[Originally published in The Stranger, Dec. 13, 2007. Illustration by Rich Kelly.]
Barack Obama is surging in Iowa. Seattle is swooning. Oprah says he's the one. Could this man be the winner Democrats have been waiting for?
1. Only Connect
She's standing before a crowd of more than 18,000 people jammed inside a convention hall in Des Moines, Iowa, camera flashes ricocheting off the ceiling above her, thick brown curls rolling down to her shoulders. Oprah knows Iowans care. "You have to care about this country to come out in this kind of weather," she says, her voice rich with the empathy and affirmation that draw millions to her daytime talk show. "Twelve degrees, freezing rain and snow. You love America, I can see that you do."
Oprah knows she's making an emotional connection. She knows it's working. Expectant faces, mostly white, are beaming back at her, and it's only the start of her speech. She's hardly even begun to knead the audience's yearnings and fears into excitement for the presidential candidate who's inspired her to step for the first time out of the television soundstage and into the political arena.
Oprah knows how Iowans feel. She knows how they feel about those who constantly swing through their state these days, stumping for this or that candidate in the weeks before Iowa's first-in-the-nation caucuses, to be held this year on January 3. Iowans want to hear about politics from people who are genuine and approachable, not aloof or uncomfortable with flyover country. Oprah is genuine and approachable before word one. She's arrived for this speech wearing a soft purple jacket made of what looks to be thick velvet, exuding warmth, inviting touch. She jokes that she's uneasy in this new venue. "Backstage, somebody said, 'Are you nervous?' I go, 'You damn right I'm nervous.'" (Some of the more proper reporters in the hall will later mess with Oprah's non–Strunk and White word choices, rendering the second half of her sentence: "I said, 'You're damn right I'm nervous.'")
It's December 8. The polls show Oprah's pick, Illinois senator Barack Obama, running at least even with, and possibly ahead of, the two other top Democratic contenders in Iowa: New York senator Hillary Clinton and former North Carolina senator John Edwards. It's a remarkable feat for Obama, something unexpected by the political class and unprecedented for a black politician wooing white Iowa—almost as unprecedented as this rally, which for all its other firsts, offers what is certainly a visual first for me, and probably a visual first for presidential politics. It's a rally for a man who suddenly has a realistic chance of winning both Iowa and the presidency. It will last about an hour. Not one white person will take the stage. Instead, at the end, amid the frenzied cheers, three people will wave and flash their most winning smiles: the candidate, his wife, and his powerful celebrity endorser—all of them black.
Oprah knows this is unusual, and that it will take some doing to put Obama over the top in Iowa, even with his surging momentum. "I am here to ask you to think—seriously," Oprah says. And though it takes the form of a request, it hits with the force of a command.
It wouldn't normally be considered smart politics to fly a sophisticated black woman in from Chicago to tell the residents of Des Moines that they need to use their minds—that they "better think," as the Aretha Franklin song that Oprah entered the hall to put it, rather bluntly. Most political rallies offer paeans to the innate wisdom of the American people, not challenges to them to get serious. But Oprah can go there. She's made herself into a transcendent figure in American culture and it gives her a certain license to push people.
Her first order of business is to push the audience itself into a moment of transcendence. Obama's entire campaign is keyed on this idea of transcendence, on the notion that he can, Oprah-like, rise above history, race, and American cultural norms. Oprah knows that the audience needs to feel that potential for transcendence—needs to really live it for a moment—if they're going to commit to a black man.
"When you strip us all down, when you take away our race, our color, our ethnicity, our backgrounds, our sex," Oprah says, voice rising, repeating herself like a preacher. "When you strip us all down, we are American in our core. We are America. We are American, with our hopes and our dreams. And yes, we have our hopes and our fallacies, but what we really have is an abiding faith in the possibility that life can be better for every one of us."
The crowd is hers now, minds moving with her imagery—stripped naked, bathed in warmth and kindness, fallible, yes, but also part of a singular, hopeful whole that is to be redeemed by one man. It feels somewhat like a mass baptism, a group blessing, a coronation for a new King of Candidates. I think of a joke one of my editors made before I left for this trip. Trying to come up with a potential headline for a story about Obama's rise in Iowa, a story that would run close to Christmastime, my editor suggested "Is Barack Obama Baby Jesus?" Turns out that's not far from Oprah's mark.
