Spring break has officially begun at the University of Oregon on this Friday afternoon, but there's no shortage of young faces remaining on the Eugene campus. A line, five people thick in some places, starts at the doors of McArthur Court, extending in both directions for more than a thousand feet, nearly enclosing the university's massive athletic complex. There isn't a basketball game at Mac Court today -- the team is in Little Rock, Ark. and slowly losing its lead in a first-round NCAA tournament game. And there isn't a concert either -- live music doesn't stop at Mac Court too often these days. These people are here to see Sen. Barack Obama, the Democratic presidential hopeful who is in the midst of a less than two-day sweep of Oregon in preparation for the state's May 20 primary.
By this time, many of those in line (not just students but ranging in age from infant to elderly) have been standing or sitting on the pavement for most of the surprisingly dry spring day. Yet there's a thick air of excitement billowing from those in line, many of whom are wearing official Obama t-shirts (or clearly unofficial campaign shirts bought from one of many duffel bag vendors) or University of Oregon apparel. One high school student jokingly calls the event the "Obama concert," in reference to the rock-and-roll atmosphere outside the arena.
Chris Holman and a group of ten other students and faculty have assembled a small camp of sorts on 18th Avenue, complete with a collection of soft drinks and snacks, lawn chairs, blankets and a hookah pipe with a hot coal on top. When the line shifts, Holman, a second-year Arabic instructor at the university, and company each pick up a portion of their camp and shuffle it along the sidewalk. Holman, who also attended the University of Oregon, still seems caught off guard by the turnout.
"I've never seen anything like this here. I don't think people would sit outside on the ground for five hours to watch a basketball game," Holman says. "A lot of people are pissed because they left for spring break, and then [Obama] showed up. This place would probably be even more insane if classes weren't out."
Holman, like many others who've arrived to get a peek at Obama, doesn't think the same numbers would or will turn out if or when Sen. Hillary Clinton speaks at the university. Holman, again like others, has also just caught on to the buzz passing up the line that former presidential candidate Bill Richardson officially endorsed Obama in Portland that morning.
The doors are slated to open by 7pm, but by a quarter after 6pm supporters are being shuffled into the stadium. Inside, the arena slowly fills level by level and by 6:45pm, it's more than half full and the fiery supporters are busying themselves by enthusiastically sending "the wave" circling the stadium. Paper airplanes are launched from upper levels. A capella groups from the school perform on a sub-par sound system before speeches by a local campaign organizer and Rep. Earl Blumenauer, the U.S. congressman responsible for Obama's campaign in Oregon.
Most of those seated in the antiquated, yet storied confines of Mac Court have been sitting in their seats for two and a half hours when the clock strikes 9:14 p.m. and retired Air Force Gen. Merrill "Tony" McPeack wraps up a short introduction, the last few words of which are buried in a cascading rumble emanating from the seats of the multi-tiered stadium. Students stomp their feet and clap their hands wildly above their heads. Even clusters of those several decades removed from their college days jump up and down. Eyes are fixed on a tunnel leading onto the floor of the arena where the surprisingly slender Illinois senator has materialized.
In all my experience attending concerts and major sporting events, I've never heard a stadium create the dueling-747-engine howl that's shaking the 80-plus-year-old walls of Mac Court. The eardrum-wobbling din carries on for three full minutes as Obama bounds onto a stage vacant of a podium, teleprompter, or anyone or anything other than himself and turns in circles, providing a wave and a tight-lipped smile to the frantic masses. Eventually, he raises a cordless microphone to his mouth.
"Quack," he says.
Another entire minute of the jet-engine-like applause. Those standing on the arena floor, only feet in front of Obama, raise their hands in the shape of an "O" above their heads -- a typical gesture at a University of Oregon basketball game that takes on a double meaning on this night.
When he's finally able to get a few audible words in, Obama gives his condolences for the school's loss in the first round of the NCAA tournament only a few hours earlier and comments on the intimidating roar of the Pit (another nickname for Mac Court), saying he's glad he's not an opposing basketball team. On the contrary, Obama is very much on his home court on this night and has a captive crowd of fans waiting for the next chance to stand up and wave the "Change We Can Believe In" and handmade Oregon-related posters that were handed out en masse (the crowd was not allowed to bring their own signs through the airport-like screening process at the doors) before the senator made his way to the stage.
"Change doesn't happen from the top down, it happens from the bottom up," he says only a minute or two into his speech. Again an eruption.
