Obama in LA

Monday night, I saw Barack Obama speak in LA at the Gibson Ampitheatre. For a contribution to the campaign, I received a ticket to hear Obama speak. As I stood in line to get in, I scanned a mixed crowd ranging of all races, from teenagers in high school to senior citizens. Was this crowd more or less diverse than that for other candidates? Was Obama a great uniter? I had no frame of reference.

When I reached the security check, the guard took one look at my Nikon digital SLR and shook his head.

"That ain't going in," he said.

I bristled immediately.

Several days earlier, I had called the contact number listed for the event and described my camera and asked if it would be allowed into the event. I'd had to run back to the parking lot to leave my camera behind one time too many. The woman on the other end assured me that my camera would be welcome. I recounted this story to the guard, but he was not moved.

While he held me back from entering the event, one person after another walked past with their cameras. I asked why those cameras were allowed in while mine wasn't. He declined to elaborate, which infuriated me even more. The likely distinction was that my camera was an SLR while the ones being allowed through were compact, but I wanted to hear him say it so I could explain to him how ridiculous the policy was. But he remained impassive and mute, like a bouncer at some trendy nightclub.

I was directed to a table and forced to hand over my camera. A black cloud floated over my head as I walked into the facility.

The short-sighted aspects of this policy are numerous. An SLR generally takes better pictures than a compact camera, but compressed for the web, the distinctions in photo quality would be lost on the vast majority of users. Most compact cameras actually have longer zooms than the standard SLR lens. What was I going to do, sell high-quality pictures of Obama, one of the most photographed people in news today? Once inside the event, I saw some other folks who weren't press members who did manage to get there digital SLRs through security. I couldn't get the bad taste out of my mouth the rest of the night.

The first thing I would've done with any photos of Obama would be to post the best one here and sing his praises, but instead I've wasted ten minutes of my life ranting about the restrictive policy at this event. It's a lose-lose situation. In this day and age, allowing people to snap photos and share them across Facebook or Flickr or weblogs is a form of free publicity. I hope someone at the campaign does the right thing and corrects it for future events. This persecution of SLRs needs to end.

I grabbed a seat two rows up from the VIP section around the stage (yes, a seat good enough to have snapped some great photos...I'll stop now). After sitting for about an hour, a series of introductory speakers came out to sing Obama's praises and fire up the crowd. Nick Cannon of Drumline fame served as the host of the evening, and Kal "Kumar" Penn came out and spoke of his work campaigning for Obama in Iowa.

Having musical guests play at these types of events has always seemed forced to me. It's difficult to imagine any presidential candidate having enough time to listen to music or keep up with the music scene, and the political endorsements of all but a few musicians hold little value to me. The first musical guest was Ne-Yo. The speakers to either side of the stage were cranked up. I could literally feel the sound waves hitting me in the chest. The other musical guest was The Goo Goo Dolls, an odd choice to me considering their last big hit was in...umm...

Sitting in front of me at the event was a familiar face, but not familiar enough for me to know by name. I knew he was an actor, but I couldn't place him. He left his seat early in the event, and the next time I saw him was on stage, as one of the speakers. It was James Whitmore.

There were plenty of movie stars in the crowd (the online web page for the event listed people like Scarlett Johansson, Jessica Biel, and Olivia Wilde; it's good to know Obama has locked up the Hollywood hottie vote). But there was no doubt who the biggest star in the room was on this night.

Throughout the night and especially during Obama's speech, speakers hammered on several key message of their campaign.

  • Obama did not vote for the Iraq war, and Republicans will not be able to use that against him (the contrast to Clinton was unspoken, but only because it was so clear that she was the target).

  • The American people need someone to tell them what they need to hear, not what they want to hear. This is part of Obama's conscious strategy to inform the electorate that he plans to run a non-traditional campaign, one in which he's not afraid to speak honestly about what the tradeoffs are. If certain policies require raising taxes, then he's going to tell it like it is. As a realist I find this refreshing, though I'm not convinced it's the optimal campaign strategy. I hope his instincts are right.

  • His is a campaign that embraces all people, of all races and sexual orientations and political affiliations. Over and over, he spoke of the need to dispense with red state blue state model of the U.S.

  • He intends to be the greenest President in history, and he plans to generate jobs through his efforts to aid the environment.

  • Universal health care.

  • Raise minimum wage, bridge the gap between the haves and the have-nots.

  • He plans to restore the U.S. standing in the international community. He said he awaited the day when he can stand before the United Nations and tell the world, "We're back."

He displayed some humor during the evening, first in talking about his disappointment in finding out he was related to Dick Cheney, the second about the Clinton campaign's investigation into his Kindergarten papers. Of the latter, he noted, "We'll be releasing those papers on Monday. I tugged on a girl's ponytail once. And liked it."

It's dangerous to judge too much about a candidate's policies and qualifications for office at a rehearsed event like this. But whether you mean to or not, you assess a person's personality and character when you meet them in person, the same way you measure a person from the first moment you meet them in a job interview. Their body language, their words, their voice, their posture--all these feed into your perception of the person.

On that front, Obama is the most compelling candidate, either Democrat or Republican, in the upcoming election. He has a certain charisma that's difficult to teach. Clinton is polished and experienced and competent, but she lacks his inherent magnetism.

The other thing that struck me was how easy it was to garner huge support in this election just by promising not to be Dubya. Who thought that eliciting enthusiastic screams for a crowd could be as simple as saying, "I promise not to torture people in Guantanamo!"