2. Cold and Ice
Presidential campaigns are about the issues of the day, certainly, and these days there is no shortage of issues for the candidates to debate, chief among them the war in Iraq and its consequences. But for better or for worse, presidential campaigns are also, to a very large extent, about the stage presence and personal narrative of a given candidate—about the emotional bond these attributes create, or fail to create, with voters. Oprah knows she's here not for a policy conference, but to up the wattage on Obama's already electrifying stage presence, and to offer her voice—thick, dexterous, able to swing through more emotions in a minute than any political charmer I've ever seen—in the service of explaining Obama's personal narrative as political destiny. Oprah is here to connect—and over two days she will connect Obama to voters in a bigger, more public way than has occurred for any other candidate this year: More than 29,000 people will attend the two Oprah-Obama events in Iowa; more than 8,500 will turn out in New Hampshire; and the next day in South Carolina, more than 29,000 people will show up at a football stadium to hear the two of them speak. At the event in Des Moines, standing in the center of the cheering crowd, I thought to myself: This doesn't feel like presidential politics. It feels like a movement.
Obama's campaign is nominally about hope and change: The Audacity of Hope, as the title of his 2006 book put it; "Change We Can Believe In," as his campaign banners put it. But the campaign is really propelled, as all the other Democratic campaigns are now, by a sense of anxiety. In the public at large, across party lines, there is an ever-present anxiety about America's drift. And among Democrats in particular, there is acute anxiety, so unbearable that most douse it in optimism, about the possibility that it could happen again: That American liberals could field a losing general-election candidate at the very moment their party and their country can least afford to do so.
Oprah knows this. But she doesn't get all angry or hysterical about it. "In my conversations with friends, we talk about how we get worried about America," she says. Her tone is grave, maybe a little despairing, and—almost unbelievably for someone as wealthy and powerful as Oprah, but very shrewdly considering her audience—she is speaking now with the resigned lilt of the powerless. Just like the average Iowans in the audience, Oprah and her friends sit around tables and talk and wonder whether they can really do anything to affect the course of events. "We shake our heads and we say, mmm-mmm... mmm... Somebody ought to do something about that," she says.
Oprah knows about the anxiety beneath it all: "These are dangerous times. I know you know it. We're all watching American Idol trying to forget about it... We're facing a lot of explosive issues. Complicated situations that are easily muddied. We need a leader who shows us how to hope again and have faith again in America as a force for peace."
This leader she has in mind was born in 1961 in Hawaii to a white American mother and a black immigrant father originally from Kenya. He grew up to attend Harvard Law School and, after graduating, turned his back on money and prestige. He became a community organizer on Chicago's south side, working among the poor. He saw potential in people the rest of society was ignoring. As he discovered his political gifts and voice, he chose to speak his mind even when his opinions were outside the mainstream of his party—most significantly, Oprah reminds the audience to an enormous burst of cheers, when he opposed the war in Iraq from the beginning.
Obama's main opponent, Hillary Clinton, supported the war in the beginning, has refused to apologize for that position (although she says she would not take the same position again knowing what she knows now), and has questioned whether Obama, only a one-term senator, has enough experience to lead the country in such perilous times and enough political savvy to really bring about that big, generalized sense of change that is his mantra (and, increasingly as Obama climbs in the polls, hers). Oprah, without mentioning Clinton's name, dismisses all of that criticism: "We the people can see through all that rhetoric. We realize that the amount of time you've spent in Washington means nothing unless you're accountable for the judgments you've made with the time you've had." It's a swipe—or as close as Oprah gets to a swipe—at Clinton's judgment in voting for the Iraq war resolution in 2002.
"We need good judgment," Oprah continues, hitting her refrain: "We need Barack Obama."
The crowd now explodes every time Oprah says "we need Barack Obama." Oprah is connecting with them in the way Clinton can't, the excitement in the convention hall an implicit reminder that one of the biggest hurdles Clinton faces is her perceived off-puttingness, the fact that a lot of people haven't been able to warm to her, don't feel drawn to her. "I thinks she's too much of a divisive person," Karen Meads, 41, of Grinnell, Iowa, told me before the Oprah-Obama event. "I don't think that she could win the general election. So many people just don't like her."