Four hours earlier there was proof of this bottom-up notion of political engineering as volunteers scoured the streets, some offering voter registration forms to those in line, others helping direct the press, and some simply standing outside the venue proudly wearing their volunteer badges, not sure what else could be done to help out. This roots-based groundwork, which has been a calling card for the Obama campaign for months now, is also apparent in the advertising, or lack thereof, of the event. With nothing other than a few Internet postings and word-of-mouth momentum, the rally managed to draw a crowd that far exceeded the capacity of Mac Court, leading to reports of Obama briefly addressing the overflow crowd outside before giving his formal speech.
"It wasn't really advertised; it was almost all word of mouth. After his speech [on Tuesday], everyone was talking about him and within hours of the announcement on Wednesday there were already three Facebook groups about the rally," says U. of O. senior Mollie White, standing on a sidewalk waiting for the doors to open.
White is grinning excitedly as she sits in her first-row, second-level seat directly behind the podium with her two roommates as Obama discusses the speech she was referring to -- the speech that some political analysts called a defining moment in U.S. political history, but Fox News talking heads labeled a sign of a "campaign in crisis." When Obama mentions the March 18 speech in which he addressed incendiary comments made by his former pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Jr., the crowd once again goes bonkers. Prior to the speech, several students said Obama's attempt to tackle our nation's race issues in that speech even furthered his popularity on campus.
An Obama speech is part pep rally, part comedy show, part old-time soapbox speech, part history lesson, all wrapped up in a you-can-do-it shroud of JFK inspiration. The senator paces across the stage, brow firmly locked into his now-familiar expression of astute concern, and somehow in a matter of minutes stirs the crowd to a deafening frenzy, only to bring them to a near hush as he softens his voice in a personal, compassionate tone for a let-me-tell-you-about-a-poor-young-girl-I-met-along-the-campaign-trail moment. The Eugene speech didn't feature much new or different from the candidate's other talks that many in attendance had likely heard on television, but students and non-students alike seemed to react to seeing the man in person. In a word, Obama is striking in real life -- or "so damn sexy," as one young female student said while waiting in line. As Obama took the stage, a reporter for the university's daily paper covered her mouth with her notepad, her eyes widened as she got her first look at the man.
Some, however, may have been disappointed that the candidate didn't address many Oregon-specific issues (he briefly touched on the environment, typically a strong political talking point in the state), but Obama drove home his appearance with this charge: "If you're willing to hope with me, if you're willing to struggle and fight for me, then I promise you this, Eugene -- we will not just win Oregon. We will not just win this nomination. We will not just win the general election, but you and I together, we will change this country and we will change the world."
Stevie Wonder's "Sign, Sealed, Delivered," bursts from the sound system as Obama holds the mic at his side, using his free hand to again wave to all levels of the stadium. Some dance to the classic R&B tune, others just keep screaming their heads off. Then the senator descends to the floor of the arena, flanked by dead-ass-serious Secret Service officers, and begins shaking hands and receiving a few full-blown hugs from frenzied supporters. Some hand Obama's aides photos or the current issue of Rolling Stone, with Obama on the cover, in the hopes of getting an autograph.
David Johns, a middle-aged black man wearing a seemingly homemade white Obama '08 sweatshirt, leans across the metal railing and shakes hands with Obama. When he turns to talk to me, his eyes are glistening as his two children and wife surround him.
"Man, that was like a church service. But for the whole country," says Johns, who I spotted in front of the arena six hours earlier, asking nearly every passerby if he or she was registered to vote. He says something about excitement, but his two adolescent children are speaking over the top of him, clearly illustrating what their father seems to be trying to tell me.
"They know we're not just a bunch of hippies out here," Johns says of his home state as he turns to exit the arena floor with his arm over his wife's shoulders. "We count this time"
Outside, rally goers are clogging University Street, not giving much attention to the honking cars attempting to travel down the street. There's no hooting or hollering -- that seems to have been left inside the building, but there's no shortage of near-silly smiles. Ryan Larson, a community college student who drove up from Roseburg for the rally, conveys his excitement subtly and provides one of the more sober takes on what has just transpired in Mac Court.
"He definitely has a charismatic way about him, the only worry I have about him is that he has such a large following of young people, and historically, they haven't had a great turnout at the polls," says Larson.
But Larson then says that the next day he plans on calling a few friends in Pennsylvania (the site of the next big primary on April 22) and see if he might be able to swing a few votes Obama's way.