It's 9am and the local press is anxious. It's been 40 years since the last presidential candidate, Robert F. Kennedy, visited Central Oregon and Barack Obama will be here any minute. Gulping organic coffee and checking lenses, "Change We Can Believe In" badges pinned to our chests, the bran muffins go ignored.
Across the lot, PV Powered employees huddle together, a brisk wind keeping jackets zipped, overtime conversation close. They're the first for Secret Service, electronic devices aside as the magic wand swipes over bodies. They enter, but we aren't allowed: "Thank you, now stand over there - Again."
And then the bus arrives - not Barack's black world-tour barge but the traveling press. Reuters and NBC, bloggers, months into this morass and better equipped, CNN and ABC bring small stepladders, wear laminated badges reading "Fired Up! Ready to go!" and "Camp Pain 2008." They sprint for the caffeine. The bran muffins still go untouched.
To my right is Jessica Slider, staring off at the three towers of the Old Mill, the Stars and Stripes swaying on high. Doing video stills and new media for the campaign since February 2007 and promoted to the plane only recently, "I feel good." she replies when asked. Grateful that she'll be home tomorrow, in Chicago for a well-deserved Mother's Day off, she then she looks about nervously - as if her personal welfare isn't approved for release. "I really shouldn't be on the record." she apologizes then disappears.
Moments later, I get the expected pat on the back, "Hi! Don't I know you?"
"No." Seeing the short, energetic man-child all too eager to know me. It's Nick Shapiro, Oregon communications director for the Obama campaign. Jessica did the requisite handoff; Nick wants to be on the record.
"The Clinton campaign said that North Carolina would be a game-changer, and it was..." offers he, rapid-firing the official line, "After that this game has moved to Oregon - We're 33 pledged delegates away. This is a race of change: The Future versus the Past. What you need to know, not what you want to hear." Nick's solid, I'm scribbling like it's the Ten Commandments.
There's a sudden excitement. "He's five minutes out..." says someone and the Secret Service does final checks on the building, opening doors, closing them, one last walk around PV Powered. Bomb- and/or bong-sniffing German Shepherd panting in the shade. The black bus at last arrives.
Wait for it... Him: Don't blink, in a flash Barack Obama is whisked inside.
Cameras click as CEO Gregg Patterson and President Glenn Harris welcome the Illinois Senator to PV Powered. Light blue and white striped shirt with dark slacks, Obama is remarkably at ease. Interested in solar inverters, PV Powered's product line - A question, too distant to be heard, curiosity, then an explanation, demonstration, as select employees assemble and others peer through a sliding window into the main factory. His back to us, disregarding clicking cameras and digital recorders, he is here for them. One hand on a worker's shoulder, the other gives a firm shake, "Thanks for the good work. I hope you vote for me."
We're merely snooping. Racing between bay doors as the hands-on tour inside continues, the talk among the traveling press is replete with rumor. That Hillary left a bunch of kids outside at an earlier Oregon event, cold and shivering during the photo-op. That the tone has changed, Obama is now focused on McCain but won't dismiss Clinton. A loan to settle her campaign's staggering $20 million debt (including over $11 million she has loaned herself) may be in the works. Maybe her as vice president, but Bill Richardson is being a good ally... Anything to soothe supporters and unify against McCain in November.
Reporters are a gossipy bunch, hearing the same speeches, real scoops rare, and Athena Jones is perhaps the most jaded. "Make sure you call it beautiful Bend!" she recommends, partly in jest, as another reporter sighs, "What else will he say? Solar power is bad?" A blogger for NBC, Athena left the Clinton campaign two weeks ago to join the Obama junket; her Blackberry screen is cracked and she recalls Brooklyn as home.
"It's more relaxed." is her perceived difference between the two campaigns. "There's less spin here."
