Every so often I subject my daughter to a spasmodic attempt at cultural improvement. One year it was buying an encyclopedia; another year, a piano. Last summer, I dragged her and a friend to colonial Williamsburg.
The result is usually less than what I fantasized. The encyclopedia has proven useful mostly as something to lean on when filling out those little paper checklists in Clue. The piano allowed for about three years of lessons and now serves as a storage shelf for cat toys. Colonial Williamsburg… well, I think Becca’s friend appreciated it more than Becca did.
This week I decided to take her to see President Obama. He was speaking at a fundraiser for Sen. Barbara Boxer in San Francisco.
The tickets were only $250 each, which is what we probably would have given Boxer anyway, and Becca finished her 10th grade finals yesterday. It seemed like a perfect opportunity to let her experience history – be able to tell her grandchildren “I saw Barack Obama” – and perhaps fuel her interest and involvement in politics.
It was a novel experience for me. I’d covered a couple of prior presidents on photo-op visits as a reporter, and had covered Boxer’s first senatorial campaign back in 1992, but I had never attended this kind of event as a donor. (One liberating side-effect of leaving journalism — the freedom to be partisan!)
The event was billed for 4:30, and we were told to come at 4. Becca and I arrived shortly before that, passing a cordoned-off slew of protestors from the left – Greenpeace, Gray Panthers, people with posters that bore the familiar picture of Che. There was an entrance line snaking all around the Fairmont Hotel lobby, up two flights of stairs, and back down the stairs, by the time we arrived. We joined it and waited. And waited.
Eventually we inched forward, down the stairs, around the lobby, down more stairs, and through another lobby to tables where we checked in and received wristbands, and then inched further down through another lobby where we passed through security.
Finally we made it into the Fairmont ballroom, where we were able to find a spot smack in the center, standing behind about ten rows of other people. Great spot!
We waited. And waited.
Becca was getting impatient and bored. She listened to her iPod. We played Boggle on her iPod. The room was filling up and getting hot. We waited some more. Then – hooray! – the Rev. Cecil Williams came out and introduced the Glide church choir, which seemed promising. After four or five songs, someone else introduced a floppy-haired indie folksinger who it turned out had been a counselor for Becca at a weeklong school retreat in 4th grade. Still promising. But with each song by the indie singer, the room got hotter and more crowded feeling, and things felt less promising and more adrift, and people talked louder, and by the end of his set the poor singer probably couldn’t even hear himself.
It was after 6 pm by now. Becca was unbearably bored and had even given up on the iPod. I was starting to feel a little woozy from the heat and the standing. All around us, people were passing the time by chatting with their spouses, partners or friends. I imagined that if Becca were there with her friends, they’d be chatting. Chat with her mother, though? Forget it.
By now it was 6:30. No Boxer, no Obama. Becca kept asking, “When is something going to happen?” and I had to keep saying “I don’t honestly know.” I felt yet another of my cultural-improvement fantasies starting to dissolve. Becca would remember this event, but as an interminable, unutterably tedious afternoon of waiting.
Then – finally! Barbara Boxer’s son introduced her, and she spoke. And then Obama.
He was as good a speaker as everyone says. This wasn’t one of his stratospherically inspirational national-convention speeches; it was more conversational, humorous. Still, his intelligence and self-awareness shone through. Both Becca and I were impressed.
He described Boxer as a perfect fit for the state that led the way in higher fuel-economy standards – “a subcompact senator with a seemingly inexhaustible source of energy.”
He gave a pretty standard defense of his first year in office – coming in to office at a time when 750,000 jobs a month were being lost, passing the biggest investment in infrastructure since the Eisenhower years, passing health care reform, etc.
He compared the Republicans to people who drive a car into a ditch, then sit on the side drinking Slurpees while you try to push it out, all the time telling you that you’re not getting it out fast enough. “Then when you get it out, they want the keys back,” he said.
And he defended himself against critics from the left who say he hasn’t gone far enough fast enough. “Remember the campaign was about hope and change,” he said. “These people weren’t paying attention when I said change was hard. They missed that part. They thought, ‘What a nice swearing-in, he got Bruce Springsteen, it’s gonna happen fast.’ But if it was easy, it would have happened before.”
The audience loved him. I guess that’s pretty standard at such events, but it was really true. At one point a heckler shouted out, “Move faster on Don’t Ask Don’t Tell,” and others started shouting him down which coalesced into a chant of “Yes we can.” At another point when Obama mentioned health care, someone from the audience shouted out “Thank you!” and Obama quipped, to laughs, “It’s nice to be appreciated.”
“All the adults are acting like kids,” Becca said with disapproval. “They’re acting like my friends and I do during assemblies.”
By 7:30 it was over. We headed back to BART by cable car, first watching the presidential motorcade head for the next fundraiser, a $17,500-per-head dinner at the Gettys.
Part of me can’t help but feel that this is all a little smarmy. We got to walk past the cordoned-off Greenpeace protestors and stand 60 feet away from the president because we paid $250 each.
On the other hand, $250 is small change in the big picture of things, certainly compared to $17,500 or to the price tag at many of George Bush’s events. And the crowd at our event seemed much more diverse than at many fundraisers – people in t-shirts as well as suits, and lots of African Americans, including one family near us that brought three little kids in their Sunday best.
Will this be something Becca recounts to her grandchildren someday?
I have no idea. I suspect it was hardly life-changing, though more successful than the encyclopedia or Williamsburg.
Later this evening she said she was glad she went, even with the waiting – although she sniffed that they should learn to organize these things better, so the president shows up right after all the people do.
Maybe she’ll have a career in campaign logistics.