IT'S EARLY Friday morning, March 21. Long before presidential candidate Barack Obama appears on stage, the jammed Memorial Coliseum where he's slated to speak is totally electric—buzzing on a high stronger than all the coffee in Portland could possibly provide. And thank god for it. I've had about two hours of sleep but the energy around me makes it easy to stay awake.
Mistakenly supposing Obama's entering the arena, the audience shifts in unison often. They crane their necks and perch on their tiptoes, hoping for a glimpse. It's like they're looking for some mythical creature like Elvis or Sasquatch. But he's not here yet.
Finally, he enters with New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson. Enthusiasm rockets toward complete insanity.
Obama's face appears honest and full of humility. And though he's witnessed this scene many times, there appears to be a touch of genuine awe.
Richardson begins. He is in fine form and his endorsement rings true. Because of the foreign policy experience he gained in the Clinton administration—and his resistance of Hillary and Bill's calls for loyalty—his words hold more water than most. He seems to be the odds-on favorite for secretary of state.
Richardson quickly steps aside, giving Obama the lectern. But before the candidate is allowed to say a word the audience erupts with two solid minutes of orgasmic applause.
Then, strangely enough, Obama doesn't exactly come roaring out of the gates. His opening words are stilted—less inspiring than I had hoped. Could this be, I wondered? Could we be unfortunate enough to catch the most impressive and inspiring politician in a generation on a slow day? (Indeed, Barack is notorious for less than stellar performances when fatigued.)
After a few moments Obama grabs a wireless mic and beings walking the stage. He starts to find his rhythm. He's working himself—and us—into it. Maybe five minutes in he hits full stride. This is indeed the man—the aura—we hoped he would be.
Things become more emotional and electric. Those looking for Elvis are now seeking Jesus. They strain to make eye contact, as if their very well-being depends on it. They hope to be saved.
So many singular burdens are thrust upon the stage. The decorated Vietnam vet. The woman standing while no one else did, stretching out her "Proud Teacher" T-shirt. The one with tears streaming down her cheeks. And the mother who cried out, "Bring my son home!" amid talk of the war.
They were all there, and many more—such weight in hopes and dreams for one man to shoulder. It's almost crushing.
It doesn't seem to faze him, or if it does, he hides it well. He's preaching, really. It's clear in rhythm and tone. He resonates like a deep brass bell.
The content is the usual stump—health care, better schools, withdrawal from Iraq, and of course, some Bush bashing for good measure. Still, there are moments where all the air rushes out of my body. I choke up. It's as if the words reach into your chest, crushing the trachea. They squeeze until you take to heart and to head the actuality of what's being said. You go there, you understand, and then the grip is released. This happens many times. I no longer feel tired.
"I've gone on too long," he says.
"NOOOOOOOOOOO!" the crowd moans, not wanting to let him go. Never.
Again Obama ramps up, and ends it on a high note. Then boom! It's over. Obama and Richardson are shaking hands on the rope line. "Signed, Sealed, Delivered" is cranking out over the PA.
It's hard to say how long the excitement lasts. And maybe it still is.