MANASSAS, VA — On the final campaign stop on his epic, 21-month odyssey, Barack Obama looked weary. Back in February 2007, on a bone-chillingly cold day in Springfield, Obama had seemed impossibly young and new and perhaps a bit insane to think he could be the next president of the United States. But as entered the floodlights to the cheers of 100,000 Virginians here at the Prince William County Fairgrounds in Manassas he seemed gaunt, even slight, as if the enormity of the history he was poised to make just might swallow him up.
Or perhaps it was simple grief. While he only made a small, oblique reference to it during his speech, earlier in the day Obama (and, indeed the entire world) learned that his 86-year-old grandmother, Madelyn Dunham had finally succumbed to cancer after a long illness. The woman who’d largely raised him, the one who he’d just gone to wish good bye wouldn’t live to see his victory, if indeed it were to come. And there he was delivering his stump speech to 100,000 people, 21 hours before 130 million people would go to the polls and see his name on their ballots. It must have been a very strange day.
Perhaps I’m just projecting, but from where I stood in the press pen, looking out at the mass of humans receding up a grassy incline, the stage and its podium and the empty space that surrounded it looked lonely. Obama has a set of lines he’s used since the very beginning, that the campaign isn’t just about his ability to bring change, but yours. You the citizen, you the voter, you the volunteer, the neighbor, the organizer, the face in the crowd. A few months ago he said that he’d realized that he really had just become the “excuse” for people to gather and connect and work together. That the enthusiasm was self sustaining and self-generated, his role that simply of a catalyst.
When you’re at an event with 100,000 people you realize how true that is. Because 85% of the time you spend — the hours in the car, the two mile walk from the parking lot, the long security cordon and the idle waiting packed in among strangers — you are not listening to Barack Obama. Instead you are plunged into an immediate and direct fellowship with a lot of people with whom you might have nothing else in common in another setting.
And what’s democracy at its heart if not that?
In the end, Obama reprised his by now famous “Fired Up, Ready to Go” story. Telling the story, he seemed to spring to life, to inhabit himself for the first time on stage, and suddenly the distance between this one small man and the crowds before shrunk.
After leading the crowd in chant that built to a crescendo, he leaned into the mic and said “Let’s go change the world!”