We're all tired of spin. Of one candidate being called unelectable when neither can close the deal. Deniable whispers about Obama being Muslim, even after his (Christian) Reverend's uproar. Hillary's "white supporters" unwilling to vote for the biracial Barack. Friday's news that another of McCain's lobbyist pals/staffers has been linked to another dubious land deal. Voters at the whim of the cycle, leaks, important issues usurped by ten-second clips... The message - why we should vote for or against this person - is too easily lost.
Yes, he kisses babies, too. Then Barack Obama exits the building and steps to the podium. After thanking the managers and employees of PV Powered, and noting that "our microphone today is partially-powered by solar energy..." the Senator lauds that this "is truly a workshop of the future. Places like this are part of the reason that Oregon is such a leader on clean energy. And this is an election where we have a chance to finally have a President that shows that same kind of leadership."
The door has been kicked open and an attack follows: On Cheney's energy policy, two meetings with environmental groups and forty with energy companies and lobbyists, failed leadership over eight years, an unending war. Obama speaks for only a few minutes but his strategy through November is obvious:
A vote for McCain is a vote for another four years of Bush.
Any questions? The traveling press gets the first nod, and each tries to corner the candidate, hoping for a gaffe on an absurd question: Did Hamas endorse him? Is McCain's connection to the Keating Five fair game? Who's more patriotic? Will he attend church tomorrow? But Obama won't bite; he instead focuses on the future, beating McCain foremost.
"I think it's going to have to do with who has a plan to provide relief to people when it comes to their gas prices. Who has a real plan to make sure that everyone has health insurance? Who has a real plan to deal with college affordability? Who can help American families live out their dreams? And so, rather than an abstract set of questions about is he too liberal? Is he too conservative? How do voters handle an African-American, et cetera... I think this is going to be a very concrete contest around very specific plans for how we improve the lives of Americans and our vision for the future. And that's the debate I'm going to welcome."
Oregon's ballot initiative process and medical marijuana get their due. "If we're going to prescribe medical marijuana for patients, it should done by doctors and not something people casually say, 'Hey, here, this might help...' But I have no interest in seeing our Justice Department spend its limited time and resources challenging state laws the people of Oregon have thought through and ratified, rather than hunting terrorists or cracking down on those who are doing wrong to our fellow U.S. citizens."
Counting the delegates of Florida and Michigan, Clinton's candidacy, are still open questions. And then came mine: Given soaring gas and food prices, and projections that the corn harvest will be 7% lower than last year, at what point would he suspend the use of ethanol?
"I have been a champion of ethanol over the past. I come from a corn-growing state. And I've said before, and I continue to believe, that we must develop alternatives to fossil fuels."
His answer isn't surprising - Obama and all candidates cater to farmers, especially with Iowa the first caucus - but it was his stare that struck me, both as an alternative reporter and independent voter.
"What I've also said is that corn-based ethanol I see as a transitional technology. We have to shift to cellulosic ethanol using non-food sources to develop energy sources. I've proposed in my energy plan to significantly increase the investment in other strategies for alternative fuel: switch grass, wood chips and so forth."
Eyes directly on mine, not looking away, engaging while answering; no subtle twitch, hand to face nor side to reveal any discomfort in his position.
"It is not clear to me that - and I don't think it's been definitely shown - that the use of ethanol is the biggest contributor to rising food prices. But the one thing I will say is if, at some point, we have to choose between making sure millions of people get adequate nutrition and energy policy, that I always want to make sure that people have enough to eat. And I think that's both a moral and a strategic imperative for the United States."
A fair answer. Yet unnerving delivery: The person running for the most important office in the world held my gaze throughout, intent, believing every word, whole and heartfelt. After eight years of George W. Bush playing the fool while his administration undermines the environment and basic human rights, injects religion and partisanship into inherently secular institutions, slights science, invades Iraq, squanders trillions of national treasure and international goodwill... Instead of making a joke or offering another fall guy (Libby, Tenet, Gonzales et al) Obama looks you in the eye.
It was then that the psychological damage of the past eight years became all too clear. Thoreau said it best: "I have never yet met a man who was quite awake. How could I have looked him in the face?"
