The Gentleman From Illinois

"So if you are at all, a little bit excited about Senator Obama," called out the campaign staffer on stage warming up the crowd and tossing out "Obama '08" stocking caps, "Let me hear you now!" The people that gathered in downtown Springfield, Illinois, around 8 a.m. last Saturday were a mixed bag of long-time supporters and inquisitive newcomers, all braving the bitter cold to hear the junior senator from Illinois kick off his presidential campaign.

Barack Obama's announcement makes him the ninth candidate to enter the race for the 2008 Democratic nomination. The choice of the Illinois state capitol -- home of Abraham Lincoln and the early proving ground of Obama's political career -- had the calculated allure of accessibility, local politics, and historical gravity.

The Trout Lily Cafe, one block south of the old Capitol building where Obama spoke, was one of the many businesses that opened their doors at 7 a.m. to serve the early crowds. The two women working that morning were cracking jokes about the early hour and still icing a tray of cinnamon rolls as they opened the door. Their first customer was Mark Kessler, an affable, middle-aged white man in a plaid shirt who owns an independent record store on Adams and 6th, about half a block from all the action.

"I like Obama a lot," started Kessler, a Democrat and "confirmed child of the '60s." But it was his wife that cinched the deal. "She's always been a strong supporter of females, be it in the business or the political world," and yet, despite Hillary Clinton's presence in the race, she was thinking of voting for Obama. This had Kessler thinking about the events unfolding that morning. "I'm getting excited about Obama," he said. "I just like the man. I think he's got a shot."

The cafe filled up quickly. Three young black women sitting at the next table had come in that morning from St. Louis, about an hour and a half drive. "We are Barack Obama advocates," proclaimed Lakisha Jackson, a college student. "We need someone who will represent the people, not just a small portion of the people, but everybody," chimed in Rochelle O'Hara, a substitute teacher in the public school system. "He's a grassroots man, and he's proven that he's not just about the politics." They all believed firmly in the power of getting involved, and belied the stereotype that Obama supporters, and campaign volunteers, are all young white men. O'Hara worked on Claire McCaskill's senate campaign and had been following Obama since he spoke at the Democratic National Convention in 2004.

By 8 a.m., with the wind chill around -4 degrees Fahrenheit, lines snaked the six-block area around the old Capitol building. Most people huddled over coffee cups and several were wrapped in blankets. That, plus the traffic barricades, suggested a wait for concert tickets to see a pop-music superstar rather than a political rally.

At the Alamo II, a bar near the corner of 5th and Washington, Mike McCarthy ducked inside with his 11-year-old son, Will, to use the restroom and warm up. "I'm looking for leadership at the presidential and congressional level that is looking beyond the sound bite, beyond the next political poll," he said. McCarthy is a member of the Marine Reserves who served a tour in Iraq during the initial invasion in 2003. He usually votes Republican, but Obama's buzz has him considering voting Democratic. One of his concerns is the way the Iraq war is being handled, but he doesn't think leaving now is the answer. Most Americans, he feels, don't give enough thought to the complexity of developing a working democracy. "We've got a culture that's very short-sighted, many people have already put 9/11 behind them."

McCarthy was one of many out that morning who invoked the idea of being a part of history. "Will and I will look back and say, 'Hey, remember the time we went to Springfield and saw Senator Obama?'"

The bar was serving hot coffee for $2, but many customers opted for something stronger. Three young men, who'd decided a pitcher of beer was their best chance of staving off the cold, sat in the window. They were all seniors at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. "I've never gone to a political rally before," said Kyle Mullen, "none of us have. It's the first time, and it's specifically because of him. Black people, white people -- everyone is a fan of him."

The east side of the Capitol yard filled up right around 9 a.m. The temperature seemed to keep everyone subdued (it's hard to clap with much vigor when you're wearing thick gloves). As the sun slanted across half the crowd, you could see the heat shimmering off the packed bodies. Some people waved signs, and the handwritten ones were strikingly similar -- probably, the reporter next to me guessed, provided by the campaign because no outside signs were allowed in. The sign language interpreter waiting for Senator Dick Durbin's introduction clasped her hands together from the cold.

When Obama took the stage, he drew laughter from a line about the temperature, and from his self-effacing remark that it wasn't him that 15,000 people had come to see. "Yes it is!" someone shouted from the crowd. Silhouetted against the warm red-brown limestone of the old Capitol building, bare-headed and without gloves, he cut a charged figure. He got applause in a mix of expected and unexpected places: a call for unions raising up the middle class, the "army of teachers" he wants to put in schools, and his invocation of the need for a working consensus in Washington. As he wrapped up the speech, a train announced its entrance into town with a slow, long horn. "This campaign has to be about reclaiming the meaning of citizenship, restoring our sense of common purpose, and realizing that few obstacles can withstand the power of millions of voices calling for change. By ourselves, this change will not happen. Divided, we are bound to fail."

As he finished the speech and the crowd erupted, Obama kept a somber face for a few beats as he raised his hands to the crowd. But his smile quickly broke through.

Phoebe Connelly is acting managing editor of In These Times. She writes on political culture, human rights, and feminism.

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