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Laramie Movie Scope:
Essay: An Evening With Obama

A politician pretending not to be one

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by Robert Roten, Film Critic
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March 8, 2008 -- Wyoming rose briefly and unusually into the national political spotlight this week as former President Bill Clinton, his wife Hillary and their daughter Chelsea, along with Clinton's rival, Barak Obama, criss-crossed the state in search of delegates to the national Democratic convention in Denver. Both Bill Clinton and Obama made public appearances in Laramie Wyoming within a day of each other this week, just before statewide Democratic Party caucuses. They probably spent a combined million dollars or so in pursuit of a mere 12 delegates. Such a thing was unprecedented and unforeseen mere weeks ago.

As I stood in line waiting to see Clinton on Thursday, I joked with people in line that Wyoming was having a bigger impact on the election than either Michigan or Florida, which lost all their delegates for breaking party rules by holding their primary elections early. Wyoming played by the rules (at least the Democrats did) and, as a result, was basking in the national political spotlight. If Michigan and Florida had played by the rules and had decided to hold their elections this week. Clinton and Obama would not have come to Wyoming at all. It is a delicious irony.

I showed up at 4 p.m. for the scheduled 5 p.m. event. Bill Clinton is famous for being late. We figured the event would not start until 5:30 p.m. We were right. The doors to the building were Clinton's talk was to be held were supposed to open at 4 p.m., but the line didn't move much for an hour. Evidently, according to a sign I saw along the line, the doors didn't actually open until 5 p.m., which is strange for an event that's supposed to start at 5 p.m. It was cold standing in line, the temperature was 24 degrees, but factoring in the wind chill, it was only 14 degrees above zero. I was dressed for the cold, but my friends were not. I loaned a friend my knitted wool hat when I saw she was trying to keep her ears warm with her hands. I put up the hood on my Carhartt coat and was comfortable enough. When we shuffled along to within sight of the building at about 5:20 p.m. the announcement was made that the building was full and no more people were to be let inside.

The building held only 1,200 people. About 3,200 people showed up for the event. The sound from Clinton's speech was to be piped into an adjacent building (where we were let in, then kicked out into a different part of the building in yet another screwup), but the echoes were so bad in there it was hard to make out what was being said. I left at about 6 p.m., not long after Clinton began speaking. It was a case of bad planning. The Clinton campaign should have booked a bigger building. In fact, the building next door held more than 10 times more people than the one used. The line could also have been located inside a large, empty, adjacent, connected building, where it was warm, instead of outdoors. Also someone could have counted people in line and let people at the end of the line know they weren't likely to get in. It was a complete muck up. The Clinton campaign lost a lot of votes because of it.

The next day was Obama's turn. The difference in the two campaign organizations was obvious from the beginning. Obama booked that bigger building next door. He had more volunteers. The line moved faster. Security was much tighter. Obama's campaign suggested that people RSVP the event online. The RSVP was meaningless. It was just a clever hustle to get names, addresses and phone numbers of potential campaign donors. Obama volunteers along the line told everyone they had to sign up on sheets of paper in order to be admitted to the building. Another lie. It was just another way to collect more names and telephone numbers. Those who filled out the forms received a red x-mark on the backs of their hands. “The sign of the beast,” I thought to myself. When we entered the building nobody checked for the red marks. Mine had rubbed off because I had taken my gloves off and put them back on numerous times.

At the entrance to the building, the line split in two. One line went to the left, into an entrance farther east. The other went right, into another entrance to the west. “The left line goes to the labor camps. The right line goes to the showers,” I joked. It turns out the left line was for reserved seating. The right line was for the great unwashed. We were told to empty our pockets. We had to go through metal detectors. The rent-a-cops doing the screenings didn't like the looks of a tiny gizmo on my key chain which had a bottle opener, nail file and knife (1.5 inches long with no point). They said they would have to confiscate it. I asked if I could get it back in an hour when the event was over. They said no.

If you take someone else's property and don't give it back, that is just plain theft, pure and simple. I won't stand for that. I told them they could not have my little gizmo, which I've carried around in my pocket for 40 years or so. They gave it back and not only said, “get out,” but “get out of the way.” I went back outside, hid the thing where I could find it after the event, went to the back of the line and eventually got back in the building. The little gizmo isn't worth anything. It's principle of the thing. On the next try, I made it past those thieving neo-Nazis, although they did take a long hard look at my nail clippers, which had an even smaller nail file (one inch long) than the other gizmo. Even they couldn't imagine me mounting much an attack with a one-inch long nail file and a small nail clipper. I sat with a friend who said they had stolen his pen knife. We can't catch Osama Bin Laden, but the world is safe from pen knives and Cat Stevens. All these idiots had to do was put the item in an envelope, have the person sign for it and pick it up an hour later. It's not like airport security where you can't come back and pick up your toothpaste because you are 2,000 miles away.

