It looked like Phil Angelides finally caught a break Friday in his campaign for governor when he received a genuinely enthusiastic reception from several hundred USC students and other supporters at a rally in front of the university’s Doheny Library. Getting noticed isn’t easy when your opponent is a movie-star incumbent who, even when he’s caught groping women or talking eugenics trash, is merely excused as a naughty bad boy. But on this day, Angelides had a sure-fire plan to get out the crowds. He invited a very special guest speaker, a man who is arguably the only elected politician more popular in California than Arnold Schwarzenegger. He invited Barack Obama.
It seemed like a smart move. But from the start, even standing next to Obama proved risky. Angelides’ cheers paled beside the rock-star adulation for the senator from Illinois — many attending had first heard of the event as an Obama appearance and only later learned it was to be an Angelides rally.
The hedges leading to the library were lined with young women who called out Ba-rack!Ba-rack! while snapping his photograph. When Angelides spoke toward the rally’s end, a quiet rustling spread among the crowd as people took out their copies of Obama’s new book, The Audacity of Hope, and began passing them forward and over the hedges, along with felt pens, for autographs. Obama respectfully declined to sign the books while the state treasurer was speaking. But even unintentionally, he still upstaged Angelides — by taking off his coat.
The gesture cranked a current of sexual electricity throughout the audience. Suddenly, Obama was in focus — tieless in his crisp white shirt, sleeves rolled up and ready for action. An Angelides campaign volunteer from South L.A. stepped forward and asked if she could take the senator’s coat. He handed it to the woman, who clutched it as though she’d been given the Shroud of Turin or Manolete’s muleta. The scene recalled the moment, immortalized by Bill Beebe’s photograph, when President John F. Kennedy, dripping wet from the surf and clad only in trunks, found himself surrounded by frenzied women on a Santa Monica beach. The difference between the two scenes is that Obama had the same effect upon onlookers while keeping his shirt on. And he stayed dry.
None of this was lost on Angelides, who, after relinquishing the microphone to Obama, suddenly felt overdressed. As people waved copies of Time and Men’s Vogue with covers featuring Obama, Angelides took off his own jacket and turned to hand it to anyone willing to accept it. But the person standing behind Angelides was Steve Westley, the man he’d defeated in the bitter primary for his party’s nomination. Westley flinched, so Angelides (his own sleeves now rolled up) haplessly held the coat until a party media handler took it.
The USC event was emceed by Democratic state party chair Art Torres, who struck flag-and-family notes (“We believe in God because he’s our god too”). And nearly every leading Smog Belt Democrat was in attendance, standing behind Obama, gratefully bathing in a Close Encounters glow. Antonio Villaraigosa, John Garamendi and Fabian Núñez are hardly charm slouches, but they listened to the senator as though they were taking a postdoctoral course in charisma.
What makes an Obama speech memorable is that he doesn’t sound like a politician, but like a person who is telling you something you’ve never heard before — and with a take-it-or-leave-it candor. Even when he resorts to one of his favorite tropes, in which he leads up to a point by mentioning how he sometimes argues with his wife, you feel as though you’re hearing it all for the first time.
“It seems,” Obama said, “as if politics has become a business and not a mission — power always trumps principle. So we don’t have confidence that the government can make much of a difference in our lives.”
Obama was the only Democrat there to mention Proposition 87, the ballot initiative targeting Big Oil, and really the only speaker to make eye contact with everyone in the crowd. When it was over, Obama was met with a verbal ticker-tape parade of cheers and the thundering sound of the Rolling Stones’ “Start Me Up.”
Which makes one wonder: What will the Republicans throw at him when he runs for president? (“A Democrat whose name rhymes with Iraq and Osama!”) How many committees are at this moment sifting through school transcripts, property purchases and paternity suits? For now, however, the revving of swift-boat engines and the stirring of blog mud are still in the distance. And on this afternoon, in one sycamore grove of academe, it was briefly Phil Angelides’ day.