate himself appeared as if out of a hat: springy, almost alarmingly skinny in a black windbreaker and open shirt with a terrific casual wave, flashing a smile toothier than anything I’d seen on a jack o’lantern two nights before. The African-American woman behind me, who’d been tapping my shoulder in time to Springsteen, said, “Oh, man, he’s so handsome! Help me if I fall!” A brief flash of Michelle and the girls. From the candidate: an admission of guarded optimism: “Everybody's got a smile on their face—you start thinking that maybe we might be able to win an election on November 4th!”

He runs through the stump stuff—McCain, the economically clueless; the un-affordability of the last eight years—and the applause is dutiful, expecting more. The sun, I notice on this day when Daylight Saving has reverted to Standard Time, has imperceptibly set.

Then, as the senator has experienced before, an unexpected intervention; it begins to rain. He’s just been having serious fun with his opponent’s latest endorsement—from the vice president. Without skipping a beat, he says, “That’s what happens when you start to talk about Dick Cheney—it rains.”

The rain—a quiet drizzle—accompanies the rest of the speech and Obama never refers to it again. His voice rises, his urgency intensifies, his words broaden to remind us that we are all Americans—not just “we” but all the others who aren’t there. The applause is big on several themes that go down well with gritty Clevelanders: jobs (“I will end tax breaks for companies that ship jobs overseas”); access to higher education (“I will guarantee college for young people who choose to serve their country, in the military, in the Peace Corps . . .”); self-responsibility (“I can’t be the parent that turns off the TV set and makes a child do his homework”).

Four years ago, at the same penultimate moment in his campaign, John Kerry, bolstered by Springsteen, spoke at this same spot to a similar crowd. (A Cleveland public safety official estimated the Kerry turnout at 50,000, the Obama turnout at 80,000.) Then, it didn’t rain. And if it had, Kerry probably would not have known what to do with it. When the weather took a sudden turn for the worse this November, Obama knew exactly what to say.