07 April 2008

Attending An Obama Fundraiser

S. and I went to a fundraiser here in Atlanta for Barack Obama yesterday – a lunchtime gathering atop the Suntrust building just where Midtown meets downtown, at the corner of 10th Street and Peachtree. In some ways it was a homecoming of sorts. S., who years ago was a downtown lawyer, now works out of the house, in an alcove upstairs that gives her a view of our suburban street through the large window that runs from the first floor to the second. She is usually in a sweat suit, the speakerphone blaring the acronyms of the arcane business practices of her employer. The dog sits in the corner of the couch behind her as if he is a miniature bodyguard, his eyes closed but body alert.

I, who used to work out of the house, have been back in the office in the mortgage business for a year and a half now, and seem to spend my days in a never ending episode of Welcome Back, Kotter, except these sweathogs are not teenagers, and they are not acting.

So I took the morning off, since going to work for an hour didn’t make much sense, and took a leisurely stroll around the internet, a leisurely shave, and a long shower – all of this was so unhurried that I end up rushing to get dressed so we could leave on time. Sheila put on some real clothes for a change. I threw on a blazer to dress things up and we were off.

One of the amazing things about Atlanta is you can live just twenty miles from downtown in the suburbs, but it will take you an hour door to door to get to your destination. The closest exit to the event was closed, so we took a detour that had us traipsing through one of the many construction zones in the city. “When did they build that?” was a constant refrain, as if we were tourists visiting someplace we haven’t been in awhile. New skyscrapers, new condo developments, newly renovated streetscapes that opened up the sidewalks and made them destinations had brought new life to what used to be deserted industrial warehouses and sterile office building facades. I hadn’t seen that many people on the streets in Atlanta in the daytime ever.

As we walked into the lobby of the building, a greeter asked if we were looking for the Obama event. She turned out to be a lawyer that S. had known in back in her downtown lawyer life. She pointed us towards the elevator bank. We ended up waiting for the elevator with the mayor of Atlanta, Shirley Franklin, and her body guard. All of five feet tall, Ms. Franklin was extremely approachable, and she and Sheila ended up talking about their children and a school they had in common while we were whisked skyward.

We ended up high above the street in a large room overlooking Piedmont Park. Ordinarily, it would have been a great view, but I don’t think I looked out the window more than two times the whole time I was there. Shit, I was in there! David Plouffe, Obama’s campaign manager, the mastermind behind this incredible campaign, was going to be the keynote speaker! I was so hyped I forgot to be pissed at the type of overdone hobnobbing that usually goes on at these kinds of gatherings.

My best buddy from college waved from across the buffet table, full plate in hand. “What’s up, dude,” I offered back to him as I shook the hand of someone S. introduced me, someone whose name I didn’t really hear. My buddy was glad to see me – I only had to shake hands with the two people he standing next to him before we could chat for a minute.

While I was getting my plate, I noticed the name tag on the woman across from me. her last name was the same as mine. Her voice said what was on my mind. She had the kind of eyes that were made to draw men in to her, the kind of eyes she’d had to tone down to fit into this scene, her life, her career. They got away from her for a few moments, though, as we worked our way down the opposite sides of the buffet table. Her husband ended up being from South Georgia – no direct relation, although his ancestors may have originated from the same plantation.

S. was going full bore, working the room like an old pol before running into some young lawyers from Louisville. We all ended up parking our plates at the same high cocktail table, standing and eating and talking. There were the usual suspects – the state senators, the legislative aides trailing behind their bosses, whispering in their ears that they needed to keep an eye on time since the Legislature was nearing its last day in session.

There were the usual black folks – mostly lawyers, mostly women, mostly middle aged, although far fewer of the blonde haired green eyed and blue eyed pale skinned black cognoscenti that you normally saw at something like this. The white people there were not the people I was used to seeing at these kinds of things. Some of the older ones, especially the trial lawyers, were full of bluster, used to mingling with anyone, all of them with an eye on who was who and how it might help them down the road. The younger ones were exuberant, expectant even, as if their participation in the campaign of an outsider candidate was a way to balance their lives of privilege.

It was the forty and fifty-something white lawyers from the downtown firms who seemed to be the most out of place. Many of them seemed to have lost some of their legal vigorousness when they came in the door. Instead of the normal air of superiority they operated with, they seemed to be resigned to whatever the fate of casting their lot with Obama might bring their way. One of these guys ended up at our cocktail table. He had worked with S. years ago. “You know,” he said, his fork full of chicken, “I’ve got four daughters. I was for Hillary, you know – I figured she would be a good role model for them.” The chicken threatened to slide off the end of his fork as he shook his hand to underscore his words. “But lately, the way she was campaigning…I just couldn’t see how she could win this thing. So I guess I’m for Obama.”

I looked around as I ate, trying to see where Mr. Plouffe was. It hit me as I settled on the mayor and her entourage that he was probably the young white guy talking to her. He looked exactly like I thought he would – dark haired, with a five o’clock shadow that would make Jack Lemmon look like a eunuch, slender, sharp eyed, a man who was always in motion, even when he was listening.

