Discussion of Barack Obama's presidential campaign has mainly focused on the candidate's undeniable rhetorical skills and the obvious follow-up question: What, if any, substance lies behind them? He can talk the talk, but what's the walk, or is there a walk at all? Conservatives like to point to his National Journal rating as the most liberal member of the US Senate, and considering another of its members -- Vermont's Bernie Sanders -- is an avowed socialist, that would be liberal, indeed. But many of the most hard-core liberals see in Obama just another bought-and-paid-for politician whose ability to mesmerize potential foot soldiers behind what they believe will ultimately prove to be a corporate agenda only diverts their energy and actually hurts the cause. And then there's a third camp of critics, who see just a gifted man with a large ego, uttering attractive but empty platitudes to advance the cause of nothing but the glory that is Barack Obama.
Well, I've seen meaningless, empty rhetoric ("Morning in America"), and I've seen cynical, deceitful rhetoric ("compassionate conservatism"), and I've seen them both work, and I've seen them both do great damage to the country, so count me among the skeptics. So when Obama came to Columbus, Ohio, this week, I felt compelled to go check things out for myself, and at the very least, cop a buzz from the energy of the crowd.
And the setting was a good one for that-- St. John's Arena on the Ohio State University campus, where a dozen or more Big Ten championship banners still hang though the basketball team has long since moved to more modern digs. St. John's is a compact, steep-sided pit of a coliseum, where viewed from the floor a fired-up crowd can give new meaning to the phrase "wall of sound."
Across Woody Hayes Drive is the famed "Horseshoe," the football stadium which hosts a modernist-style memorial to the legendary sprinter Jesse Owens, who while wearing the scarlet and gray at a meet in 1935 performed the almost unbelievable feat of breaking three world records and tying a fourth in the space of less than an hour. The next year he would go to the Berlin Olympics and strike blows against racism with a power only the heavyweight boxer Joe Louis could rival. It could plausibly be argued that Owens, almost simultaneous with Louis, was the first black man in American history whom large numbers of whites genuinely admired, cheered for, loved, and thus played more than a small part in preparing the way for the Barack Obama phenomenon.
"I've always watched politics from a distance," said Ciara Holland, a 19-year-old architecture and interior design student at OSU as she shivered in the frigid temperatures waiting to enter the arena, "but this year I wanted to be a part of it. Race is irrelevant. Homosexuality, race -- I think people my age are just more open-minded about things like that. It's what you stand for, and we want change. This election is going to affect us."
Despite the campus setting, though, both as a student (it was still before noon, after all) and as an African-American, Holland was in the minority. All ages were well-represented, and the crowd was probably 80 percent white, roughly approximating the demographics of the Columbus area. Mijiza Ashanti, a retired crisis intervention specialist from the Ohio State hospital system, brought two teenage grandchildren.
"I wanted them to see the first black president," she said. A staunch Democrat since the John Kennedy campaign, Ashanti said she adopted an African name in the 1970s, and despite living through the best and the worst of the civil rights movement, she said she wasn't surprised to see so many whites supporting Obama.
"They're seeing the same thing I'm seeing," she said. "He's a very intelligent man."
From the other side of what may no longer be a racial divide, Rhonda Donat, 72, a retired mechanical engineer, said, "I think it's a great achievement for our democracy and a vindication of our ideals. Race is not an issue. I don't know what to make of it. Maybe the country has changed."
Donat's companion at the event, who also fit what's thought of as the Hillary Clinton demographic, preferred to remain anonymous. "I come from a political family," she said. "I have two here somewhere who are volunteering for Obama, but . . ."
And the state's Democratic political establishment is as divided as the polls. Democratic icon John Glenn and Governor Ted Strickland are supporting Clinton; octogenarian ex-governor John Gilligan and Columbus Mayor Michael Coleman, who was recently re-elected in a landslide in the majority white city, back Obama. For that reason, a Columbus city employee in his late 20s also didn't want his name mentioned.
"I never got very involved in politics, and then I started to see what happens when you don't," he said. "The war has been such an incredible waste of resources, and Obama's the one guy who didn't support the war."
And like for most of those interviewed, race went unmentioned until the questioner brought it up, and then it was dismissed as irrelevant, or even a point in Obama's favor.
"Young people are color-blind," he said. "Elections before have always been one old white guy against another old white guy, and it didn't seem like it made much difference. It's exciting to see someone pulling us together."
Amy Bulgrin and Katie Marquardt, sisters in their 40s whose grandfather was speaker of the Ohio House of Representatives in the late 1970s, also had concrete concerns for supporting Obama, despite gold-star credentials in what was once assumed would be a pro-Clinton political establishment.
"My company just got bought, and I lost my job," Marquardt said. "The middle class has been so eroded for seven years, I'm ready for a change, and I see Hillary as part of the old school."