North Park Street doesn't look much like North Park Street on Tuesday afternoon. An olive-drab helicopter does laps over the University of Wisconsin-Madison's Library Mall, where President Barack Obama will speak in a couple of hours. Hordes of students wait to get through the gate, and a girl stands at the intersection of Lathrop Drive with a pink sign to direct members of the White House Press Pool through a series of checkpoints.
The White House Press Pool -- believe it or not, I'm in it, along with other members of the Madison media. After running the gauntlet of two more pink-sign girls, I stand in line for my official-looking yellow badge with a picture of the White House on it. The badge says "Property of the U.S. Government," but I'd like to see them try to pry it out of my hands. I'm going to laminate this baby and hang it from my car's rearview mirror as soon as I get home.
I wait in line to go through security -- a bit of an indignity for a credentialed member of the White House Press Pool, but whatever. The press crowd includes a number of blow-dried folks who don't seem to be from the area. One woman is wearing intense high-heeled pointy-toed pumps that I'm pretty sure were not purchased at East Towne Mall. But here comes Ald. Bridget Maniaci in black Converse sneakers -- proclaiming that something is "super weird" -- to remind me that I really am just a few steps from the Memorial Union and not at a formal D.C. event.
The security area is staffed by a mix of very friendly-looking university police and very unfriendly-looking Secret Service agents. At the metal detector, a Secret Service guy asks me if I have anything in my pockets. I hesitate, not wanting to admit that it's a big ball of Kleenex and a scrunched-up baseball cap. That doesn't seem worthy of my new station as a White House reporter. So I blurt out, "Nothing too interesting." That's enough to get me pulled off to the side by the unfriendliest-looking Secret Service agent of all.
I enter the press area under a cloud of suspicion.
Library Mall has been remade as a presidential stage set, with a podium and risers set up in front of Memorial Library. Flags, bunting, banners, the works. The crowd is off to the south, behind barricades. Most of them aren't going to be able to see a thing, given that they're pretty much on the same level and the podium is barely elevated. Will this be yet another reason for the Democratic base to get mad at Obama?
Heads appear way up on top of the library. Black-clad figures walk to the edge of the roof, scanning the area with high-powered binoculars. I'm tempted to wave when the binoculars point in my direction but, remembering the metal-detector incident, opt for restraint.
Mama Digdown's Brass Band gets the party started with punchy New Orleans funk. How the hell did that enormous sousaphone get through the metal detector? The unfriendly Secret Service guy must have had a cow.
A reverend comes to the podium to give a somber invocation. "Go Jesus!" a student yells from behind the barricades, prompting laughs from the crowd. I don't think reverence is in the cards today.
U.S. Rep. Tammy Baldwin speaks next, dressed in Badger red. She lays out the stakes in the Nov. 2 election: reproductive rights, gay rights, UW funding, Social Security, the American Dream.
Note to self: Vote on Nov. 2.
After a couple of blah songs by The National, then a long energy-sapping break for canned music (pace, people, pace), singer-guitarist Ben Harper plays a mostly pensive solo set. It's the exact opposite of rousing. But just when you think the rally (and maybe even the Democrats) are doomed, U.S. Senator Russ Feingold bursts onto the podium.
The media had predicted Feingold wouldn't show up at the event, suggesting he didn't want to be tied to the increasingly unpopular Obama. You wouldn't know it from his passionate speech. "I'll tell you something, Mr. President," he booms, "you are my friend!"
Feingold gets the crowd cheering with his jabs at "the Washington Republican political hacks," "corporate special interests," and his opponent in Wisconsin's U.S. Senate race, millionaire political newcomer Ron Johnson. "This Senate seat cannot be bought," he thunders, "it has to be earned!"
After 18 years in Washington, this guy has learned to give a speech.
The mood is picking up, and Democratic gubernatorial candidate Tom Barrett lifts it higher with his spirited introduction of President Obama. And here he comes, the man himself, in a white shirt with the sleeves rolled up like an ordinary American.
Scratch that. Obama looks anything but ordinary. He's more handsome in person than on TV, with a thousand-watt smile and more charisma than any one person should be allowed to have. He gets the crowd in the palm of his hand from his opening story of driving to Madison to visit student friends when he lived in Chicago. "I had some fun times up here in Madison," he says. Perfectly timed pause, followed by the punchline: "I can't give you the details...."
I guess I'm not yet a jaded White House reporter, because Obama's speech strikes me as masterful, both in its delivery and its content. His goal is to fire up the faithful, and fire them up he does. None of that cerebral Obama detachment here. He speaks in preacher's cadences about Republican failures on the economy, health care and student loans (a particularly big applause line for this crowd). He makes the case for his own record, claiming to have accomplished about 70% of what he set out to do. Lest he come off as grandiloquent, he throws in a self-deprecating joke about leaving a few action items on his agenda: "I figured I needed something to do over the next couple years."
Obama brings the speech around to the positive theme from his 2008 campaign: change you can believe in. "Let's show Washington one more time," he pleads, "change happens because of you!"
At this point, the cheering Obama army is ready to march into battle. "Go get 'em, Barack!" a guy yells from the crowd. The only person who seems unaffected by the speech is a mother who's laid her baby in the empty Library Mall fountain a few yards from the podium to change its diaper.
It's literally a change you can believe in. OMG.