I heard this repeatedly in Iowa. When one of the many young Obama supporters at the rally, Allie Peden, 18, of Des Moines, told me she was still officially undecided, I guessed that as a young African-American woman she was probably trying to choose between Obama and Clinton. It turned out she is trying to make one of those classic, conventional-wisdom-bending choices that independent-minded Iowans are famous for—she's trying to choose between Obama and Republican Mike Huckabee. Nevertheless, Peden predicted an Obama win based on his momentum and charisma alone. "People are just drawn to Obama, almost naturally," Peden told me. "People are looking for the fire, people are looking for the passion, and Obama has it, and people want it."
I thought two things after talking to Peden. One: I can't believe she's having a hard time choosing between Obama and Huckabee, who are two of the most politically divergent candidates in the race. And two: I'm glad I'm going to see Clinton for myself this evening.
I was planning to shove on my gloves, pull on my hat, dash out of the Oprah-Obama event, and hop into a big rental car that had been up-sold to me based on its skid-avoiding weight. I was planning to drive, fast, on allegedly clear roads, about 150 miles east from Des Moines to tiny Washington, Iowa, where Clinton was to appear a few hours later at a local fire department. It seemed a classic campaign locale, perhaps an example of the "textbook" campaign that Obama has accused Clinton of running at a time that calls for boldness and new approaches. I was hoping to find out whether Clinton really does have trouble connecting on the trail. I was hoping to enjoy a trip through rural Iowa that might provide all kinds of fodder for ruminations on the differences (and similarities) between that state and ours. And in particular, I thought the setting of little Washington, Iowa, would provide a nice opportunity to point out that in that Washington—where the Democratic caucuses fall on January 8, as opposed to in this Washington, where the Democratic caucuses come on February 9—people's votes will actually matter. (It's highly probable, given this cycle's accelerated and front-loaded nominating process, that the Democratic contest will be all sewn up by the time we in Washington State get our chance to weigh in.)
But, as Oprah said, the temperature was in the teens. Paradoxically, the precipitation was coming down as freezing rain. (I later asked the shuttle driver for the hotel I was staying in: Isn't it supposed to come down as snow when it's this cold? She said she didn't understand it either, but that's Iowa weather for ya.) I made a bit of an effort to scrape the ice from my rental-car windows and drove off. I figured the car's defrosters would take care of the rest. Here's the thing I learned: If it's cold enough outside, freezing rain sticks to your windshield as ice, and then this ice starts to spread across and encase your windshield, which is a frightening thing to watch as you're driving down Interstate 80. Especially if it's getting dark and the road is dotted with other cars that have pulled over, hazards flashing, so that the drivers can get out, scrape, and proceed (presumably only to stop, scrape, and proceed again). I pushed the temperature control all the way into the red and turned up the blowers as high as possible. I thought I was going to pass out. It was 100 degrees inside the car, it was 12 degrees outside, and the ice was still crawling across the windshield, closing in on the one remaining clear spot like one of those movie fade-outs that shrink from a big circle into a tiny dot, and then blackness.
Being on the presidential campaign trail, even for just 32 hours as I was, is a bit like living in a fever dream. You're landing, small plane shaking, passing over a snowy field in which someone's done a few doughnuts, and you wonder if the circles, Os within Os, are some gift of an Oprah-Obama metaphor. By the time you realize you're acting crazy and desperate for copy, you're at the hotel, and then, rushing to make everything work according to plan, you're off again, out on the street, walking to the rental-car place, where the man behind the desk tells you that you're insane for walking six blocks in this cold. You notice how much your face hurts, realize that he's right, there's not a soul on the streets of Des Moines, and start to absorb the idea that this is not going to be a good trip for man-on-the-street interviews. Too bad.
