The Blue Raccoon

Thursday, October 23, 2008

We're All Obamans On This Bus
BHO comes to the Richmond Coliseum

Video via Heyzutube, YouTube.

On Wednesday afternoon I glimpsed some history in the making. Barack Obama came to Richmond, the former Confederate crucible, and brought his message to some 12,500 people at the Richmond Coliseum and an estimated 7,000 others who listened to his speech broadcast outside into the plaza.

I was among those who didn't get into the Coliseum; I was at work, and overwhelmed there; but I'm also a student of history and the pure symbolism of Obama's appearance here isn't lost on me. (A couple days ago, a Chesterfield minister who had a large Obama yard sign found it removed and replaced with a Confederate flag).

But a colleague wanted to give it a try, around 1:15. I needed to pay a bill at city hall, so I figured I'd ride along. After searching out a place to park and berthing amid a mass jumble of cars in an honor lot somewhere behind the Coliseum, we wandered toward the massive UFO/Roman Imperium structure and I was struck at first by the lack of traffic and the apparent quiet. This looked to me almost like an ordinary late afternoon in downtown Richmond. We saw two guys in Obama T-shirts heading away from the site, and that didn't seem to be a good indication of our Obama-viewing prospects.

But as we came round the building, passing doors shut to entry, we fell into throngs; a convocation of media trucks, and sellers of election paraphernalia. Then we heard an ear-shattering mass scream, which I equated to the Beatles appearing outside the plane, or Elvis. And tripping in chock holes as we stumbled around behind the studios-on-wheels and dodged yellow police tape -- there the candidate was. Tall, straight, bareheaded, waving from the porch of the 6th Street Entrance.

He said inside was filled up, but wanted to speak to us out here, and emphasize the importance of Virginia and the challenge of the remaining two weeks. Take a friend to vote, take five, he said. But by then, his words didn't matter. His presence hit the audience like a huge wind. People swayed, wept, one woman went to her knees. "I saw him..I saw him..I saw him," she cried.

My coworker and I just stood there, amazed by our luck, and not quite believing our eyes or ears. There he really stood in his element, not as an image on television.

I tried to equate this to another political event, and my mind went to the 1910 visit of Republican William Howard Taft to Richmond. Then, the city shut down and thousands of school children lined the streets with little U.S. flags. The Valentine Richmond History Center's Bill Martin was next to me and I remarked on that and he said, "Well, then it was for the respect of the President and the office," he said. "The party didn't matter."

And there is a lesson of history, to be sure.

I thought, too, and not for the first time during this long campaign, of Billy Mahone (that's him in the image) and the Readjusters of Virginia, which -- as a third party -- ran the state for a good part of the 1880s on a mandate of readjusting the state's pre-Civil War debt and providing public education and legal reforms the likes of which the state wouldn't experience again until the civil rights era.

Mahone, a former Confederate general and not what one would describe today as a civil libertarian, but more of an opportunist, seized the potential of black working class votes and those of disaffected whites and ran circles around the established Virginia "Bourbon" politicians by actually going out and campaigning.

Mahone unfortunately annoyed people who were allied in his cause by making bad choices, and when the Readjusters were winning, he couldn't actually step further into real progressivism. Basically, the Readjusters controlled the statehouse and the Executive Mansion, they gave some low level patronage jobs to blacks and in fact enacted sweeping reforms the likes of which Virginia had never seen, and sent Mahone to Congress -- and then couldn't figure what to do next.

Then a Democrat-rigged riot in Danville on the eve of a state-wide election shattered the party's chances. Mahone was reviled in Virginia for years afterwards, and building coalitions with blacks was derided as "Mahoneism." (You can read of my fascination with this period here.) What followed was Jim Crow and ultimately Massive Resistance -- neither of which needed to be inevitable, as Mahone shows us.

I had business to attend to; I'd gotten my
Punxsutawney County Pete view of the candidate, and needed to get along.

Afterward, I got a bus back to the office and as we lumbered up Broad Street, the event's attenders streamed along the sidewalks and filled the bus. The only comparison I have to the sensation was riding in a New York subway after an anti-Iraq and Bush rally some three years ago. There, the buttons and banners proclaiming opposition to both seemed somewhat desperate and hopeless, and the mood of the riders united by their adversity, but vexed and angry.

Here, on this Richmond city bus, I couldn't help but be affected by the exhilaration and outright joy among the riders. Most had taken a long lunch from work, and many hadn't seen him speak while others in excited voices spoke about his appearance to those standing outside. A clever political move, by BHO, and actually kind of decent.

Now I don't know how this is going to turn out. I know the defeat of one or the other is going to cause gnashing of teeth and wrenting of garments among the extremists of either side. And that more and more this feels like 1860, and how then, as Dr. Ed Ayres pointed out in a talk given some days ago, few foresaw that within a year the nation would be plunged into civil war.

Or how, when a well-known Virginia political analyst at a recent talk announced to a West End Richmond woman's club that they'd need to get used to a black president, he was booed, and at the end of his talk, the chair woman said to him curtly, "You can find the door."

Those women were never going to vote for Obama, or if so, they'd not admit of their choice to anybody they knew. But as my friend Bill explained to me, they've always had a comfortable Democrat or a comfortable Republican for whom to vote. Now, their world is on a verge of a possible shift and they can't get their heads around that concept.

I don't think the potential alteration of the status quo going to be as radical as anybody thinks -- BHO is a politician, he came out of a rough and tumble big city political machine; he has ambitions, he has made compromises. But should he be elected, Obama will cause a shift in the nation's political currents, and that's the minimum I can expect: a seasonal change in the weather.

For other accounts of the Visitation, you can read Amy Biegelsen of Style Weekly recounting the event and the political strange-bedfellowsness of those standing near the speaker's platform here; blogger Jason Guard biked to the rally and got inside, and experienced the power of the moment, here; a Washington Post perspective here; for what he actually said, the Obama-Biden campaign provides here.

A postscript: on CSPAN this a.m. I caught a brief part of a segment devoted to the viability of Third Party candidates -- there is a debate at 9 p.m. tonight between Ralph Nader and Chuck Baldwin of the Constitution Party. Don't know why the Libertarians aren't participating, with Bob Barr, except that characteristic of Libertarians who expend a great deal of energy fighting among themselves, there are numbers of them who just don't like Barr.

Anyway, the callers I heard were typical. One woman from Tennessee sounded so stereotypical and right wing, quoting scripture, and just shy of calling Obama the anti-Christ said two choices were her preference as though a third party wouldn't really be a alternative; another caller wondered a third party would help or hurt Obama, and another complained of trying to register with the Reform Party in Maryland and getting told the Reformists weren't legal -- a problem common to third parties. And so it goes. In a nation of 300 millions, perhaps more diverse now than ever in our history, we are down to these dual opportunities for not much to really change. To me, this is a shabby way to run a republic.

People will hold their nose with one hand and touch a screen with the other, in states where Third Parties are represented they may get a vote or two thrown their way, and still millions of potential voters just won't cast a vote because of resignation, disgustm apathy, or just out of plain cussedness, as my Goochland County relatives might say. So it comes down to a narrowing margin, and rhetoric, and emotionalism, and the potential for things to go awry.

For me, what it comes down to is three little words: Supreme Court justices. The next president may get to select three justices. And I know whom I'd trust to make those appointments.

These are historic times; which means they are easier to read about in the comfort of some window nook seat, than they are to live through.

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