After a short introduction, Obama appeared from somewhere in the depths of the building, which is normally used as a basketball arena. Obama, a tall, stately man, has a rather high, piercing voice. The acoustics were better than the previous day, but still not ideal. I caught about three fourths of what was said. Obama got the most applause when he pointed out that he had better judgment than Hillary Clinton because he opposed the Iraq war from the beginning. He said he wanted get away from the politics of division and get into the politics of inclusion. He said he wanted to have a “bottom up” style of government, rather than “top down.” In short, he claimed not to be a politician. Rather, he said he is sort of a collaborative enabler. That is an odd thing to say because that is a distinctly feminine leadership style, where you would think that Hillary Clinton would have an edge. In fact, Clinton is known in Congress as a person skilled at building coalitions across party lines to get things done. Obama claims to have the same skills, implying Hillary does not, and he very cleverly kept implying that Clinton and McCain are both part of the old politics while he represents a new way of doing things.

In fact, we've already got “bottom up” legislation. A case in point is the very hard line some Republicans took on immigration policies in the U.S. House of Representatives. The anti-Hispanic movement came from the grassroots level, fanned by rabid radio talk show hosts and exploited by Tom Tancredo of Colorado. So big was that movement that virtually all the Republican presidential candidates were forced to take a hard line on immigration to appeal to the Republican base. This is not a top-down policy. The national Republican leadership knows this stance on immigration cost them dearly in the last election and will cost them again in the next one. The Hispanic vote in America is powerful, and getting stronger each year. This policy also goes against the agriculture industry, and big business doesn't like it either, because illegal aliens help hold down their labor costs. This has cost the Republicans campaign contributions as well as votes. Other bottom-up policies include anti-homosexual legislation and anti-evolution educational policies. Sometimes, when you get bottom-up policies, they come from the muck at the bottom of the political barrel.

Obama is an effective public speaker who is very clever in the way he transforms his weaknesses into strengths. He argues that his lack of experience in Washington is a strength, because he has not been corrupted by being in Washington too long. It is a kind of verbal jujitsu. In short, he says his lack of political experience makes him a better politician, well he might not say politician, perhaps he might prefer “collaborative empowerment agent.” It is a delicate balance, though. He is arguing that he is both a Washington insider and an outsider at the same time. Obama says he wants to bring America together, left and right, high and low, to tackle the problems that have been unsolved too long: health care, income inequality, unfair trade agreements, job loss, education, poverty, crumbling infrastructure, etc.

My suspicion is that Obama is, after all a politician, and he will need political skills to solve these problems. The Republicans won't just roll over and agree to universal health care coverage and an increase in taxes on corporations and wealthy individuals. Those are sacred cows. They will fight hard and they will fight dirty. It won't be pretty. Other countries won't roll over and reverse trade agreements that the U.S. has signed. That will get ugly too. Politics is a dirty business. It always has been. You need a hard nose and sharp elbows to play the game. Is Obama tough enough? We'll find out. He'll have to get tough to beat Hillary Clinton. She won't give up without a fight. So far, Obama has shown he can build a very solid campaign organization and he's a whiz at winning delegates at caucuses. But he can't win the presidency through caucuses, and so far he hasn't been impressive in winning elections, particularly in the big states with lots of electoral votes, like California and New York. He will need to win at least some, probably quite a few of the big states, in order to win the presidency, assuming he is nominated in the first place.

The next day, my wife and I trundled on down to the Democratic Party caucuses in Laramie. The first time we had ever done so, and met about 1,300 others also there for the first time. If this had been a typical year, about 20 people would have shown up. It was a mess, as you might expect given that the Democratic Party has never been well organized, but we actually got through it pretty fast. We filled out our paper ballots and were out of there by 10 a.m. We thought we'd have to sit there all day and listen to speeches about NAFTA and infrastructure. It was actually pretty painless. I thought about going back to help put things away, but was too lazy. I heard that by the time the convention rolled on to its conclusion and the platform was approved, only 50 people were left out of the 1,300 or so who started the day.

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Copyright © 2008 Robert Roten. All rights reserved.
Reproduced with the permission of the copyright holder.
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Robert Roten can be reached via e-mail at my last name at lariat dot org. [Mailer button: image of letter and envelope]

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