Presidential campaign comes to La Crosse

Presidents and their campaigns love to come to La Crosse. Every cycle, each campaign seems to come here at least once. Last week it was Barack Obama’s turn.

(click here for a youTube slide show)

I have some suggestions for anyone thinking of attending a presidential campaign rally.

First, prepare to pass through airport-level security. Finish your coffee before you go in, ’cause you can’t take it with you. There are dogs, so you probably wanna leave your stash at home. And if you’re a technical type who always carries a pocket knife, you might want to leave it at home if you want to keep it.

When Clinton came to town in ’98, we went to his speech (and left before he took the stage, but that’s another story), so I knew what to expect. I embarked with little more than what I wear every day. The word was that cameras were OK, so I grabbed a camcorder, a digital point-and-shoot, and an extra tape.

When the gates opened, lines stretched for four blocks. I didn’t show up early, so I spent less time in line. When I got there, people were just sort of herding themselves to the checkpoint. Just like at the airport, cell phones and cameras go on the table, and you walk thru the metal detector. Then you have to hold your arms up while the Secret Service guy waves a wand around you.
“What’s this?”
“Keys and a swiss army knife.”
“Take it out.”
My keys and knife land on the table.
“You can’t bring that knife in.”
Oops. “Can I come back for it?”
“No, you have to bring it back to your car.”
“I don’t have a car, I came on a bike.”
“Then bring it to your bike. You can’t bring it in and you can’t get it back.”

Fortunately, I used to work across the street, and some friends who still work there were gracious enough to look after my swiss army knife while I went to the rally.

So before you leave home, check your pockets for things you might not be able to bring along thru the gate. Oh, and don’t start shooting with a camcorder while you’re around the security checkpoints. For some reason, they frown on that.

Once past the gauntlet, it was time to take out the camera and document what I came to document: the crowds. But the camcorder decided today would be a good day to refuse to work. The online discussion groups say to “whack it” when this happens, but today, whacking doesn’t work. Sorry, there’s no video with this story, just still photos.

They put everybody on two blocks of a four-lane street, and the crowd spilled onto a parking lot on one side and a side street on the other. (Second Street from the La Crosse Center walkway to Main St., spilling into the Radisson parking lot and Pearl St., for those of you who know La Crosse). For this many people (they’re saying it was 15,000) in this type of setting, they don’t bother with chairs. These events involve many hours of standing on blacktop.

It’s hard not to notice the spooks on the rooftops. Some people may be spooked by the spooks and the tight security, but it does reduce the anxiety that Something Bad could happen to the headline speaker.

Contrary to expectations, it didn’t take long for Obama to appear on stage, which had me standing on my tiptoes looking for a glimpse. I could see the tiny figure a block away, on the other side of a forest of arms holding cell phones and assorted flavors of cameras.

I added my arm to the forest and got a couple of pictures. Behind me was a vertically challenged woman who had no view at all, asking me if I could reach up and take a picture with her camera. Next thing I knew, a small line had formed behind me of women handing me their cameras to grab shots of our Special Guest.

The stump speech that we all got to hear was a lot like the speech Obama gave on the Senate floor today about saving the economy. It was a bit scholarly, not full of the rousing applause lines he’s known for. What rousing applause there was came from the die-hard volunteers sitting behind the stage in camera range, or the insane morning people who sat thru the cold pre-dawn hours to be first in line. Further back in the hinterlands of the crowd, the applause was more in the form of polite clapping.

Once in a while, a handful of people would be snaking thru the crowd toward the exits, apparently having had their fill of cold air and standing. Eventually the speech ended and half the crowd surged toward the exit to go home, while the other half of the crowd surged toward the stage to join the “handshake crowd”, and Stevie Wonder came thru the sound system playing “Signed, Sealed and Delivered.”

Meanwhile, the throng of media people on the platform facing the podium began packing in their cameras and other equipment. Photographers bobbed up and down on a scissors lift recording the after-speech festivities. Vendors worked the departing crowd with buttons, stickers and t-shirts. (As an aside, I loved a particular button design from his appearance in Berlin. It showed Obama holding two huge beer mugs, with the caption “Obamafest.” The campaign missed an opportunity to reprise that design for a speech delivered in the middle of Octoberfest, La Crosse’s biggest event of the year.)

In a big way, going to this event wasn’t really about “seeing” Obama (I could barely see him, really) or about “hearing” what he had to say (there are many more comfortable ways to do that). It was about participating in history, even if it was in a very small way. My father got to escort John Kennedy along the Wisconsin roads as a young highway patrolman. Fifty years from now, if Obama changes the world in ways he may very well be capable of, I’d hate to have to say that when he came to town, I didn’t go. If Obama makes history, I’ll be able to tell the kids about the day I went to see him.

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