Portland Mercury


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Sunday, May 18, 2008

Election 2008 Barack Obama in Portland. (Or, Why I’m Going Into the Bootleg T-Shirt Business.)

Posted by Erik Henriksen on Sun, May 18 at 6:15 PM


As has been noted earlier, the line is ridiculous, snaking through downtown in a clusterfucky sort of ramble as it veers past (1) tired-looking people who wearily hold up banners proclaiming “Ron Paul for President,” (2) 9/11 conspiracy theorists, and (3) at least one scowling lady with a Hillary t-shirt and a Hillary button on her baseball cap who has a poster board that reads something to the effect of “SEXISM: SAME OLD POLITICS,” and even at 12:30, at least two and a half hours before it’s reasonable to expect Obama will even show up, when myself and Alison Hallett and Scott Moore hike to the top of a Smart Park to try and see how far the line goes, it’s already obvious that it’s entirely too long to stand in—it’s early yet, and I’m nine stories up, and already, I can see peoples’ sunburns, their once-pale skin blistering into that vicious shade between pink and red.

So instead: Scott bails for home, and Alison and I head to the Rialto for lunch, prefacing another assault on the line—this time, one that’s significantly more half-hearted, and one that’s thankfully and fully aborted once it becomes evident that the line, still snaking around downtown, isn’t even really going anywhere—if anything, the Obama volunteers w/ megaphones seem to just be shepherding people around so no that one wearing tie-dye ends up standing in the middle of traffic. At which point, seriously, fuck this: Alison and I finally remember that we work for a goddamn newspaper, for chrissakes, even if we are not “news” writers, per se, and so, with a bit of vagueness and attitude, within no time at all, the Mercury’s arts editor and film editor have successfully bullshitted their way past security and through a jumbled caravan of media trailers and into the press corral, where we find ourselves standing next to people who actually have experience and know-how when it comes to reporting on this sort of thing, Amy Ruiz among them, and there we are, waiting for Obama to come on and tell us about how everything’s going to change.

Which he does, soon enough--though I imagine tens of thousands of Portlanders sitting out in the sun on the grass, the ones who have been waiting/sitting for hours in the 80˚+ heat, feel as if Obama’s taking his sweet-ass time getting out here already.


What follows, more or less, is pretty much the same speech Obama gave last time he was in Portland; it’s obvious, pretty quickly, that we’re in for the dude’s standard stump speech, big and broad and geared towards massive crowds. Looking back from the press area, the field of infinitesimal people stretches back and back and back: John Kerry supposedly packed 50,000 people in here when he showed up with Bon Jovi (tangent: as Scott Moore noted earlier, the Decemberists are to Portland as Bon Jovi is to Jersey), and if this crowd isn’t 50,000, it’s damn close*. I can’t see where they could possibly fit anyone else in. The park is packed, people are still crossing over the Hawthorne Bridge, boats float in the water just offshore, people on their decks in swimsuits, lounging about and listening, and even the Portland Spirit is floating just N of the Hawthorne, people leaning against the railings to try and catch the words that echo over the park and bounce off of the bridge's steel and concrete.

When Obama entered, Springsteen’s “The Rising” kicked up and Obama came out with his family. After the music dies down and the lesser Obamas are shuffled off, the first thing the important Obama remarks on is how this is “the most spectacular setting and most spectacular crowd in this entire campaign,” and with the sun shining on the river and on the park and on the however many tens of thousands of people who’re going apeshit and holding up their hands and children and cell phones, it’s surprisingly easy to believe that Obama might actually mean it.

From there: Obama once again references “the fierce urgency of now”--a phrase of Martin Luther King Jr.’s, repurposed to explain why he’s running--and launches into a list of grievances re: the current state of things, from the war to the price of milk. Each time Obama promises that things can be fixed, the crowd breaks into a thumping, eager chant--“Yes we can! Yes we can!”--which is fine until I see an overweight white woman doing Arsenio Hall’s fist-pumping gesture to the phrase's rhythm, which seems to throw off the whole vibe pretty dismally.

The die-hards in the crowd, actually, do a pretty good job of telling me what I need to do as a side business, and soon: Get in on this whole cottage industry that’s sprung up around bootleg Obama t-shirts. There are a ton of them here, entire tables that’ve spung up, though solo guys walking around with duffel bags are more prevalent. But the shirts themselves, those proudly worn, are what are so striking, not only in their number, but also in their sentiments, which send earnest but confusing messages: One is bright green and features an apostrophe/shamrock between the “O” and “bama” (?!); one bears the Time cover heralding Obama as “The Contender”; another has an image in which someone’s photoshopped Obama into an old picture of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, squeezing Obama between the two, with the caption X’s familiar phrase: “By any means necessary.”


ANYWAY: Speech. As he has for the past couple of weeks, Obama downplays Hillary, almost to the extent of condolence: He mentions that she’s run an “extraordinary campaign,” and then he’s moved on, practically putting her in the past tense, moving on to his various beefs with McCain. His statement that McCain’s running for “Bush’s third term” goes over like gangbusters with a dude standing 10 or 15 feet away from me, wearing a Budweiser fishing hat, who astutely adds to the proceedings by cupping his hands around his mouth and shouting that George Bush sucks.

“Trying to calibrate and calculate won’t do,” Obama says of the current state of Democrats, urging the party to become, again, what it might have once have been (or so I hear, from my grandparents): “a party that just doesn’t focus on how we [can] win but why we should.” Obama notes that this election is about “reclaiming the government for the people,” which strikes me as a phrase that if you put it in the mouth of a South American guerrilla, it wouldn’t sound out of place--but fuck, fair enough, if there’s any time for talk of revolution, this is it. (Actually, now that I think about it, talk of revolution would have also been more than welcome about four years ago--but Kerry, bland and gray and unsure and unloved, never had the skill to speak this strongly, to motivate so easily.) Obama hits a few more points--singling out Portland as a model for mass transit and bike riding, dismissing McCain and Hillary’s bullshitty gas tax holiday as a “gimmick,” and then, just 40 minutes from when he started, he’s headed offstage to the same song that played him out at the Memorial Coliseum, if I remember correctly: Stevie Wonder’s “Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours.”

Overall, it’s an impressive speech, and one that's engaging, and smart, and moving--albeit one that, at this point, is also getting familiar in its themes. Heading back to my apt., a tall guy, maybe 60, with a walking staff and a gray beard, is patiently walking along Naito Parkway; he stops me and politely asks if I’ve come from Obama, and how was it, etc. Quietly, with a grin, he says, “Holy shit!” when I tell him how crowded it was; when I add that there were no grand revelations or surprises in Obama’s speech, he smiles again and says, at this point, here at the home stretch, as if the guy has any time to come up with anything new. Gandalf’s point seems totally legit until I realize that shit, even when Obama gets this nomination, this is hardly the homestretch--sure, it feels like this thing’s been going on forever, but the real business, the actual campaign, hasn’t even started yet, not really, and once it does, it won’t end until November.

*UPDATE. Goddamn. So okay, never mind: More like 75,000.


Obama sez Only the UN should set your thermostat and decide what you eat. You are just not smart enough to do it.

Blogtown End Hits: The Merc's Music Blog MOD: Merc on Design 2008: Merc Election Coverage Installations: The Mercury's 4th Annual Fashion Show  

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