“Woo! I am fired up!” Barack Obama hollered to open his big rally on Tuesday at a Little League baseball diamond in Baldwin Hills. For about six seconds, before he said another word, the whole thing felt super exciting. Obama had just hopped onto a stage with crowds of people on all sides of him screaming and hollering his name and flapping blue “Obama” placards after waiting hours for him to appear. There were lots of police, and police always make things seem exciting. The late-afternoon sun gave everything a crisp golden sheen.
But right as he was about to get started, Obama’s mike went out, and he fiddled with it. Then, on his first visit to Los Angeles since announcing his campaign to be president, Obama decided to spend a few moments acknowledging… L.A. City Councilman Herb Wesson. And Congresswoman Diane Watson. He also spent a good minute worrying if a woman who fell faint not far from the stage had enough water, and asked if someone would call a medic.
“Who cares?!” an indignant voice wailed from behind me.
“Now, I know we got a whole bunch of City Council folks here,” Obama plowed on. “I’m not going to be able to acknowledge each and every one of ’em. You know I love you guys.”
But this wasn’t the end of it. Someone tossed him a stack of business cards, and, without much prodding, Obama started reading: “Jan Perry, Janice Hahn, Steve Bradford” — wait, he’s not on L.A.’s City Council — “Bill Rosendahl, Saundra Davis…” Saundra Davis? I remembered that Bradford is mayor pro tem of Gardena, but only later found out that Davis is president of Culver City’s school board.
“See, the only thing I worry about,” Obama said during a pause in his recitation, “is I know I’ll miss somebody.”
Okay, okay, now give us something. The war in Iraq, health care, global warming, racial harmony. Something!
“Occidental Tigers! UCLA Bruins! We got some Southern Cal folks here?!”
By the time Obama started talking about anything semisubstantive, it felt like we had suffered through a long series of movie trailers. At this point, my notes read: “Something about a child getting treated for asthma. And, diabetes.”
Thankfully, the speech eventually got going. Wearing a white shirt, and a classic navy blazer — which he removed while speaking without using the gesture to dramatically accent a point — Obama got to talking about the “audacity of hope,” the title of his best-selling book, and his campaign’s unofficial tag line. But if you’ve heard Obama on TV or read anything fluffy about him — and most of the people in the crowd seemed to be nominally familiar with the freshman senator’s rousing personal story — none of it would have sounded very new. Here was his big media moment in a state that stands to become ever more important in primary season, in a city seen worldwide as a testing ground for cross-ethnic harmony and an incubator for progressive causes and cultural movements, and in a section of that city where African-Americans enjoy the fruits of the audacity of their hope daily, in their stately homes and sparkling cars. Where was the juice? The L.A. love? He tossed us a nod to the nice weather, but not much else particularly thought-provoking or specific to the legion of voters in Southern California who are engaged, angry, hopeful and thirsty for change.
“Actually, I wish he had run as an independent,” said 74-year-old Nita Jones of Inglewood when I spotted her leaning against the railing dividing the press from the populace, an Obama placard stuck in the lining of her white baseball cap like a peacock feather. “I think he has independent ideas and he could do a lot of good. As a Democrat, he’s gonna get in the political crap that’s going around, and he needs to do it as an independent person. And start a new party. The Independent Party.”
Jones raised and dropped her chin to punctuate her point, then added, “It’s a new day. There’s just a lot of newness here. The Internet has changed things. It’s global. Instead of a country all by itself, we’re not separate anymore. And we need to know that.”
Then Obama dropped the kind of bomb many had been waiting for: “We fund both sides of the war on terrorism.” This is what a lot of people came to hear.
Obama went on to declare that he would seek health care for all Americans by the end of his first term as president, as well as end the war in Iraq, move the country toward renewable energy and focus on rehabilitating the incarcerated.
“It’s not because I’m in a hurry,” Obama said. “This is no bargain for my family. But when I sat down with my wife to really think about this, we asked ourselves, ‘Are we in a moment right now where potentially we could not just win an election but transform the country?’ And the answer is yes. Yes, we can transform the country.”
The response was thunderous.
After he spoke, Obama worked his way slowly through the citizens and cameramen who were clamoring to get near him. A contingent of students from Occidental College, where Obama studied briefly in the early 1980s, clustered together in orange T-shirts and headbands. Some people lofted copies of Obama’s memoir above their heads.
“He touched my hand! He touched my hand!” a young girl squealed after popping out of the mob. And then Obama was gone, whisked away to exclusive Hollywood industry fund-raisers that were expected to bring his campaign $1 million. Not much later, the cops stood back, the field emptied, and the school buses rumbled away. Barack Obama’s big L.A. moment came and went.