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Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Political rally: Invigorating, terrifying, important

You feel the crush of the crowd as you near the security checkpoint.

An arm slaps in front of you like a railroad gate.

"I don't know how many seats are left," said the uniformed man at the end of the arm. "They just tell me how many I can let in at a time."

You're waiting outside a 2008 presidential rally and recall another moment 37 years earlier when you were among 50,000 protesting the Vietnam War.

You're watching Country Joe and the Fish sing an anti-war song. The sun is starkly bright and most of you are high. Then you recall when it was done that one of your friends said something inexcusably vile to a man in uniform and you wince at the recollection.

It's a political rally. Invigorating. Terrifying because of what it can provoke you to do. Important as a symbol, a record, a promise of hope.

Shoulder-to-shoulder, heel-to-toe, people believe they're next to a brother in arms and say things they'd never risk sharing with a stranger at a lunch counter.

You feel safe among equals. But you also get the feeling that if someone screamed fire, you'd be crushed in the undertow.

You were once a reporter at these events, trained to be objective, neutral. But you're just an observer now, a reporter sans credentials. A citizen.

As you wait outside the gym where this year's presidential candidate will speak, a woman walks a catwalk above you talking into a walkie-talkie. Secret servicemen with tiny earphones act as though no one notices them.

A man carries a sandwich board full of political buttons for sale. He strikes you as a profiteer, a moneychanger in the temple, but people buy them anyway so they can wear a button to explain who they are.

When you reach security, they confiscate the tiny pocketknife from your keychain. A man waves a wand up and down your body. He finds a book in your pocket and pages through it to make sure nothing more than words are hidden there.

When you finally get inside you can't help but be jealous of those who found seats, sorry for those left outside and slightly superior that you're there and your friends aren't.

You notice pre-teen boys playing cards on the floor. You're proud they're being taken to rallies but concerned for their safety. Later, when the boys crawl between your legs trying for a better vantage point, you decide it may be a memory they'll keep forever.

The speaker can be seen in moments, flickering between out-stretched arms. People hold up cell phones and take pictures that can't possibly be better than those they'll see in the paper the next day.

It's a melting pot; stereotypes get busted. A man you'd judge to be against the candidate applauds while a man who looks like he'd be a partisan stands mute.

The stump speech is old but the candidate acts as though it's being said for the first time and the crowd plays along. You're disturbed by such indiscriminate displays of emotion. You wonder if they know the candidate can't keep all those promises.

You remember how it was to cover these things. The candidate starts talking and you write everything down until you realize they hadn't said anything newsworthy. You slow down, knowing you can only get so many comments down accurately. When you look back later, your notebook is filled with fragments.

The hit-and-run TV reporters have an advantage, you think, but then you think again and realize they have to carve the speech into even smaller pieces as though it were a Thanksgiving turkey making sure they serve up only the white meat and none of the gristle.

When it's over, security people, smiling now, greet you at the door like ministers at the end of a service. Then you notice the glum fire inspector and know he'll be holding his breath until he's facing an empty building.

You see a young reporter you know and feel a pang of nostalgia. You wonder if she'll look back years from now and realize the gravity of reporting on someone who might be the next president of the United States.

Then you stand and wait in the snow for the bus to take you back to your cars. The bus can't get through, a TV truck is blocking the way, so you and the others run toward the bus like children leaving for summer vacation.

Once inside, you huddle together against the cold. Humble, righteous, talkative.

A tangle, a buzz, a rhythm called the American Way.

The author is general manager of The Week.



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