They began lining up in the early hours of the Monday morning chill, anxious to recapture the spirit of hope and change from a generation past, or to experience for the first time the magic of an era known only through the words and pictures of history.
Men and women, old and young, black and white, Asian and Latino, continued to join an ever-growing line that snaked through campus out onto Massachusetts Avenue south toward Maryland.
Undeterred by the inescapable knowledge that Bender Arena would not be large enough to accommodate them all, they stuck around anyway, united by a singular purpose.
To see Barack.
A Beatlesesque buzz engulfed American University Jan. 28, before, during, and after Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama accepted the endorsements of Sen. Ted Kennedy and two other members of his family of political royalty. Throughout the hour-long event—part rock concert, part rally, part coronation—the legacy of John F. Kennedy was invoked early and often, and comparisons of him and Obama were never far from the forefront.
“There was another time, when another young candidate was running for president and challenging America to cross a new frontier,” Sen. Kennedy, D-Mass., said. “He faced criticism from the preceding Democratic president, who was widely respected in the party. And John Kennedy replied, ‘The world is changing. The old ways will not do. It’s time for a new generation of leadership.’ It’s time again for a new generation of leadership. It’s time for Barack Obama.”
Kennedy’s endorsement was a major coup for Obama, and landing the announcement was a nice get for AU. Although it did not officially sanction the event, the school received plenty of worldwide attention, including some from the speakers themselves.
“It’s a special privilege for me to come to American University, where President Kennedy made his immortal call for peace,” said Caroline Kennedy, whose father delivered a famous speech at AU in 1963. “Over the years I’ve been deeply moved by the people who’ve told me they wish they could feel inspired and hopeful about America the way they did when my father was president. This longing is even more profound today. Fortunately, there is one candidate who offers that same sense of hope and inspiration, and I am proud to endorse Sen. Barack Obama for president of the United States.”
Only 3,500 were lucky enough to make it into Bender for the event, and demand was so intense that hundreds of members of the media had to be turned away because there was just no more room. Students, faculty, staff, and people from Washington, Maryland, Virginia, and beyond spread throughout campus to watch the speech on televisions, with hundreds crowding into the Tavern in the Mary Graydon Center to watch on two small sets. Their enthusiasm seemed to be unaffected; throughout the speeches, they cheered and chanted as if they had front row seats in Bender.
“I feel change in the air,” Sen. Kennedy said to open his remarks. “What about you?”
“Yes we do!” the crowd shouted, a few waving signs and most clapping their hands.
Throughout his speech, Kennedy praised Obama while making some subtle and a few overt criticisms oft the Illinois senator’s rival for the nomination, Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.).
“What counts in our leadership is not the length of years in Washington but the reach of our vision, the strength of our beliefs, and that rare quality of mind and spirit that can call forth the best in our country and the best in the world,” he said. “With Barack Obama we will turn the page on the old politics of misrepresentation and distortion. With Barack Obama we will close the book on the old politics of race against race, gender against gender, ethnic group against ethnic group, and straight against gay.
“Barack Obama is the one person running for president who can bring us that change; Barack Obama is the one person running for president who can be that change. I know that he’s ready to be president on day one.”
In accepting Kennedy’s endorsement, Obama displayed the oratory skills that have captivated so many and fueled his ascent into the highest reaches of the political stratosphere, regardless of the election’s outcome.
“I stand here today with a great deal of humility,” he said. “I know what your support means. I know the cherished place the Kennedy family holds in the hearts of the American people, and that is as it should be, because the Kennedy family, more than any other, has always stood for what is best about the Democratic Party, and what is best about America.
“Make no mistake: the choice in this election is not between regions or religions or genders. It is not about rich versus poor, young versus old, and it is certainly not about black versus white. It is about the past versus the future. If you will stand with me in the days to come . . . then we will not just win these primaries, we will not just win this general election, we will change the course of history . . . and the glow from that fire can truly light the world.”
After the event, the beaming looks on the faces of the people leaving the arena told the whole story. It was, depending on their age, as if they had just seen Bob Dylan, or Bono, or Alicia Keys. It was clear most felt they had witnessed history.
“He’s the people’s candidate,” said AU senior Danielle Hanafin, who got in a line that was already 300 people deep at 8 a.m. (the doors opened at 10:30). “It was definitely worth it.”