Saturday, October 30, 2004

Kerry In Miami

The rally was held in Bayfront Amphitheatre, an outdoor venue usually reserved for concerts and road productions of A Prairie Home Companion. It’s located on the shore of Biscayne Bay across Biscayne Boulevard from downtown Miami. It’s a perfect place to hold something like a political rally.

Bob and I arrived a little after 4:30, when the gates were supposed to open. The line stretched for almost a quarter of a mile from the entrance, and we were immediately impressed by the festive atmosphere as people waited patiently to get in. Hawkers selling buttons and t-shirts and campaign promoters of various races walked among us. (My favorite t-shirt: “John Kerry…Bringing complete sentences back to the White House.”) Some shirtless guy walked by and hollered “Viva Bush!” but all he got was gentle laughter and dismissive waves. Behind us a trio of Haitian machinists were talking excitedly; about what, I have no idea. My French only goes up to Grade 8, and Haitian Creole is a variation on French. Nevertheless, they seemed to be excited about getting to see both Kerry and “da Boss.”

The line moved steadily, and when we got to the gate the volunteers separated those with internet tickets (I had them downloaded) and those without. There was a cursory security check (“Lift up your hat, sir”), but no loyalty oath or inspection of the clothes we were wearing for contrary messages. They led us up the hill to the top of the berm that formed the back of the grassy bowl that was the amphitheatre. And there we were.

We found a spot on the grass about a hundred yards from the stage. There was a fence line separating the seating area from the grass; the seats probably reserved for big donors (we saw signs for seating for those with “GOLD TICKETS” down in front). It was now about 5:45, and we settled in to wait and look around at the crowd as it filled in.

There was a good mix of ages and cultures; a lot of young people, parents with kids, middle-aged bureaucrats, older people, and a good mix of races and ethnicity, although the crowd in our area was decidely white or Hispanic. There were also a pretty sizable gay contingent, too, (How do I know this? Gaydar!), although there were some teenaged girls next to us holding up signs saying “HOTTIES FOR KERRY!” with lipstick smooches on them. People sat on the lawn and chatted, snapped pictures, and waited patiently while the sun set. The PA played rock and soul tunes while the roadies got the stage set.

It was another hour or so before things started happening, but the crowd didn’t seem to mind, and when the emcee introduced the first celebrity, Star Jones of “The View,” she was greeted with rousing cheers. She ginned the crowd up by exhorting us to vote early and not be intimitaded by Republican efforts to “perpetrate a skullduggery.” Ms. Jones was quickly followed by several local politicians, including mayoral candidate Jimmy Morales, but they seemed to know what we came there to see, and they yielded quickly to the first big act of the evening, Bette Midler, who came on stage to a thunderous ovation. She sang “From a Distance,” her hit from 1991 and what she said was the anthem of the first Gulf War, which got a standing ovation – even from those of us who were already standing. And as she sang we could see the flashing police lights of the motorcade pulling up to the back of the stage; the crowd began to get even more excited; chants of “Four More Days!” rocked the place, and I was amazed at how loud we could get in an outdoor arens; the guy standing next to me had a howl that made my ears ring. Signs were passed around; “African-Americans for Kerry-Edwards” (I passed it back), “4 Days to a Fresh Start,” “Unidos con Kerry-Edwards.” Bob and I both got “Veterans for Kerry-Edwards.” Bob is a veteran (Vietnam 1966), but I held on in honor of my dad.

When Bruce Springsteen sauntered onto the stage, the place went wild. He started off with “The Promised Land,” doing it solo with just his guitar and harmonica. When he finished, he gave what has become his stump speech, saying that when he began to write songs thirty years ago, he was writing about an America that he loved and what’s at stake in the election. I’d heard it before, but nevertheless it was passionate and moving, and I felt tears prickling in my eyes, and I saw the same reaction in some of the people standing with me. Then he slowly began to play “No Surrender,” and the magic was there. You knew why Bruce Springsteen has become an icon in American music, and the words went right through you. When he finished, he said, almost quietly, “Let me introduce another Democrat who plays the guitar.”

I couldn’t see the stage for the next three minutes or so because of the sea of signs and arms waving to the beat of more music. Finally I caught a glimpse of the candidate standing on the stage embracing Springsteen and waving to the crowd. It took another ovation or two before he settled in and launched into what has become his standard stump speech, tailored for the local crowd, referring to the Freedom Tower across the street from the park that had served as Miami’s Ellis Island for Cuban immigrants for many years, an assertion to his commitment to Israel to reach Miami’s sizable Jewish community, and several paragraphs in English-accented Spanish to reach the Cuban contingent, which was impressively large.

There was nothing new in what he said. No, John Kerry does not have the presence of a Bill Clinton or even a Ronald Reagan on the stage, but that isn’t the point. We were there, we and thousands more heard and saw him and shared it. It’s impossible to put into words the excitement and communion we felt as we stood there, waved the signs, and shrieked out the chants. It is the true connection of the actor with the audience that makes theatre work, and that was what we saw last night, even from a hundred yards away.

When it was over we had to walk several blocks to catch the Metro Mover that took us back to the parking garage at the office. The train was packed with people who had been at the rally and the mood and excitement was still with us as we rode back, swapping stories and promises to get out and get others out to vote. And that’s the true test of success – does the buzz last after the curtain falls. In this case it did, and let’s hope that it keeps on going for the next four days…and the next four years.