Obamamania and the story of sweet potatoe pie

Mark Danner - in Philadelphia, America

You would think first of all of a village fair - the entire community of Germantown, north west Philadephia, taking itself up on the brightest of bright sunny fall days and moving en masse, clumps of people, groups of young men in the obligatory hoodies and low-riding jeans, moms and dads pushing strollers, dads lugging car seats, and everywhere children, from toddlers on up, being pulled along.

Almost all of the throng are African American and all melding together, as they crowded toward the entrance to Vernon Park, into a full running, bubbling, laughing stream. Hawkers hawked Obamaniana - the man's face on glowing on posters, some of them huge, floating over the crowd; his name carved in wood or stone; the Obama keychains and wallets and everywhere the volunteers with their clipboards, making sure it all worked smoothly. ("You'll remember this all your LIFE!")

Once in the park, enfolded in those several thousand happy people, there was the dancing. Over the loudspeakers "The Power of One!" inevitably and of course "Power to the People," and beneath where I stood on the riser, among the generally bored press corps, two blond girls danced and laughed and bumped hips. I chat with a local volunteer, a middle aged lady with cafe au lait beaming face and when I ask her how it's going she fixes me first of all with a slightly scolding look - how can you ASK that? - and then says it simply and without doubt, "Oh, we're gonna do it this time. This time it's ours!"

Knowing politicians and his schedule on this one bright day in Philly I'd been prepared to wait but it was only 20 minutes after the appointed time when after a series of very quick introductions from the young Black mayor, Michael Nuttly, and Senator Casey and the gravel voiced bearish Governor Rendell - less than a minute each, a never glimpsed discipline from politicians - he rose from a stairway at the back of the stage into an explosion of sound, grinning with pleasure in an open-collared white shirt and smart black slacks.

He seems slender and slight and young, astonishingly young, and you notice first of all, for it is impossible not to, the physical grace; he moves like an athlete much more than a politician, taking pleasure in his body: bursting up onto the stage, the lanky highly stylised movement, shoulders bent slightly concave, gathering everything into those constantly clapping hands, using the hands in their clapping to acknowledge the crowd, his head nodding all the while, as if he is drawing his energy only from them and showing that energy with his clapping and nodding, with the bursting energy of his body that is an embodiment of theirs, a picture of what they're giving him.

He prances with evident pleasure around the little stage, moving his head in big theatrical nods, embracing each politician in turn, big full bodied embraces, and again one thinks of an athlete on the sidelines or in the dugout: all of it is done with the unhindered pleasure of the body, all of it says confidence and pleasure, as if this, being bathed in the huge cheers, taking sustenance and energy from the wave of sounds and the shouts of his name, is the place where he breathes his true oxygen, where he really lives. He seems made to be precisely here - in the midst of these thousands of sun drenched cheering people, on this perfect fall day. There is only him and them and what is between them. And then he approaches the podium.

"HOW'S IT GOIN', NORTHWEST?" That salutation, and the enormous opening roar in response, tells you that he knows these people and they know him. "What a beautiful day the Lord has made!" It's a Black crowd and his speech immediately acquires, not broadly but noticeably, the tinge of Blackness: the Southern tones, the slight mid-Carolina or mid-south softening, the falling final g's. He knows these people, each one of them, that's what the grin says - wherever he comes from he will be this day the local boy made good: THEIRS. They can take pleasure in that and he can, too, and he is telling them he knows it.

He goes quickly through the thanks to the local politicians and then moves into the stump speech, a stripped down version for this heavily packed day - four appearances in Philly - and I was impressed again by the absolute clarity and simplicity of the language. Frank populism, jobs and the hurt people are feeling. "Now's not the time for fear," he says. "Now's the time for leadership. The disastrous policies of the last four years can not continue. We have seen the final verdict of Bush economics. We don't need four more years of that."

The ease and simplicity of the message: things are bad now, real bad. Do you want that to continue or do you want things to get better? In this construction McCain IS Bush. The two are identical and that identification, taken for granted here, is all you need to know.

In the midst of this he lets drop today's "bite," what the traveling press, arrayed mostly off to the side, seated at their laptops strewn across several card tables on the grass, has been waiting for. "I want to acknowledge," he says, "that Senator McCain tried to tone down the rhetoric yesterday..." Looking across from my riser, I see the heads bent over the keyboards, the fingers flying... The day before, in a town meeting in Lakeland, Minnesota, McCain had taken the microphone from an elderly woman who was saying that she "had heard about Obama," she was "afraid of him" because he was - a big pause here - "an Arab." McCain had been shaking his head and took the mike and said, "No, no, my friends, Senator Obama, I disagree fundamentally with his policies, but he is an honorable man, a citizen, and you don't need to be afraid of him leading the country..."