You hit a warm bar, chat someone up, go back to your hotel, and in the elevator get drawn in by two young men who make up a dueling piano act called Hella Ivory. They're old enough to vote. They want you to come to their hotel room and get stoned. They have some things to say about Obama ("He's very concise," "I feel like he has vision," "He seems to speak to the common man better"), so you say sure. The room is chaos: A half-full pizza box, a large prescription container filled with green buds, condoms still in wrappers, a giant pile of small bills, crumpled clothes. About picking a Democrat based on his or her likelihood of winning, one half of Hella Ivory says: "I guess it's probably a smart thing to think about who's gonna win. But I'm a musician. Right now I'm thinking about playing music and getting vagina." They offer you some meth. They're joking. You leave. You wake up.
You head to a place called Hy-Vee Hall, named after some Midwest supermarket chain. Oprah Winfrey is standing above you, queen-like. People are shoving you trying to get a better view. Nationally known political reporters are chattering about who's up and who's down and how Obama really could win this thing. Then you're out in the cold again, and then you're in a car headed to see an alleged ice princess and ice is closing in on you, crawling across your windshield, blocking your view of the road ahead. You wonder again if it's a metaphor. You realize it's not, it's just your job, and you decide it's not worth dying for, even though it's the presidential race and so it's very possible that people will actually die based on the decisions American voters make about the people you're writing about, and that a few of those decisions might even be made based on this article you're now convinced you'll actually fail to write based on nerves or lack of material or death on the highway. Better to turn around. You're sweating from the defroster madness. You're starving.
You pull into a McDonald's drive-through. You feel desperate and disappointed and you find yourself asking the woman at the drive-through window what she thinks about the Democratic contenders. She's white, hair pulled back into a ponytail that pops out under the band of her McDonald's visor. "I just don't think this country is ready for a girl president or a black president," she says. A girl president. You look out the passenger-side window and see a flatbed truck carrying two desert-camouflage Humvees rolling onto an on-ramp. You wonder if it's another metaphor. You eat your fries, sip your Coke, try to wake up. You rev up the defrost again, sweat again, pull onto Interstate 80 again, head back to the hotel again, drop your stuff again, go to a nearby bar again. A British journalist orders another glass of wine and tells you to mark his words, Obama will win Iowa and Clinton will come in third, behind Edwards, and that will be the end of Hillary Clinton for president. He makes a poof effect with his hands, as if she were a witch about to be disintegrated by a magic spell. You go to bed again, wake up again, get on a plane again, watch it all recede.
3. Like, Really
On the trail, Obama likes to recall Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s talk about "the fierce urgency of now." In her Des Moines speech, Oprah also made an appeal for this type of urgency, for the need to stand up and embrace the right man for this anxious moment, for the importance of breaking out of familiar patterns. She told a story about a book she loves, The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, in which the main character is searching for someone. Searching, searching, always searching for that right person. Just like the Democrats. And never finding him, but always coming up to people and nervously asking: Are you the one? Are you the one?
"I believe in '08 I have found the answer to Miss Pittman's question," Oprah says. "I have found the answer. It is the same question that our nation is asking: Are you the one? Are you the one? I'm here to tell you, Iowa: He is the one. He is the one." She shouts his name, but it's drowned out by the roar of the crowd, which by now already knows who the one is: Barack Obama.
I find myself wondering about this crowd, however. There are a lot of women, evidence that bringing in Oprah was probably a good way of making a play for the same female voters that Clinton is counting on to push her to victory. But the crowd is also young. A lot of them are obviously too young to vote, even under the liberal rules of the Iowa caucuses, which allow anyone who will be 18 by the November general election to caucus on January 3. Out in the convention-center hallways before the event, these young first-time voters were chanting like they were at a high-school pep rally: "O-bam-a! O-bam-a!" In fact, even though it was midday on a Saturday, many of them looked like they'd just come from a pep rally, wearing letterman jackets or their school colors. I felt, in moments, as if I were about to enter the gymnasium of, say Boone High School, in Boone County, Iowa, population 26,000, from which two high-school students I talked to hailed.
I'd decided to stop Mary Jo Martin, now 17 (but 18 before November 2008!), and Clara Volker, 18, because they looked like such archetypal small-town high-school cheerleaders. I thought: White Midwestern cheerleaders for Obama? What?
