The scene when we arrived last night at the Prince William County Fairground in Manassas, Virginia, for Barack Obama’s final campaign rally was surreal, mind-boggling, like something out of a movie. The buses rolled up into a muddy parking lot directly behind the stage. The floodlights illuminated a swirling mist rising into the dark night sky. Beyond the camera risers surrounding the stage were a pair of trucks with uniformed, heavily armed, Secret Service tactical teams standing on top, scanning the horizon through their binoculars. And beyond the trucks were some 90,000 Barack Obama fans on a gently sloping hillside, stretching literally as far as the eye could see.
The size of Obama’s crowds has long been a source of fascination for reporters, to the point where a reader might be tempted to say, “Yeah, yeah, we understand, the guy’s a rock star, c’mon, get over it already.” But let me tell you, it’s impossible not to be a little awed — even now, after seeing Obama do it time and time again over the 21 months that I’ve been covering his campaign. There has never been a politician in any of our lifetimes, including any sitting president, who has been the draw that the hopemonger is.
Certainly this speaks to his performance skills — but Bill Clinton was just as good, arguably better, on the stump, and he never pulled a crowd anything near as big as the one last night in northern Virginia, at least not on domestic soil. Certainly a lot of it has to do with what Obama represents historically. But it’s also a function of the nascent movement that was out there waiting to be galvanized. The other night, one of Obama’s top advisers remarked to me that one of the main lessons of this campaign is that, in politics, timing is everything. And it’s true. The Obama phenomenon has been all about the intersection of a man and a moment.
How fully Obama understands the alchemy that has put him on the verge of winning the White House is impossible to know. But certainly he seemed to grasp the need for a kind of closure, for bringing his adventure full circle, last night in Manassas. At the end of his speech, he returned to the story of Edith Childs, the city councilwoman in Greenwood, South Carolina, who early in his campaign bequeathed to him the rallying cry that marked his breakthrough in the Iowa caucuses: “Fired up! Ready to go!” To my knowledge, Obama hasn’t uncorked this riff in months, but last night he turned on the turbochargers and delivered it with as much gusto as I’ve ever seen, coiling his body, bouncing up and down, sweeping his arms, tracing with his fingers in the air. By the time he got to the end — “One voice can change a room, and if it can change a room, it can change a city, and if it can change a city, it can change a state, and if it can change a state, then it can change a nation, and if it can change a nation, it can change a world; come on, Virginia, let’s go change the world!” — the crowd let loose a roar that shook the ground beneath our feet.
A few minutes later, we got back to the plane and prepared to head for Chicago. And suddenly Obama made his way down the aisle into the rear cabin, where the hack pack resides. He thanked us all for taking this extraordinary ride with him; he shook every hand on the plane. He gently poked at the “high-priced” journos who jump off and on the plane (ahem), and offered praise for the “embeds” who had been there every day: “They were with us in Ottumwa!” He made fun of Newsweek’s Richard Wolffe for being caricatured on Saturday Night Live. He gave a photographer a birthday kiss. Then he turned around and headed back to his seat up front, leaving us with one thought: “Okay, guys, let’s go home,” he said. “It will be fun to see how the story ends.”