I went to the John McCain rally in Wilmington, North Carolina last week and I have the autograph to prove it. But like John McCain, I had to fight for it. I hustled over there after finding out about it an hour before, hoping to penetrate the press gates. But. Had no luck there. I couldn't get inside either, because I didn't hold a ticket, and tickets were sold out, so I stood outside on the front lawn like hundreds of others and watched the speech on a large screen. A paramedic truck was parked up front. Is there one always at these things? I pondered, because of speculations about the senator's health.
The fact that McCain held the rally at Cape Fear Community College rather than more prestigious fare should say something about his character. But the frumpy ladies next to me wearing veteran hats said a whole other. He revisited old rhetoric from his POW days casting himself as the underdog who is the true fighter America needs in its time of crisis. Recently, I'd seen footage of another McCain rally whereby he snatched the microphone back from a woman after she accused Obama of being an Arab. As if being an Arab is a slur. So I expected the same decency from the senator this time around. But his methodic speech now pointed a less sympathetic finger. McCain's casual town hall-style appeared less comfortable at the stump as he read points off his speech like a script. Raising his head to deliver pauses for the audience to respond, in that odd, spasmodic, signature-to-McCain nature. One might say it's that odd nature--that unsexiness,for lack of a better word--that has worked for McCain and it was working for this crowd as well. One might even call it one of the ingredients that have helped label him a Maverick.
Suddenly North Carolina is important. And people from all over the state spilled in to Wilmington equally as excited to have their own vis-à-vis with McCain's celebrity, as they were to brandish theirs.
Hell fire and brimstone shall reign upon America if Obama becomes president was the message. He quibbled the all-white audience on the hot-button issue of the day. "My friends," he said, "Senator Obama wants to raise taxes for small businesses; and send your jobs overseas!" They crowd filed around him jeered. His maligned attacks went further into drawing parallels between Herbert Hoover and Obama. Railing Obama as The Man with The Plan to lead us into another depression. And they jeered. He drove home the importance of shedding our dependence on foreign oil. "My friends, we need to drill here and we need to DRILL NOW!" He roused them and they cheered. As the claps waned I couldn't help but stamp my foot. "Tomorrow, I'm sure." A plump woman looked over me discerningly.
One thing is clear. It's open season. Anything goes at the last throws of the campaign trail. People called for him to take the gloves off even as he shrugged to maintain his hawkish points.
"My friends, I know what fear feels like," McCain said. "It's a thief in the night. It robs your strength ... I felt those things before. I will never let them in again." He implored.
The air of antipathy was unmistakable. McCain pep-rallied "I will fight for you!" But he didn't look too happy about having to fight for a state known to be a given for Republican candidates at this stage of the game. But I think his disdain only served as another ingredient the crowd identified with. They rose to a frenzy shouting, "U-S-A!" The veteran women next to me were charged up with energy that would scare the bejesus out of anyone. Their feet feathered off the ground as they joined along in this terrible chorus.What an odd cheer. It's exactly this kind of divisible flag-waving, quote-on-quote "patriotic" rhetoric that has gotten us in the mess we're in the first place, isn't it?
The only trace of Elizabeth Dole's support was a crumbled-up sticker with her name on it landing down on the pavement. Two lads campaigning for Pat McCrory bolstered the crowd on in the sprightliness of Sunday service. I knew there was more than meets the eye before I tapped Brian Horton's shoulder. Brian, one of the two lads currently pursuing a master's degree in political science at the University of North Carolina, was more than happy to share his views on the election. Once I asked him where he drew the line between John McCain and George Bush, he fanned me with that unwavering staunchly conservative idealism. He established George Bush as a man with sound policies, Iraq a necessity, and which, he explained simply as "Bush finishing daddy's job" without further need to qualify. He repudiated the question if his vote had anything to do with race before I could finish my sentence. He cited J.C. Watts and Allan Keys as his past choices. Implying that he would be voting for Obama if Obama represented the Republican ticket. "I admire McCain's integrity and character and when he missteps he owns up to it," said Horton. And then with unflinching ease he looked over my shoulder. "There's Jon Evans!" his "favorite Fox News anchor," he said, fraternizing with his buddy about their prospect of meeting the anchor in person. This is Brian's third election in a pedigree of fiscal republicans.