Is Obama awake? He certainly believes what he says, and the message he has for America isn't all rosy; there is work to be done, tax cuts and corporate gifts bygone. Even Obama later acknowledged that his $150 billion alternative energy initiative, touted as paying for itself through the selling of emission credits to polluters, may cost Americans more, as energy companies pass investment into cleaner technologies onto us. Still, when's the last time a candidate asked for our help? Forty years or longer? Look what happened to them - How far will the establishment go to silence someone looking you in the eye and speaking the truth?
As the press conference ended and the candidate kneeled to pose with PV Powered's employees for a picture, I still struggled with perception versus this person. Has he changed or have we? Obama was a rockstar months only ago, the fresh face that tens of thousands packed stadiums to see, the icon of the most people-powered campaign in history, with over 1.3 million individual donors and 45% of them giving $200 or less. In total, he's raised around $240 million through March 2008, three times the amount raised by John McCain.
Still, several defeats later and momentum slowed by his "bitter" and other remarks by his Reverend coming home to roost, Obama stands at the precipice. Virtually tied with Hillary for superdelegates and around 150 total delegates away from the nomination after West Virginia, he's been vetted and tested, toughened. Hillary still believes she has a chance. Though anyone running the tables by winning 75% of the total remaining votes (Oregon's included) is a long shot. Barring catastrophe - caught shooting sea lions or kissing Louis Farrakhan - Barack Obama will be the Democratic nominee for president. And only then will the true toll of this extended race become clear.
Summit High School was the last stop for the Obama campaign's latest swing through Oregon. "Living in America" by James Brown blasted in a gymnasium packed with Bendittes eager to see the candidate for the first time.
And so Obama entered to a standing ovation - the first of six. Shaking hands and seeming to float across the gym floor to the podium, grabbing the microphone and saying how nice it is "To be east of the mountains. You have some pretty real estate out here. I wanna stick around - Who's gonna teach me fishing?"
The standing-room-only crowd ate it up. Skewering McCain as another four years of Bush within seconds and not mentioning his sole competitor for the Democratic nomination until the 11th minute, Obama spoke for 29 total before declaring:
"I can promise you this. If you give me the opportunity, when I'm president I will tell you what I think...I will always be honest with you about the challenges that we face. I will always listen to you, even when we disagree - Even Michelle and I disagree..."
Confidently striding around the stage, catching the eyes of hundreds - He's here for them - Obama simply couldn't help himself:
"But most importantly, I'm going to spend every single day in that White House waking up and thinking, 'How can I make the lives of people in Bend, Oregon a little better?'"
When Clinton and McCain talk gas-tax holidays it's pandering, when Obama says such things he's being playful. A roar, another ovation, Bend is Obama's to lose. He's already out-raised Hillary 5-1 locally, and Democrats are outpacing Republicans in fundraising throughout Central Oregon.
The questions from the audience were standard, as were his answers. One on nuclear power, answered: "We don't know how to store the waste, and safety concerns - terrorist attacks. Show me a way and I'll consider it." Another about counting Florida's delegates, followed by why the United Nations is ineffective in addressing situations like Darfur - "Iraq has given U.S. intervention a bad name." He then contrasted the cost of not working with others, given $20 billion for the First Gulf War and the second topping $600 billion.
A question about student loans was framed by the Obama couple's $100,000-plus in loans after they graduated law school, offering Barack a chance to explain his proposal for $4,000 per student per year as a voucher, with community or Peace Corps service afterward as a condition. Ovation! The final question on free trade agreements was answered with the campaign adage "They're good for Wall Street, but not so good for Main Street." And, then, it was over.And, then, it was over.
"Signed, Sealed, Delivered," boomed as Obama exited, shaking hands, signing his books, holding and kissing a newborn, taking a wide circle to ensure that everyone got a chance to see him. And he, them. Out the door with one last wave and off to the airport, back home for Mother's Day, the reformer from Chicago, the Democratic Party's presumptive nominee for President - Barring a backroom deal. Or catastrophe, like Bobby two weeks after he left Central Oregon 40 years ago.