A line 10,000 strong

As a fan of popular culture and politics, I find political rallies intriguing. They’re another instance of storytelling, albeit with an interest of some measurable outcome, the citizen’s vote. Living in DC for more than a decade I learned to eschew most political gatherings—I could have been at an event 24/7 if I’d wanted such a thing—save for the occasional march for a cause, or a major event like an inauguration. But the closest I ever got to the Capitol was to have my engagement photo session on its grounds, and to take a tour with my soon-to-be inlaws who came to town for the wedding. We sat in the public gallery for the House, which was empty at the time, and had to imagine the posturing, bickering, and dealmaking that went on at the bottom of the chamber.

So it’s not that politics doesn’t interest me, but when you live in DC, you soon realize it’s a company town, and political science, or some extrapolation of it, is its trade. Nobody who works in a chocolate factory wants to eat a ton of chocolate, either. (Unless they work for Theo Chocolates.) But moving to the world outside the Beltway, politics means something different. It’s a concept that looks dirtier, more distant, less in touch with what’s important to everyday people. At least that’s how people talk about it. They talk about “that Washington,” in the classic us versus them sense. So when a politician steps back on state soil—after all, it’s a representative government—the tendency is to show just how committed to the locals they really are. They’ll even say things like, “I wake up every day thinking about how I can make my constituents’ lives better.”

How noble of them. I just wake up realizing I need to brush my teeth before I asphyxiate Susanne with my breath. Good thing I’m not a politician.

I showed up at 9a.m., having paid my peak fare on the Seattle bus and wandered over to the rally site. People stood around in thick clumps, and it took me a few long minutes to discern where the lines ran. I found an earnest young woman in a t-shirt silkscreened with VOLUNTEER, and asked her. The lovely short line to my left was for VIPs. Ah, always the VIPs. The only short line I can remember that hasn’t been for VIPs is the one back at the New Jersey DMV, and that’s for farm vehicles. So I started walking to the end of the commoner’s line. It snaked around the building, and I followed it, holding that day’s copy of the Seattle Times and my iPad, snug in its case. I was on book two of the Mockingjay trilogy, and presumed I’d have time to read through most of it while I stood in line.

At least I’m correct about some of the things in my life.

I walked on and on, expecting the line to fizzle out at some point, and as I’d round another bend on the campus road, I’d see more people, standing three and four wide, chatting with each other, stretching to oblivion. More walking, more people. I began envisioning that I was meandering around the surface of some human Mobius strip, and fretting that I’d never find the end because there was none to be had. Checking that everything was still right-side-up, I dismissed that possibility. I walked onto the parking lot of another building, past the stadium where Obama and Murray would be speaking, across more terrain. I walked for more than 30 minutes. Finally reaching the end of this queue, I remarked to the person in front of me that there couldn’t be anyone left in King County, and that Patty Murray had nothing to fear in this election. Of course we all knew better, but as this is the Northwest, people chuckled obligingly.

It was at least another hour before we started moving into the stadium. I saw my friend, who’d I’d agreed to meet up with, making the same walk back I’d journeyed earlier that morning. I called out and she ducked under the orange plastic tape and joined me. The stadium only would fit 10,000 people, and it was obvious we had more than that here. Where would everyone else go?

Inside, we were led around to the other side of the basketball arena, finding two tiny squares of purple plastic benches one row away from the wall, at an angle behind the speaker’s podium. This was almost exactly the vantage I had for Hillary Clinton’s concession speech during the 2008 primaries. But unlike that venue, there was a scoreboard hanging over the court upon which the producers of this event were broadcasting our elected officials.  I had the option of seeing every speaker’s right rear flank or their face on a television. As I had arrived for the promise of gazing upon real flesh and blood, I opted, for the most part, for their posteriors.

We had some early charging up practice from a volunteer who got the crowd on the floor going with some back and forth “Patty!” and “Murray!” chants like they were in a dry version of Marco Polo. The wave went around the stadium a full four times. People whooped and hollered and my friend turned to me asking what was going on. Why was this like a warm up to a live comedy sketch or the Ellen Show?

Because sports, entertainment, and politics are all mixed up together, I said. We waited for the first fellow on the rally schedule to appear. At this point, nothing about this rally betrayed its political leanings. We could all have assembled to preach about the best lettuces for a spring mix. Off-label uses for Viagra. Dining room lighting design. Dancing with the Stars, who knew? It was just excitement and a lot of deafening screaming.

Three Washington-based Congresspeople spoke in turn, each one talking about what a lovely university this was. Applause. How the Huskies were going to beat Oregon this year. Applause. What a great state this Washington is. Applause. There were references to basketball, and how Patty Murray—all five feet zero inches of her—is like a guard who bats down the terrible ideas from the GOP and keeps them from getting into the basket. Sweet, but unwieldy as metaphors go. Another Congressman wondered why, as a college freshman at U-Dub in 1972, he understood more about green and alternative energy than the GOP does now in 2010. Lots more applause. I looked at my watch and wondered when they’d bring out the big guns.

Governor Gregoire came out to the podium, smiling in that practiced way, and melting my cynicism with her carefully chosen words. She is a good speaker, and I’ve seen her twice now. She even came out to Walla Walla on her last campaign for reelection, as if the right-leaning city could help carry the day, but then again, this was on the heels of her earlier win for office that came with a scarce 133 votes over Dino Rossi. And Murray is facing that same opponent this election, this time for the Senate.

Murray and Obama came out together, and everyone stood, though mostly everyone had stood up for Gregoire, 10 minutes earlier. I regretted not bringing ear plugs. Somehow all the sound bounded up the concrete stairs to the high corners of the structure, right where we were sitting. After 5 minutes, we calmed down enough for Murray, then the President, to speak. Mere mentions of the opposition resulted in an angry stream of hisses, which delighted many of the people around us. Clearly they’ve never gone to a gay venue for a Sound of Music singalong. Hissing is part of the fun.

Neither of our headliners said anything that surprised me or that I hadn’t heard before. I wanted to see what the Democrats had done with the hope and change messages of 2008. The President gave me that answer. Hope comes from making progress, with a focus on the future. Keep our eyes on the prize. Change is now enduring change. Letting the Republicans take back the Congress will mean losing the change we’ve made.

In eleven days, we’ll see if those messages translate into votes.


Photo of Obama and Murray by Ozmafan on Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.

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