The atmosphere at the rally was plain as day with Nobama signs nearby featuring Barack Obama next to Osama Bin Laden. "It's despicable," said, Madison Hipp, a 19 year-old CFCC student who would be voting for the first time. She said her vote is cast for Obama. She looked on peacefully with her colleague, Eric Blizzard, an 18 year-old freshman, also a first-time voter, who was positive now he would vote for John McCain. "He nailed it!" said the freckled teener satisfied with his candidate's performance. When I asked what the deciding factors were, Blizzard replied: "His war experience, it gives him a winning edge over Obama. He's trying to help America, not get votes," he said.
Under an overbearing heat, the channel of communication opened up on the sidelines. In terms of understanding McCain's fan base, I would soon realize, inside was not the place to be, but outside--with the undecided.
The area was soon barricaded with investigation tape and police summoned us with metal-detectors. A train of secret service agents paraded by. I asked the officer scanning me what was going on and by his reluctance to confirm the question I realized that McCain would make an appearance out on the lawn. Star-struck, the crowd waited to see him in the flesh. But as for me, I reminisced about the McCain I was introduced to yesteryear. The media had proclaimed him a "dead man" with his campaign bankrupt. But he stepped right up on his straight-talking bus and showed them who's dead in full animation. He was a true underdog, then, with a resilient spirit I could get behind. But now the McCain I saw was a guy trailing in the polls and obsessed with not putting his country first, as his campaign slogan read, but obsessed with only one preoccupation: Winning and winning at any cost.
In the summation of the McCain speech The Fighter theme was carried out in full capacity with Eye of the Tiger ringing out over loud speakers. I began to feel roused, too, with the hairs standing at the back of my neck, until the song started skipping in and out into a resounding gong. Into one shrill master mix grating our ears. Which sounded more indicative of the scene, indeed, before the PA system had to be shut down.
I asked, Mark Rhodes, a software specialist with Copiers Plus if he thought this election is about issues or personality. "I definitely think it's about issues," he said. Even as he confided that as a stalwart Republican he was leaning democratic for the first time--before Sarah Palin came in the picture, that is.
"She is pretty, isn't she?" I admitted.
But Rhodes qualified his remark resounding even more adulation for the Alaska governor. But, Rhodes said he doesn't know whom he'll vote for, yet.
"I'm going to let you in on a little secret," Rhodes said, "North Carolina isn't at all as it seems." Alluding to some North Carolinians who may put up a good conservative front of adhering to their deep southern roots. But, who knows which way their fears sway them behind The Curtain.
When the Senator finally made his appearance on the lawn he looked rather pale giving his thumbs up. We edged ourselves around the barricades to shake his hand.
"Look, there's Cindy!" Rhodes exclaimed. "She so pretty!"
Anna Clark, also a software specialist, and Rhode's colleague, took one look at my notebook and fumbled with her organizer to find a page ready to get it autographed. To tell you the truth, it hadn't occurred to me, but I was equally excited at the prospect of getting one also.
When my turn came, McCain took one look at me and he continued onto to the next person. He was already shaking hands with the veteran ladies next to me when I insisted. Several times, actually, before he reluctantly backtracked to grace my notebook with his sharpie.
In a rage of enthusiasm, "I hope you win senator!" Escaped my mouth.
His face softened to thanking me.
Cindy McCain filed by, ignoring me also. But I didn't let her off the hook, either. She eventually, and without looking, spared me her left hand.
I'm willing to guess why McCain skipped over me. I think what he saw when he looked me in my eye was that spark, that inevitable energy that lifts through the malaise weighing it down the last eight years, and radiates through-and-through with an optimism that there's something better out there. And I think John McCain knew I wasn't looking at it.
The south is leery of letting history remind them of who they once were. And Obama is a constant reminder of that. What I learned was, that, there are still some, undecided voters murmuring beneath the surface that hear their conscience speak loud and clear. But can they trust it? That remains to be seen. In the mean time, they'll go on tickled by their newfound celebrity.