It turned out only one of them, Martin, is a cheerleader—and a cocaptain of the dance squad, and a sprinter and hurdler on the track team. Volker is on the swim team, however, and in the thespian society. They both consider themselves Democrats. They both were drawn to the event by the celebrity of Oprah as much as by the politics of Obama—and, honestly, also by their friends who are into Obama, by Facebook groups that have been talking up Obama ("That's where we get most of our information, actually, from the Facebook groups," Volker told me), and by how cool he seems to be at their school. They're both still undecided. And both of them, like a number of the young voters I talked to, were rather inarticulate about why they might pick Obama over the other candidates, and in some instances flat-out uninformed.
I asked Martin why she likes Obama. "I'm trying to think. I don't know. Well, I'm more of a, like... He seems like a very nice... Like, a leader. Like he'd be someone I could trust to lead the country."
Why not Clinton?
"I just don't like Hillary Clinton. I don't think she supports women very well. I don't think she really represents all of us very well. She's not normal enough, I think. She's not just your average woman, she's this hooty-tooty person. I don't know." (Volker corrected her, telling her it's hoity-toity, not hooty-tooty. They both giggled.)
Volker told me that, unlike her friend, she's into both Obama and Clinton, but also leaning more toward Obama. Why? "Well, mainly, actually, it's my parents. Like, they're always just like, 'Hillary's great!' and everything, and then they're like, 'Oh, Obama's great!' I listen to them, but I'm also starting to take more interest in the issues."
Oh yeah, the issues. For the last 4,000 words or so, I've been cringing as I hear, inside my head, the clackety-clack of all you "Issues First!" readers typing up furious e-mails to the editor about how this is one big, fat horse-race piece, how it's all about impressionistic assessments of superficial things like "stage presence" and hard-to-quantify things like "momentum," and not at all about serious policy differences between the candidates.
I hear you. I like policy and issues, too. But, also, listen to how Volker talks about what she considers the most pressing policy issue in this election, Iraq:
"Like, I don't know, I think that Obama has a really good idea for Iraq."
What's so good about it?
"Well, I like, um, how he's gonna go about it. He's gonna actually listen to the military officials, which is very important to do when dealing with a war."
And Clinton wouldn't?
"I don't think she'd listen to them as much, I don't think so. I think she's too... More of an 'I know what I'm doing, I'm independent.' That sort of thing."
Notice that she said nothing about the candidates' different deadlines for beginning a troop withdrawal (Obama's is March of 2008, Hillary's is more fuzzy). And nothing about the issue of permanent bases in Iraq and the possibility of a continued, smaller troop presence in the country to ensure the security of U.S. assets. (Both Clinton and Obama are against permanent bases and for a continued, smaller troop presence.) You may cringe at impressionistic assessments, but for Volker it's all about impressionistic assessments, not issues—as it was for a lot of potential voters, and not just young potential voters, whom I talked to in Iowa.
So yes, one could write about Iraq differences, Iran differences, health-care differences, and Social Security differences for 4,000 words, or more, and many writers have, and you should fire up your web browser and read what they’ve written if you’re interested in important policy nuances. But policy nuances are not what a lot of the potential voters I encountered in Iowa are basing their decisions on.
These impression-oriented potential voters are among the tens of thousands of people whose e-mail addresses the Obama campaign was bragging of having captured after the four Oprah events. They help make up the crowds who generate the "sense of momentum" coverage and the "movement" feeling. No one knows for sure whether it's real. No one will know for sure until the caucuses and primaries actually begin. It could end up that Obama is the one who goes poof in Iowa. Youth voters, especially, are regularly touted as a powerful weapon for whatever "movement" campaign has arisen in a given cycle, and they constantly disappoint. Consider also the 54-year-old black woman I met at the Oprah-Obama event in Des Moines who had a lot to say about Obama (among other things, that she will not vote for Obama if she gets to feeling that he's in the race because he wants to be the first black president), and who then told me she was unlikely to actually go out and caucus for anyone.
