Obama Time

An admitted 'hope-monger' brings down the house in Brooklyn

Before last week's big Barack Obama rally brought life and light back to the place, the last political event of any size at the Marriott hotel in downtown Brooklyn was a dismal affair, a fundraiser for the Kings County Democratic organization. It was overseen by Clarence Norman, then the party's chairman and an assemblyman from Bedford-Stuyvesant. That night in 2003, he wore a dark double-breasted suit, a bright red pocket hankie, and a dour look.

It grew more dour when he was asked about the scheming judges his party had put on the bench. One had just pled guilty, another had been booted from office. Several others were under investigation. This gave Brooklyn's judiciary a higher crime rate than Norman's district. Norman explained that the judges hadn't yet committed their crimes when the party supported them. Then he walked into the ballroom filled with favor-seekers who had paid $500 each to gain his attention.

That gloomy evening was one more marker along the road toward the end of hope for politics. It was also the beginning of the end for Norman, who was soon convicted of corruption. He now wears number 07A3169 and resides in the Oneida Correctional Facility upstate.


Then last Wednesday, there was a purge of those old ghosts. Streaming in the doors of the same ballroom where Norman and his clique had gathered came a surge of excited people. They poured into the room, blacks and whites, a few Hispanics. Most of them were young, and all were there to get a look at this presidential candidate who has been in the U.S. Senate for only three years and, at 46, is the youngest one running. The rap against him is that he is too young, too dark, and too inexperienced to win. But he is still three years older than John F. Kennedy was upon his election in 1960. And like they did for Kennedy and his brother Robert, the crowds gather around Obama, who generates the kind of electricity political consultants pray for.

Those attending the Brooklyn event paid $25 a head; the student rate was $15. This kind of retail politics is not supposed to be terribly effective for raising the millions needed to run a big national campaign. Last quarter, however, Obama raised $31 million for the primary, $10 million more than Hillary Clinton, the New York senator who leads almost every poll. Obama's average donor gave $202. The maximum allowed is $2,300. Although it is supposed to be Clinton country, Brooklyn represents potentially ripe pickings for the candidate. With 2.5 million people, a third of them black, the borough would be the nation's fourth-largest city if it stood on its own.

Outside the hotel, the crowd waited for an hour in an unusually chilly August drizzle. They lined up along Adams Street, three and four abreast, past the shuttered Family Court building, almost to the Brooklyn Bridge. Eric Chichester, from Bay Ridge, brought his wife, Pshala, his sister Mandy, and his nephew Kaylub, who is six. Chichester, 31, an African-American, said he wanted his nephew to "see a role model for our community." His wife interrupted him: "He's here because he loves this man. He's on the Internet every minute he's home, reading about him." Chichester grinned. "He has this passion," he said. "Hillary is good, but she's scripted." The wife and sister nodded.

The line moved and people filed inside and up the escalator. The ballroom, capacity 1,200, filled up, and then an overflow room with 400 more. This left 300 outside in the rain. "I'm sorry," the Obama coordinators apologized over and over.

Upstairs in the hotel, people swarmed a table where T-shirts were sold and volunteers recruited. Someone reached into a cardboard box and held up the biggest seller, a black shirt with white writing that read "Got Hope?" with "Obama for America" beneath.

"Hope" is a word that is used a lot by Obama. His latest book is titled The Audacity of Hope, a phrase he used in his riveting speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. Many in the crowd came clutching copies, wishing for a chance at an autograph. When Obama emerged onstage at 6:40 p.m., the crowd whooped, stomped, and cheered. It was standing room only. To get a better view, middle-aged women climbed onto chairs lined against the walls and stood on them in bare feet, clapping their hands above their heads.

Obama is whippet-thin, with big ears that give him a boyish look and a wide, toothy grin that he constantly flashes and which folds his cheeks into deep wrinkles. Earlier in the day, at a smaller rally at a West Side union hall, he had plunged into the crowd like a natural, double-clutching many of the outstretched hands. If this is a tactic, it works, just as it worked for another natural-born politician, Bill Clinton. On the stage in Brooklyn, he showed a mix of the ex-president's easygoing poise and Jesse Jackson's fervor. He hugged the young son of a doorman who had sent him a $25 donation last spring, a gift that had "moved and touched" him, he said, because he knew the donor "was having a hard time."

Then he got down to business. For a thin man, he has a deep, rich voice. Most of the time, he speaks in a resonant but relaxed tone, and then he shifts, pacing the stage and booming out his message in preacher-like cadences.

"The reason you are here," he said, his voice rising, "is that Americans are starving for change. They want something new." The crowd exploded, and he urged it along, building the roar in waves. He cited a laundry list of disappointments, things, he said, that people are "sick and tired of." There were no surprises here: unaffordable health care, lost jobs, tax breaks for the rich, broken schools, and, finally, the current administration and its war in Iraq. "Lord knows, people are tired of this war," he said, "a war that has made us less safe, that has cost too many American lives, that diminishes our standing in the world. It is time to bring the troops home. It's not working."

Then he shifted again, telling the crowd something that he knew people wanted to think about themselves: "You want not just to be against something; you want to be for something," he shouted. "You want politics that can work in a way that is ennobling—not petty, not dishonest. The American people, all around the country, want to see a politics that says we are all connected."

This is the heart of the stump speech he has been giving all year. He has tested it on audiences around the country, to 20,000 people in Atlanta, 10,000 in Houston. "You want to feel some hope," he told the crowd. "Now the reporters are saying, 'Oh, there he goes again. He's so naïve. He's talking about hope.' I've been accused of being a hope-monger. And I plead guilty as charged. I am an optimist."

He is right about the press. In the back of the room, there were two dozen TV cameras and a throng of reporters listening closely to see if he took a tough shot at Hillary Clinton, here on her own home turf. This is how the political scorecard is being tabulated right now. Shot by shot, tit for tat, and poll by poll. But there is no measurement of what he does to rooms like the one in Brooklyn, how one candidate comes to a city and electrifies those who hear him.

Outside the ballroom, sitting on a stuffed chair, wearing a rumpled suit with a worn satchel beside him sat an old Brooklyn political hand, a health-care consultant named Bob Healy. He is Irish Catholic from the days when his people made all the decisions about candidates in New York, and he has seen them come and go, Clarence Norman included. "Forget the others," Healy said of the presidential field. "This one, he is excitement. Sure he can win. This is his time."

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