Barack tries to get the party started

Joshua Longobardy

Except the jazz ensemble, hired off of lasvegasweddingmusic.com, which was sedating the February air with their amiable classics, most fit for black-and-white parties and formal fundraisers. And for the torpid crowd, which at its max of 3,500 covered less than half of the government center's grassy amphitheater, and which was composed by and large of old people (I'm talkin' Rolling Stones old). And for the absence of the buzz.

I mean, there were indeed Obama buttons all about, as there were Obama bumper stickers, and Obama placards, and Obama look-alikes, and there were even a few SEIU Local 1107 shirts and some wacky colored hair, but I didn't hear folks jockeying to get closer to the speaker's platform, I didn't see anyone hanging off the surrounding ledges to get a better view of the podium, I didn't feel the electricity that precedes a major apocalyptic rock show. In fact, it seemed like just another political get-together to me.

Hell. At 1 o'clock Obama was still nowhere to be seen, and it began to heat up. A train of kids filed up on the platform, all of them trying their hardest to instigate an esprit de corps of some sort—cheerleading, dancing, chanting O-BAM-AH! O-BAM-AH! O-BAM-AH!—all to no success, as the Las Vegas crowd, typical of this city, remained immovable, and in the end it was a pitiful sight. The only consolation for enduring it all was the cool, persistent midday breeze.

But then the ensemble packed away their instruments, and someone put Bon Jovi's Crush on the overhead stereo system, and the women in the crowd began to flock toward the walkway connecting the government center to the platform from which Obama was to speak—now anxiously waiting for the man to emerge from behind the tinted double doors, as if he were an athlete or a cage fighter. "All right," I said. "Now we're talkin'!"

Then Congresswoman Shelley Berkley popped her head out. "Four more minutes," she said.

I was hoping for at least some fireworks to mark his entrance. Not only because Nevada has been given the national Democrats' second caucus (behind Iowa, of course), and this is Obama's first real introduction to our people, but also because, as South Carolina Senator Robert Ford had told the Washington Post the day before, after Obama made a stop in Ford's home state, "The media has made this guy bigger than life ... they made him a rock star." And because Iowa's premier political columnist, David Yespin, has written that Obama is changing the dynamics of political campaigning, turning the old living room tours into "relics of the past, [for] rock-star candidates need room for their fans and gawkers." And because MSNBC just reported that the proliferating audiences who gather to support Obama—the Democrat whose quick ascension into the political stratosphere ignited at his party's 2004 national convention, where he rendered a speech that left everyone with goosebumps, and led him on February 10 to the exact same place in Springfield, Illinois, where Abraham Lincoln once told the nation "A house divided against itself cannot stand" to announce that he would be running for the presidency of the United States in 2008—wear "Barack and Roll" T-shirts and "participate as if they were at a rock concert."

Whoooo-eeee: Bring on some Obama! I was ready. And so was everyone else nudging me along the walkway to the podium. And when he did step out from behind the government center's tinted doors, into the desert sun, there was a very controlled explosion of cheer—a low rumble, a few stray shouts ("We love you Obama!") and loud steady applause. In this way it was just like a hotel implosion.

Obama was an engaging sight. The first thing you notice is the youthfulness of his face, and then his smile's radiance. He has a lean and athletic presence, with very good posture, and the dark slacks he wore on Sunday were the kind with which one does not dare carry a wallet, lest it ruin the perfect lines they form around one's ass.

He shook hands with fans and gawkers on the way down to the platform, and then he took the podium in the heat of the day, took off his coat, rolled up his sleeves, and worked the crowd like a Sunday preacher.

There was nothing revolutionary about his politics. He embraces many of his party's fundamental views on many of his party's pre-eminent issues, he thinks Bush has been doing a poor job, he feels it's high time to depart from the "slash and burn politics that have become custom in Washington" and to get back to "the spirit that drove our country" during its greatest accomplishments, such as the civil rights movement, women's suffrage, everything FDR and landing on the moon. The difference with Obama, however, is the manner by which he delivers those politics.

He is a first-rate orator, clear and gesticulate, with a little bit of his mother's Kansas soul to his slang. "You like that, don't ya," he said to a particular zealot in the front row after the crowd recovered from laughing at yet another one of his quick-witted jokes. But above all he expresses himself with a beautiful audacity—an unequivocal masculine confidence that both entices and provokes—and that communicable energy is what stirred the crowd into frenzies on Sunday. It was less lurid than a rock show—for sure—but much more electric than the typical rally in Las Vegas.

"God, doesn't he make you want to just go out there and change the world?" a legal secretary named Chantey Williams, 36, said to me toward the end of Obama's speech.

"No," I said.

But I understood where she was coming from, just as I could see why Obama, in the most recent opinion polls, is the second most popular Democrat running for president. He trails only Hillary Clinton—who happened to name Rory Reid, the Clark County Commission chairman and old Harry's son, the Nevada chair for her campaign, just hours before Obama's rally on Sunday. (Hillary is scheduled to visit Las Vegas on Wednesday. And another early candidate for the Democrats, John Edwards, visited Las Vegas on Saturday.)

Nevada will have the opportunity to see all of the candidates perform on one stage next year, on January 19, when the Democrats' national shindig stops in Las Vegas. At which time Western issues such as water, nuclear waste, Hispanics, unions, growth and affordable housing should (but no promises!) come to the forefront, and the country should (but no promises!) have a clearer picture of each candidate's specific politics.

And by then, Obama, if he continues to accumulate support in Nevada and around the nation, should be a much bigger rock star than he is now. Which is why I'll be there, waiting for politics to finally receive the type of injection it desperately needs: a solid dose of rock n' roll.

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