It could very well turn out that Obama's campaign is a giant house of cards built on personal magnetism, celebrity appeal, and the mirage of a giant "youth vote." His grassroots excitement strategy could end up being mowed down by the more "textbook" Clinton strategy of big union endorsements, photogenic firehouse appearances, and finely targeted pandering to the most likely voters. But other campaigns are taking the Obama rise seriously. As Oprah and Obama were rallying thousands at that football stadium in South Carolina on December 9, there was a report that Bill Clinton was furious about the failure of his wife's campaign team to stop Obama's rise, that the former president was "bouncing off the walls at the campaign's ineptitude." That same weekend, the Clinton campaign released a South Carolina radio spot by Maya Angelou in which the well-known black poet elbows her way into the conversation, calling Clinton "my girl."
4. In the Booth
Obama finally takes the stage in Des Moines, but at this point, he doesn't need to say much. Oprah's already said it all. I make note of two statements: "If we want to win this election we can't live in fear of losing it," and something about "going into a voting booth." I make note of that second one because it brings to mind something I've been reading about. Later, I cue the quote up on my digital audio recorder. Obama, voice loud and commanding, says: "If you can come out on a cold, windy day like today, you can come out on January 3 and make your voices heard. When you caucus on January 3, and when you go into the voting booth next November, there's another question that you're going to have to ask yourself. You're going to have to ask yourself, 'What is next for America?'"
On my recording, I can hear a white woman's voice shout out her answer to what's next for America: "Barack Obama!" Cheers follow.
Obama goes on to talk about the vision he has for what's next, but I'm thinking about that moment in the voting booth he mentioned and, in Iowa, that moment of truth that will come at the caucus meetings. It brings up another question people have about the Obama campaign.
Polls show Obama could win Iowa, but polls are extremely fallible, and perhaps even more so when testing voter attitudes about black candidates; there has been lots of talk this election cycle about the very real phenomenon of white voters telling pollsters over the phone that they will vote for a black candidate, and then doing something completely different in the privacy of the voting booth, or when the moment to decide at a caucus comes. Obama is certainly rising in Iowa, and a win there could propel him into a streak where he "runs the table" of early primary states, captures the nomination, and, as Andrew Sullivan wrote recently in the Atlantic, takes the Democratic party and the country past not only the era of the Clintons, but, by extension, "past the debilitating, self-perpetuating family quarrel of the baby-boom generation that has long engulfed all of us."
There is another possibility, however, the one alluded to by the woman at the McDonald's drive-through and by the bartender I talked to in Des Moines who believes the false rumors that Barack Hussein Obama is a Muslim, telling me: "To think that the rest of the country is going to elect someone who's in the minority in religion and in race just doesn't seem realistic to me." This other possibility is that, the quarrels of the baby boomers aside, America is not even past its more antediluvian quarrels about race and religion, and that a black man with a Muslim-sounding middle name, however powerfully he may capture the enthusiasm of liberals, will go down to certain defeat in a general election.
It probably matters very little, at least in the process of picking a Democratic nominee, but Obama supporters in Seattle don't seem to think that's the real America. They agree with Oprah. They agree with Obama. They agree with Sullivan. They are part of a movement that has raised over $1 million for Obama in Washington State, more than has been raised here by any other candidate, Republican or Democrat—by almost a factor of two. They point to a recent University of Washington poll that found Obama doing better than Clinton in Washington against Republican Rudy Giuliani, largely because Obama does significantly better than Clinton among independent voters—an indication that this idea that Obama can bridge old divides in America is more than just soaring rhetoric.
But, again: That's if people are telling pollsters the truth.
At a small rally in Pioneer Square on December 10, in advance of a big Obama fundraising visit to Seattle the next day that was to feature Stone Gossard of Pearl Jam and other local music notables, Shanna Sawatzki, 28, of Ballard, explained why she's been pulled into "Generation Obama" (as the Seattle event organizers call it). "He doesn't compromise on his beliefs," she said. "And he's just incredibly well-spoken in a way that allows Republicans to see his point of view in a better way, rather than being left or right, even though he's very far left."
Nearby, Wyatt Wood, 64, wearing a big brown wool jacket to fend off the Seattle cold (not quite Iowa cold, but still chilly), sounded as if he'd been at the same Oprah speech I attended.
Obama, Wood explained, offers not just a return to progressive ideals. He offers something more profound, something rare and frightening, but worth taking risks for: "transformation."