In 2007, I had a blog on Gazetteonline.com called “A Year in Iowa.” (http://cs.gazetteonline.com/blogs/mike_hlas_on_the_campaign_trail/default.aspx) I covered presidential campaign stops of just about everyone running in both major parties.
It wasn’t promoted and didn’t get much of a readership. Which was a disappointment to me. With the rare occurrence of both parties’ nominations up for grabs and during this turbulent time in U.S. history, we in Iowa were getting all of the candidates in our neighborhoods for almost all of 2007 in the buildup to the Jan. 3, 2008 Iowa caucuses.
I shared a hotel service elevator with John McCain. I had a one-on-one interview with Joe Biden in the parking lot of a Cedar Rapids bar. I was at a house party with Hillary Clinton. I asked Mike Huckabee questions in a Tipton cafe. I saw Rudy Giuliani at an equipment and parts shed. He somehow seemed out of place.
But though I went to three Barack Obama campaign stops in Cedar Rapids and Iowa City, I never could get close enough to the man to ask a question and get an answer of any length. It wasn’t his fault. There were always just too many people present, too many enthusiastic supporters.
Here’s what I wrote on the day Obama announced he was running for president, 21 months ago:
Feb. 10, 2007
CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa — One moment in Barack Obama’s “conversation” here Saturday afternoon produced a lot of soft, skeptical chuckles.
“There’s a big crowd today,” Obama said late in his talk to the gathering in the gymnasium at John F. Kennedy High School, where none of the 2,200 seats appeared empty. “But let’s face it. The novelty’s going to wear off. It’ll be ‘Oh, it’s Obama again. He’s coming to town. A ballgame’s on, I’ve got things to do.’ But that’s OK. What that means is we’ll be able to meet in smaller groups and house parties.”
That was when the snickers seeped from the bleachers. A house party for this guy? Somebody better have a whopper of a living room. Based on the size and interest of a crowd here for a presidential candidate 11 months before the Iowa caucuses, it’s doubtful any residence in this city of over 100,000 people will suffice as a campaign stop for Obama anytime soon.
“This is the biggest crowd I’ve spoken to,” this district’s first-term Democratic U.S. Congressman, David Loebsack, told the crowd before Obama arrived. He wasn’t joking.
Obama gave his “I’m in” speech Saturday morning in Springfield, Ill. Here in his first Iowa stop as an official candidate, the Democratic U.S. Senator from Illinois held what was billed as a “conversation.” That seems to be a buzz word early in this presidential campaign. Hillary Clinton had a self-described “conversation” with Iowans two weekends ago. Obama had one here Saturday afternoon, and presumably had one in Waterloo Saturday night and would have one in Ames Sunday before flying back home to Chicago. A conversation apparently consists of a candidate giving opening remarks for several minutes, then offering long answers to questions from five or six citizens out of 2,200.
Whatever this was called or whatever it was, a lot of locals were dialed into in it. When a long line of people willingly waits more than five minutes outdoors in single-digit temperatures for doors to open for anything, they’re either really curious or really passionate. This audience had plenty of both types. They roared when Obama and his family entered the Kennedy gym, and they roared even louder when he said “This is the first of many visits I’m going to make to Cedar Rapids.” They made a collective “Ohhhhh” of disappointment when they were told there was time for just one more question.
But while some are calling Obama a “rock star,” this event didn’t come with a light show and an ear-puncturing decibel count. If anything, the heat was turned just a bit down. The predominant visual from the event was of faces old and young of different colors sitting intently, focusing on the senator’s words. Everyone waited until an Obama sentence was finished before they sounded their approval. There was no foot-stomping or whistling once he began the hour-long talk. These people came to listen.
“You could tell everyone was attentive. You didn’t have to strain to hear him,” said 60-year-old Mike Wright of Cedar Rapids.
Wright said he won’t need to wade through the numerous other Democratic candidates for president as they flow through here this year. His guy was in this gym.
“I’m on board,” he said. “The others seem to be the same-old, same-old. I don’t think he’s running for himself. I think he thought about it, and I think he’s running for this country.”
Others here, many who didn’t balk when asked to wear an Obama decal upon entering the school, weren’t as committal but were no less impressed with his opinions on the Iraq war, health care, education and national security.
“I came looking today,” said Linda Whittle of Cedar Rapids, 62. “I intend to see all the candidates that come to town, all the Democratic candidates as they come to town, at least. I loved his answers. I thought they were thoughtful. I love the fact that he was against the war from the beginning. I was so disheartened when Democrats went along with that war resolution.
“I was really concerned about his ‘quote’ lack of experience, but his life experiences are immeasurably important. I think that’s where Bush has gotten us in trouble, in that he just does not have the intellectual curiosity. I don’t know that he had traveled outside the United States or into Europe before he became president.
“We just got back from Europe. As the news and everyone reports, they are not very fond of our president and they were not very subtle about feeling us out to see where we were coming from as we were standing in line for two hours to get into the Vatican.”
Frederick Thomas, 36, is an African-American formerly from Chicago but now a 6-year resident of Cedar Rapids. He sat in one corner of the bleachers and observed Obama. I’d been to four different presidential candidates’ stops in the previous 13 days. No blacks were in attendance. There were more than enough at Kennedy to make Cedar Rapids look more racially diverse than it really is.
“The president we have now has pretty much failed the country as a whole, I believe,” Thomas said. “We definitely need some changes. We definitely need someone like Barack Obama because he has charisma.”
Charisma. That, not “conversation,” was the real buzz word of the day. It just kept popping out of peoples’ mouths here.
When asked what he liked about Obama, Wright said “Just his charisma. He seems to have good ideas, he’s intelligent.”
“He just has that ability to transcend generations, races,” Whittle said. “Very articulate. He just has that charisma.”
Oh, that “rock star” stuff? That became far more perceptible after Obama’s “conversation” as he oh, so slowly worked his way out of the gym while signing autographs and getting his picture taken.
A girl wearing sweatpants that identified her as a member of Kennedy’s cross country squad squealed and hopped around after Obama signed her copy of his book “The Audacity of Hope.”
“I touched his hand!” another teenaged girl giddily shouted at a friend. “I touched his hand, too!” was the reply. “I’m not gonna wash it!”
Who knew that advocating better pay for schoolteachers and a withdrawl of U.S. troops from Iraq by March, 2008 got kids so excited? One wonders if fellow Democratic candidates Joe Biden or Bill Richardson or Tom Vilsack will induce anything resembling hysteria from teen girls as they travel Iowa this year. On second thought, one doesn’t.
“He’s something different,” said a calmer, but nonetheless enthusiastic Ashley Hartkemeyer, a 23-year-old U.S. history teacher at Jefferson High in Cedar Rapids. “A lot of young people are excited about Obama.”
Hartkemeyer said she hasn’t decided on a candidate, “but I’m very excited about Senator Obama’s announcement this morning. I think he’s a nice change, a young face.”
And … “He’s someone with a lot of charisma.”