Obama focuses on plain folk in Invesco speech

By Chris Bragg
THE COLORADO STATESMAN

A social worker, a clinical pharmacist and a college student all zoomed through security to sit in the front row with the Colorado delegation at Invesco Field on the last day of the convention. But the woman who ran Al Gore’s 2000 presidential campaign couldn’t join them to watch Sen. Barack Obama’s acceptance of the Democratic presidential nomination up close.

Donna Brazile had a hall pass — not a floor pass — and security wouldn’t let her through to the Invesco Field floor.

“Only floor?” Gore’s former campaign manager asked them, holding up her insufficiently prestigious hall pass.

“All right,” she said graciously. “We’ll go back there, then.”

One of the most recognizable insiders in the Democratic Party taking a back seat? Perhaps, on this night, the first truly would be last, and the last first.

The idea behind locating Obama’s speech at Invesco Field was to include the people who had brought him to this night, the massive grassroots movement that grew up during his spring primary campaign.

But giving a speech at an outdoor football stadium in front of 84,000 people — the first outdoor acceptance speech almost 50 years — carried political risks. Since the decision to hold the speech at Invesco was made two months ago, the campaign of Republican nominee Sen. John McCain had emphasized Obama’s “celebrity” status in campaign ads, including one that transposed tape of Obama against shots of Britney Spears and Paris Hilton.

Perhaps in an effort to lend the speech gravitas, the Obama campaign moved to make the stage look as presidential as possible, with columns that look something like the Hart Office Building in Washington, D.C., where Obama occasionally works these days. The design also was partly inspired by the Los Angeles Coliseum, where John F. Kennedy accepted the Democratic nomination in 1960. That was the only other acceptance speech made outdoors during the era of television.

Even the backdrop drew fire from McCain.

“Workers at Invesco Field are putting the final touches on the newest wonder of the modern political world — The Temple of Obama (‘The Barackopolis’),” stated McCain spokesman Brian Rogers in a press release.

“It is upon this pulpit that Barack Obama will tomorrow night address thousands of screaming, adoring fans.”

Rogers went on to suggest various toga styles that could be worn by various “classes” of attendees.

The idea of a hierarchy on this night was, of course, the opposite of the image Obama wanted to portray. So the campaign also made last-minute adjustments to camera angles so the setting would look more intimate. And Obama’s family would sit on the floor with delegates.

Obama delegates from Colorado called the idea that the speech would promote Obama’s celebrity absurd.

“The Republicans are forced to make these sorts of manufactured attacks,” said Anthony Graves, of Denver. “I think the Obama campaign is doing a tremendous job. People want to hear this guy’s message. Thousands of people want to hear this guy.”

Another Obama delegate, Susie McMahon, of Parker, agreed.

“This is a community event,” she said.

“I am a volunteer,” she added as she sat center-stage, second row. “So this is not celebrity status.”

That idea of community was reinforced through the night, when Obama campaign manager Ray Rivera got on stage three times to ask people across the country to send texts that would be flashed across the Invesco screen. Rivera called the Denver speech the largest nominating convention “in the history of our country.”

As Obama’s speech approached, a series of everyman speakers from swing states came on stage to share their stories. It was these folks who would speak immediately before Obama came on stage — and they had a better time slot than Al Gore.

Perhaps the most memorable offering came from a man from Indiana named Barney Smith, whose factory job had been outsourced after 31 years.

“We need a president who puts Barney Smith before Smith Barney,” he said. Chants of “Barney!” rang somewhat comically across the stadium.

At 7:54 p.m., U.S. Sen. Frank Lautenberg began boogying on the convention floor aisle way with New Jersey State Sen. Elease Evans. It was nearly time for Obama.

At 8:12 p.m., Obama came on stage to U2’s “City of Shining Lights.” It was clear that the speech, from the get-go, would focus on attacking McCain as “more of the same,” and enumerate the ways the Bush administration had failed working-class families.

Obama, his words echoing through the cavernous stadium as the crowd rotated between deafening silence and deafening cheering, told his personal story. He talked about a mother who raised him while once turning to food stamps, a grandmother who worked her way from a secretarial position to middle-management, his own work as a community organizer — to refute the charges of celebrity status.

“I don't know what kind of lives John McCain thinks that celebrities lead, but this has been mine,” Obama said. “These are my heroes. Theirs are the stories that shaped me. And it is on their behalf that I intend to win this election and keep our promise alive as president of the United States.”

Members of the media don’t usually cheer, but Obama evoked cheers from the bloggers up in the Invesco press box when he said that although the Republican administration had sworn to track Osama Bin Laden to the gates of hell, they couldn’t seem to track him to the cave where he lives.

Perhaps, it was another indication that the old rules, at least for this convention, were altered.

On the 45th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, Obama finally addressed Dr. King in the closing moments of his speech. Instead of dwelling on racial differences, however, Obama emphasized King’s unifying message.

After a whole speech of toned down oratory, it was finally time for some of Obama’s trademark soaring rhetoric.

“‘We cannot walk alone,’ the preacher cried. ‘And as we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall always march ahead. We cannot turn back,’” Obama said.

“America, we cannot turn back. We cannot walk alone,” Obama continued. “At this moment, in this election, we must pledge once more to march into the future.”

And, in a turn of phrase that would have pleased William Jennings Bryan, the evangelical populist who was nominated at Denver’s only other Democratic Convention 100 years ago, Obama ended his acceptance speech by quoting the Bible.

“Let us keep that promise — that American promise,” Obama said. “And in the words of Scripture: ‘Hold firmly, without wavering, to the hope that we confess.’”