(HOST) This past week Barak Obama came to Burlington. Thousands turned out, and hundreds were turned away. Commentator Philip Baruth was among those who heard Obama speak – and to say that he was impressed is probably an understatement.
(BARUTH) When I heard that Barak Obama was speaking in UVM’s Ira Allen Chapel at noon, I thought: Get there at eleven. Obama is not merely the junior Senator from Illinois, he’s a very fast-breaking cultural phenomenon: boyishly handsome, photographed with Bono, routinely touted as a potential President.
But by the time I reached the chapel, the line already stretched back about a quarter of a mile. It didn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that anyone who got on line now was never going to see the inside of that Chapel. That’s when the Obama effect kicked in for me: I realized that I, personally, was willing to lie and cheat to get inside.
And so I avoided the line altogether and went directly to the basement entrance I discovered a few years back while sneaking in to see something else.
Inside the chapel, it was mayhem. The crowd was studded with politicians and TV cameras. Security prowled the aisles in yellow windbreakers.
But the event was delayed: Bernie Sanders and Obama and Peter Welch went out to shake hands with everyone who didn’t know about the basement entrance. It was a very canny political touch: only after all those unlucky people had gotten their fair share did Obama come in to the rest of us. Obama is quite tall and quite thin, with closely shorn hair above high cheekbones and a brilliant smile. He wears his dark suit and white-white shirt like a second skin. His looks aren’t just good they’re great: male-model-quality looks, looks that are meant to be looked at kind of looks.
And of course, everyone’s looking. In fact, the large room is slightly darker than it would be because, outside, students have climbed up and are now actually standing on the sills of the chapel’s tall windows. More than one of these students is holding up a cellphone, streaming whatever of the event they can capture.
And when Obama speaks, he doesn’t disappoint. His voice is educated and well-modulated, but also familiar and at ease. If Bernie Sanders has built a career on the ability to take his voice quickly into overdrive, Obama relies almost exclusively on second gear. Yet it’s a deeply satisfying second gear: Obama gives the sense that he could thunder if he needed to, but just now he’s with friends, and so his tone remains just above the conversational.
And that conversation ranges over poverty, war, and the fraying of the American dream.
The speech is very good, and it’s moving, but there’s obviously something larger at work here than anecdotes and speeches, the standard stuff of politics.
As the audience applauds, the students glued to the windows outside begin to drum again on the glass, with both hands now, and as the volume rises, I’m really worried that the glass will shatter and that one or more of the kids will come crashing down into the pews below.
Only then do I truly understand the Obama effect: I realize how hungry we are, all of us gathered inside and outside that sacred place, to hear someone in a position of authority say something that makes some sort of sense, any sort of sense at all.
Philip Baruth is a novelist living in Burlington. He teaches at the University of Vermont.