The crowd got louder as more people entered the room. Those who were networking looked a little disappointed. The cost of admission was not paying off. These weren’t decision makers, the networkers were discovering but well dressed flacks, pinstriped and cuff linked, pomaded and perfumed, a Ralph Lauren ad with middle aged people in it.

My buddy and I were shooting the shit with some hungry looking lawyers from Savannah when the person introducing the speaker asked for our attention. We faded to the back, making our way back to the vicinity of our original table, where S. was holding court with two other tall women. Mr. Plouffe came on like gangbusters, without further ado, without some long, drawn out acknowledgement spiel to pay tribute to every elected official in the room – basically, he thanked the mayor and the super delegates in attendance and started into HIS stump speech. I leaned over and whispered to my buddy – “he’s more Obama than Obama”. This was it – I was looking at the guy who pulled the levers, the guy who deployed the troops, the guy who stayed up all night every night so the candidate could look like he was well rested, the guy who probably knew more about this Democratic presidential hopeful than anybody else but his wife. How much, I wondered, did you tell your campaign manager, if you were the candidate, about the things in your closet that nobody knew about yet? How close to the truth did a campaign manager want to get when a faux pas from his candidate's past surfaced?

The mayor sat down in a chair near the front of the room but off to the side. She went from practically invisible to gone among the six feet and over crowd, her hulking bodyguard the only indication she was still in the room. David Plouffe was Turbo Barack for the first hour, speaking about three times as fast as the candidate, his sentences sounding as if they were downhill sprints, his hands, his head bobs and his volume the only indicators of any intonation. It was as if I could see my last three months of following Obama online coming alive as he referenced just about every highlight and low moment of the recent campaign history and the reactions by the press. My chest swelled a little. I looked around the room at the black people. Some of their eyes (including S.’s) were moist as Plouffe stated emphatically “he will be the nominee in June”. Many of their faces held smiles so wide I thought their brown skin was going to split. Even the seasoned black pols had an extra twinkle in their eyes. And then there were those who were simply beatific, as if they had known all along the Rapture was coming.

After an hour of standing, though, the natives got restless – like me, they were not the kind of people who sat still or stayed quiet this long in the course of a normal workday. Plouffe was staring to wind down, promising, as he pounded the Obama themes, that he would take questions. His throat must have gotten very dry – a thin, white string of saliva appeared, stuck to the roof of his mouth and his tongue, elongating with each word, mesmerizing and repulsing me at the same time until he swallowed it.

The higher ranking elected officials – the longtime state senators, the mayor, the next candidate for mayor – were bored in the way a professional politician got bored, standing stock still, head held high, lips pursed in a permanent smile, their eyes the only thing that gave them away as they scanned the room, calculating how much longer they had to stay to make their presence official. The rest of us were restless the way indulged children were restless, fidgeting, texting, whispering to our neighbors, shifting our weight from one leg to the other. I surveyed the landscape, taking notice of the two or three long legged beauties around the room, but my mind wasn’t on women Wednesday afternoon. This was business.

It was almost maudlin, standing there in room high above the city, besuited, bejeweled, listening to a man talk to us about the ideals of a grassroots campaign, about the power of the small donor, about the door to door canvassing efforts – things that very few people in this room were going to do after writing a check. The questions were predictable – some funny, some serious – veering from the Reverend Wright controversy to the Fox News bias. The younger questioners tended to want to know how they could put Georgia in play for the Democratic Party. The answers were amazing – exhaustive campaign rhetoric mixed with a “you didn’t pay to hear that shit so let me tell you what I really think” directness that was about as close to a straight answer as you can probably get from a campaign.

The question that set the tone for the last ten minutes or so of the gathering was “what are you doing to raise Obama’s numbers with the blue collar voters in Pennsylvania and Indiana?” An earnest faced white woman had asked the question. Plouffe looked a little constrained, as if he wanted to say out loud what it looked like he was thinking – “we have been fighting an uphill battle to try to get lower class white voters to vote for a black man.” He slowed down for the first time all day, probably mindful of all the internet junkies in front of him, who had the power to instantly email the next words coming out of his mouth in the palms of their hands. He managed, over the next five minutes or so, to share some of their broader strategies about how they planned to increase Obama’s chances among this mythical heartland voter without saying the word “white”. The closest he came was when he offered that “these people” were not like the people before him – that they needed a different kind of inducement to be persuaded to take the Obama campaign seriously, one that, in his opinion, was going to rely heavily on centers of influence from within their ranks who could legitimize Barack Obama and what he stood for by fomenting discussion among their peers.

I was struck, as he said this, by the combination of the perverse, the profane and the profound that make up the political landscape, and our naïve efforts to attempt to segregate these elements, as if we could somehow purify this process, taking out the bad and leaving the good. In an hour I would be back among those who had never given a dollar to a political campaign in their life, who couldn’t spell “gerrymandering” if you spotted them the first ten letters, people whose political knowledge came in sound bite increments on talk radio. S. would be back to answering the same emails she got last week and joining conference calls to offer expert advice that would be rejected for something more expedient. The dog would be back to work, his eyes closed, but his bark at the ready.

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