Monger Me, Obama!

The mood in Texas.

Obama supporters

SAN ANGELO, Texas—On Friday, I stood in the crowd at Barack Obama’s San Antonio rally next to a gray-haired man reading Ficino’s Platonic Theology in Latin. Beside him, a young interracial couple—which felt like the norm, rather than the exception, in the audience—hugged as Stevie Wonder played over the loudspeakers. The Verizon Wireless Center had a charged feel, and not just because of the rotation of soul songs blasting around us: Most of the rally-goers had waited for half an hour in a line that snaked to the edge of the parking lot while the flat light of the setting sun sliced the wide sky.

Even the cities in Texas have a quality of open space. At the rally, that quality translated into precisely the type of civic openness that Obama has advocated for throughout his campaign. The audience was talkative, friendly, and multiracial; earlier, everyone had held hands and prayed. The neo-Platonist said that Obama reminded him of Bobby Kennedy, the kind of figure able to inspire audiences to political action. He didn’t understand Hillary’s attacks on Obama’s optimistic rhetoric, or the press’s skepticism about it. What was wrong, exactly, with using language to inspire a crowd to vote, to care about their civil liberties? Talking about policy details wouldn’t get them to the polls. Inspiring them would. On my right, a young black man screamed when Obama entered the amphitheatre, and he rushed over to greet him; he came back pumping his fist and saying, “He shook my hand!” I’d expected such latter-day Beatlemania, but two things surprised me: First, the excitement wasn’t based on gender in the way I’d come to expect. (If anything, the guys seemed more excited than the ladies.) Second, the energy was far more sober than the reports of Obama fever had led me to believe.

I’ve been living in Texas for two months, mostly in Marfa, a small town in the western part of the state where ranchers and artists happily coexist; over the past weeks, I’ve driven across Texas talking in a casual way with people about what they think of the Democratic primary taking place tomorrow. Nearly everyone I’ve spoken to has said they believe Obama will win. In Austin, a trendy store not far from the University of Texas was selling “Barack Obama is Good!” T-shirts. A few in the women’s large size were left, but the men’s had nearly sold out. On a plane from Houston to Austin, I talked to an ex-Navy diver who was planning to vote for McCain: He hoped that Hillary would win the primary, but thought it unlikely, because Obama had seized the imagination of so many voters. (“What do you think he really believes?” he asked me. “I can’t tell.)

Meanwhile, a middle-aged gas station attendant in the small town of Brady reluctantly exposed his feelings about Hillary. “She scares me like the devil,” he said, slowly. A Republican, he didn’t like talking about his politics to anyone, he said, and then added that he thought that the “Osama—Osama Bin Laden” fellow had some good ideas: for example, about how CEOs shouldn’t make in 10 minutes what workers make in a year (a line from Obama’s stump speech). The most striking thing to me—a lifetime New Englander—is just how independent-minded Texas voters see themselves as being. It’s a live-and-let-live attitude that extends from coffee to politics. (“I don’t listen to the radio. I don’t read the newspapers. I don’t watch TV,” a man in a coffee shop in San Angelo told me.)

It’s a common critique of Obama that his followers have become messianic—that the candidacy is built on little more than the man’s Lincoln-esque charisma and the soft hucksterism of “hope.” While a cult of personality clearly has sprung up around the guy—and watching him perform, you can see why—the irony is that Obama’s actual message is more demanding (if not more detail-oriented) than that of any other candidate I can remember. What makes people excited, it seemed to me at the San Antonio rally, was the invitation Obama issued to the crowd to participate in what was to come. He wasn’t telling them what he and Washington would do for them, and he wasn’t complaining; he just said, we want you to think, we want you to volunteer, we want you to vote. What made folks go wild was the way that Obama demands something of his audience by reminding them that this is a bottom-up rather than top-down enterprise.

The most recent polls in Texas suggest that Hillary is closing the gap Obama had widened over the past few weeks in taking the lead. Over the weekend, the polls showed a dead heat, with both candidates at 47 percent of the votes. One thing that may work against Obama in a state like Texas, with a strong military presence where security matters to many of the independent voters, who can vote in the Democratic primary on Tuesday, is that it’s actually very hard to convey with short quotes the breadths of Obama’s speeches. The effect depends almost entirely on the nature of the relationship he develops with his audience. It’s a lot like being in church with a smart, educated minister gently reminding you that it’s possible to lead a richer and more generous life. What TV sound bites don’t quite capture is the careful way Obama splices the measured rhetoric of a Harvard Law grad with the oratorical energies of the black church. The campaign speech (in its current incarnation) is not a frenzy-whipping peroration. On the contrary, it’s a challenge to listeners to step up to the plate and to put aside tired oppositions that have bogged the nation down. Sure, it’s short on specifics. But the way he calmly deconstructs old binaries is impressive. And it jolts you into thinking that sometimes a rut is just a rut, not a road.

The morning of the San Antonio rally, Hillary released her now-infamous “Red Phone” ad, and Obama responded during his speech by stressing that it was judgment, not just experience, that matters. By now, he’d worked the crowd not to a frenzy but to a place of calm empowerment (there’s really no other word for it), mostly by seeming to talk to them about the choices they were going to make about their own futures, rather than by merely telling them to choose him. “Some people call us hope-mongers,” he began, about to explain why this was a false charge, when the young black man next to me shouted out “Monger me, Obama!” And there it was: the power Obama has to speak to those who need hope more than they trust experience.

For all these reasons, though, Obama is susceptible to the larger counternarratives being used against him—that he is a Muslim, a Communist, and (with more grounding) that he has little practice at policy-making. In the coffee shop in San Angelo—a city anchored by its Air Force base—where I’ve been working, a conversation broke out about whether Obama is a Muslim, and, if so, whether it matters. Last night, lightning flickered along the edges of eastern and central Texas, bringing with it thunder and hailstorms.