Now Obama, in the midst of this increasingly raucous conversation with the crowd, has issued his answer and by the time I would return to my hotel room a few hours later there it would be leading that day's news on all the cable networks. For the purposes of the "national campaign," what the bloviators bloviate about, what the commentators write about what, what most Americans see of the campaign, this is what happened that day: the campaigns continued to "dial back the rhetoric," which in previous days "had grown increasingly poisonous." The other bit of news was the Congressman and civil rights hero John Lewis issuing a statement that seemed to compare McCain, in the increasing vehemence of its language, to racist Governor George Wallace whose overheated rhetoric led to "the killing of our little African American girls in Alabama".

One is struck once again by the profound bifurcated strangeness of American politics. Impossible to know what is the real campaign. Was it that rousing event I had attended, full of words and calls to arms and inspiration, which so many children and young people will never forget? Or is it this battle of sound bites, carefully crafted each day and tossed with casual precision by each candidate into the maw of the hungry press corps.

From the rally the national campaign is a strange disembodied electronic cloud, floating out there in the ether, with an almost laughably tangential relation to what actually occurs at these events: what would those who had attended the rally think when they looked at their television sets that evening? Disgust? Indifference? Pity? Head nodding, wryly smiling amusement?

For the national campaign, on the other hand, for the commentators and bloviators and battalions of Democratic and Republican "strategists," the battle of the bites WAS the campaign and that campaign had reached the point where "things were getting increasingly ugly out there". There was no trace of this whatever at the event itself, beyond that whisp of a sentence from the candidate acknowledging that his opponent had tried to "tone down the rhetoric yesterday".

But he knew and every member of the campaign and press present knew - all the "professionals" knew - that this was all that had been said that day that would be part of the national campaign. And to all the commentators and strategists - and all the millions who would see only what they produced on the cable stations and on talk radio and on the networks and the blogs - this WAS the real campaign, for which the rallies only existed to extract those tiny bits of news...

Everything else they would never see. It existed only for the several thousand cheering people in Vernon Park on that bright morning in Germantown. They would never see, for instance, Obama's riff on sweet potato pie. It came as he told a story about his campaigning the other day in a "little town in Ohio, with the governor there" and how he and the governor suddenly felt hungry and "decided we'd stop right there and get some pie."

Now all of this led to a quite perfect little gem of a story - the employees wanted to take a picture with the candidate, not least because, as they told the candidate, their boss was a die-hard Republican and "they wanted to tweak him a little with that picture". All this was heading toward a perfectly shaped conclusion, where the owner showed up personally with the pie for candidate and governor and Obama looked at the pie and looked at the die-hard Republican owner and "then I said to him" - perfect, perfectly elongated pause - "How's business?"

This brought on great gales of laughter from the crowd. For the point had already been precisely made: even if you are a die-hard Republican and you are thinking of your self-interest, how CAN you vote Republican this year? "If you beat your head against the wall," said Obama, to "oh yeahs!" and "you got that rights!" from the crowd, "and it hurts and hurts, how can you keep doing it?" Those two words - "How's business?" - that casual greeting thrown at the Republican diner owner that showed that there simply could be no other choice this year - that showed the case was proved, wrapped up, unassailable...

And yet what struck me in this perfect little model of political art was a tiny riff inserted into this tiny story, brought on by a shout from the crowd. When Obama launched into his "Because I LOVE pie" a woman in the crowd shouted back, "I'LL make you pie, baby!" and to the general hooting laughter the candidate returned, "Oh yeah, you're gonna MAKE me pie?" Then, after a beat, amid even more raucous laughter, and several other female voices shouting out invitations, "You gonna make me SWEET POTATO PIE?" More shouts and laughter. "ALL of you gonna make me pie?"

"Well you know I love sweet potato pie. And I think what we're going to have to do here" - and the laughter and the shouting rose and his voice rose above it - "what we're going to have to DO is have a sweet potato pie CONTEST... That's right. And in this contest, I'M gonna be the JUDGE." The laughter rose and you could hear not only the women but the deep laughter of the men taking delight in the double entendre that was not only about sex, about that pie that that lanky confident smiling young man knew how to eat and enjoy and judge, but even more now, amazingly, as people came one by one to recognise, about something else.

To those people gathered in Vernon Park that bright sun-drenched morning, an even more tittilating and more pleasurable double entendre, for it was most clearly about something they'd never had but hoped and dreamed of having and now had begun to believe they were within the shortest of short distances of finally tasting. "Because you all know," said the candidate, "that I KNOW sweet potato pie."