“Is your line moving yet?” It was after 7 p.m. and my buddy Mark was texting me from further back in the line—he was on Kellogg and Wabasha. I was across the street from the James J. Hill library, and had been standing here since 5:30 p.m. ever since I budged in line with my friend Bridget. It was a very arugula-and-white-wine section of the line. Lots of white people with nice glasses. Very MPR. And as lines go, this one went down the block and out of sight.
In the hour and a half I’d been stuck in front of the library, about three million Obama T-shirt and button vendors had passed by. Both Obama-on-the-cover-of-Time T-shirts were available (the “And the Winner Is*” and “The Candidate”), and one with Michelle and his two kids, and the one with the ‘08 on the back. All going for “half-off!”
Now it was 8 p.m. There was a helicopter overhead. More texting. This time from Melissa: “Listening to McCain right now. Wow, such an uninspiring old man.” And another: “CNN just projected Obama is the nominee.” Others in the group were getting texts too. “Another group of superdelegates just went for Obama,” another guy named Steve said.
The line began to move and a whoop went up. We marched a few hundred feet into Rice Park. More T-shirt vendors. More button hawkers. Some had little carts. Some had stands. The line lurched forward again, crawling along the outside of the Landmark Center.
As we got to the Xcel Center plaza, there was yet another wave of T-shirt vendors. Hundreds of umbrellas were stashed in the bushes and hanging from trees. Garbage cans overflowed and abandoned tailgating chairs littered the sidewalk. More helicopters, dipping lower, trying to get a good shot for the news. This was a big game.
Now there were more T-shirt vendors, with carts spaced every few feet. And young people with volunteer laminates shouting, “Stay in this line and turn ON your electronic devices!” There were a few protesters with anti-war banners across Wabasha, which was blocked off and empty. Then there was a big fire truck and, finally, lines forming for the security check. One last T-shirt vendor before security: “If you’ve made it this far without buying a T-shirt, I admire you.”
Then we were sucked through. It was 8:30 p.m. Up to the club level to find seats we went, and found eight good ones along the back ledge. The place was only half full, but it was impossible to tell how many it could hold. There was no sheet of ice. No gigantic stage set up. Just a little stage with one microphone and two teleprompters on the blue line at the west end of the arena. There was a big riser with what must have been a hundred cameramen and that MSNBC correspondent lady (later I heard that local-boy-made-NYT Thomas Friedman was down there too, getting the rock star treatment). Behind the riser were twelve or so long tables set up for writers with laptops spaced every few feet.
But the crowd was watching themselves on the scoreboard. Concessions were open. Nachos! Hot dogs. Soda pop. Standing in line, another text, this one from a friend in Connecticut: “Hills is speaking now…doesn’t sound like a concession.”
They were pumping “Ain’t No Stopping Us Now.” Then U2’s “City of Lights.” Then Aretha. Then Springsteen. Then James Brown. Then, the scoreboard started showing an Obama speech. It felt like the eighth inning, before the big rally at the Dome, when they play the Bluto from Animal House video. “Over? Did you say ‘over’? Was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor?” It was the highlights from Obama’s famous “Blue State/Red State” speech. Footage of Obama surrounded by children. The crowd roared.
“We’re in.” Text from my buddy Mark again.
I looked around my section. Two Somalian chicks with shiny silk headscarves. A white couple in what looked like brand new North Face rain jackets. A big black woman with her weave held in a yellow scrunchie. Had to think about it: Who would this arena hold for the Republicans in September? Probably a much different crowd.
At 9 p.m., Joann Syverson got onstage. “Who?” somebody in my group asked. Not Ellison. Not Franken. Not a big Dem hotshot. Joann addressed the crowd. “I’m proud to be a Democrat.” Huge cheer. She went on to talk about her son in Iraq. Talked about how she was a convert from Republicanism. The arena was as full as it was going to get. There were still some half full sections on the east end. But evidently, according to the news reports later, this was 18,000 people.
Now Joann was introducing Michelle. Huge roar. Her intro for Barack was drowned out by the crowd noise. The PA started cranking U2’s “Beautiful Day” while the lyrics were closed captioned on the scoreboard. (Something about Bedouin fields? Weird.) You could spot Michelle down there first. She was dressed in purple! Viking purple! Prince purple! Nice touch. Barack and Michelle were standing arm in arm. He was wearing one of those powder-blue ties with that suit cut like a rat packer—just casual enough, just dressed up enough. He didn’t do that youthful pop pop pop step up the riser this time. He was moving more slowly, consciously gliding up the steps arm in arm with Michelle. Presidential.
Then he was alone on the small riser. The five women I was with were already crying. “Tonight, I can stand before you and say that I will be the Democratic nominee for President of the United States.” Now everybody was crying. Men. Women. You’ve seen the speech on TV. Here's a link to the whole thing.
He started by talking about his white grandmother in Hawaii, who couldn’t be there because she doesn’t travel. (He didn’t actually say “white grandmother,” but we got it.) He thanked every American that helped in the primary from the "snows of Cedar Rapids to the sunshine of Sioux Falls.” He was gracious towards Hillary. Really gracious towards Hillary. Called her run historic, later pointed out that “fiscal responsibility and shared prosperity can go hand in hand, just like in the Clinton years.”
He teased McCain with a nice bit of rhetoric: “So I'll say this: There are many words to describe John McCain's attempt to pass off his embrace of George Bush's policies as bipartisan and new. But ‘change’ isn’t one of them.”
He hit his policy points like beatitudes. Feed the hungry. Care for the sick. End the war. Clean the air. The biggest roar from the crowd was for his education platform. “To finally decide that in this global economy, the chance to get a college education should not be a privilege for the wealthy few, but the birthright of every American.”
Then, namechecking. Roosevelt. Truman. Kennedy. Philadelphia. Gettysburg. Greatest Generation. Selma Bridge. Glass ceiling. His voice started to gather holy steam. “America, this is our time.” Now he was really preaching, surfing the melisma at the top of his voice: “this was the moment when the riiiiise of the oceans began to slowwww and our planet began to healllll!”
Then somebody punched a button for Springsteen’s “The Rising.” (Obama’s ground team has earned their reputation and won this primary because they know what they’re doing. This was St. Paul, Springsteen and U2 were good moves.) Michelle came back up in that pretty purple belted dress. The two of them waved at us.
One last text: “Great speech!”