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College of Charleston, South Carolina

College of Charleston, South Carolina.

I stood in line for an hour to see Barack Obama. Kaffeine Buzz not being a household name, I couldn’t get a press pass and had to line up with the rest of the folks. All 5000 of them.

It was like standing in line for a rock concert. Excited volunteers handed out stickers and cheered. We could hear music vaguely thumping in the background. Groups of middle and elementary school kids stood with their teachers. Grey-haired white guys bought Obama T-shirts from vendors who would’ve looked at home at a hip-hop show. Hipsters and hippies, old and young, black and white and every shade in between—it was a much more diverse crowd than I’ve ever seen at a rock show, come to think of it.

John Kerry introduced Obama. You remember him, you might have voted for him in ’04. Kerry, for whatever reason, decided not to endorse his old running mate, John Edwards, and instead came to South Carolina to give a ringing endorsement of Obama.  He name-checked the standard list of American greats, from Roosevelt to Kennedy, Lincoln to Jefferson to . . . Harry Truman?  Still, his best point reached the crowd: Jefferson was only 33 when he wrote the Declaration of Independence. Martin Luther King was only 26 when he led boycotts in Montgomery. Age is not a requirement.

Kerry gave a good speech, but Obama is probably the most impressive speaker in modern politics. The only thing people can say is that he doesn’t lay out policy details in his speeches. Instead, he aims to inspire, and he does a damn good job of it.

He’s been compared to John F. Kennedy, but that’s not really fair. Then again, it’s a far better comparison than when Bill Clinton was compared to Kennedy. Listening to Obama, you can believe, at least for that short amount of time, that America can be united, that racism is behind us, that everyone cares about the genocide in Darfur (that Obama mentions in his speeches, unlike most other candidates) as much as the earnest students wearing Stop Genocide T-shirts. We all cheered when he talked about fixing the schools and paying teachers a reasonable wage. Foreign policy talk brought less cheers, but they came roaring back when he brought up giving everyone $4000 for college.

“But I’m going to ask for something in return,” he said. “I’m going to ask for you to do community service.” The cheers redoubled. Apparently college students aren’t as self-absorbed as we thought, maybe they just had to be asked.

Obama didn’t need to name-check his rivals. He didn’t throw out negative attacks. Instead, he stood up for himself and lead us on to thinking about possible greatness. He addressed the crowd, talked about what we can do, and includes everyone in the statement, “Yes we can.” He closed by reminding everyone that “There’s never been anything false about hope.”

And if you aren’t sold on the man after his speech, you can go see his wife.

Georgetown, SC. Baptist AME Church.

Michelle Obama is an imposing figure and an amazing public speaker. Forty minutes, no notes, and again, everyone in the room was nodding along with her and clapping at her words.

The church was a more intimate setting than a huge crowd on a lawn. And Michelle worked it differently. She made us feel like we knew her, like we could trust her, because she’s “regular folks.” Her grandfather was from Georgetown, and her cousins were sitting in the first three pews, along with her brother and Barack’s sister Auma Obama, from Kenya.

She admitted to being cynical when her husband proposed running for President. She talked about fear, and her doubts. But she thought about responsibility, about public service, about her children and the world she wants to leave to them.

“We like tough. But we have mistaken toughness for meanness,” she said. She doesn’t have to be any more specific for people to get what she’s talking about.

In America, “Our souls are broken,” she said. “We’re suffering from an empathy deficit.”

Michelle and Barack Obama both have Harvard law degrees, but are only three years out of debt, according to her speech, and only because of the books he wrote.

Michelle wants someone to inspire us to be a better nation. And she believes in her husband, in his commitment to people that started with his years as a community organizer. “No other candidate can claim that,” she pointed out.

“You judge a person not by what they do when everyone is watching. You judge them by what they do when no one is looking. There’s the same old thing,” she said, “And then there’s Barack. That’s the choices in this race.”

Charleston, SC. Obama Campaign Headquarters, President Street.

Inside the Obama campaign HQ, you see the most diverse group of people outside of the cast of CSI: Miami. It could be a poster for the disillusioned vote in America. And when you talk to them, you get even better stories.

One man I spoke with looked to be in his mid-thirties and had never volunteered for a campaign before. When I asked, he told me that it was really nice to be voting for something this time, and not just against the opposition. The day before we spoke, he had gone to nine different church services to speak about Obama, and then headed back to headquarters to phone-bank for another couple of hours.

The core staff works until 2 in the morning most nights, and are there seven days a week.

Volunteers are from all over. I met people from Washington, DC, from New York, from Maryland, and from Iowa. All of them are cheerful, earnest, and sincere, and you can hear it in their voices on the phone. They believe in something.

Dallas Lipp was one of those out-of-town volunteers. He had been volunteering in Iowa before the caucuses there, and then drove to Charleston to spend several days working for Obama down there. A career firefighter in Montgomery County, Maryland, he was a registered Republican and a Bush supporter in 2004. I know, right? Who’d have thought a former Bush supporter would be actively campaigning for a Democrat?

Lipp graciously agreed to answer my questions about the Obama campaign and about his own decision to support the Senator from Illinois.
Kaffeine Buzz: How long had you been a registered Republican? Who did you vote for in 2004?

Dallas Lipp:Until November of 2007 I had been registered as Republican since I turned 18 years old in 1981.
In the 2004 Presidential election I voted for Bush but wasn’t at all happy about it; the political process in this country has been very efficient at driving towards the lowest common denominator when it comes to Presidential candidates.
KB: Which came first, your disillusionment with Republicans or your interest in Barack Obama?

DL: I first got interested in Barack in 2004 when I saw him speak at the Democratic national convention.  I was generally frustrated with the politics of the country as a whole, Republican and Democrat, and when I saw him speak I saw that he might be a politician who actually understand that most of us aren’t political ideologues but actually think that reason should play a role in managing the country.
KB: Had you volunteered for other candidates in the past or is this the most involved you’ve ever been?

DL: I have never volunteered for any politician at any level before my involvement in Barack’s campaign.  In the 2000 election cycle I made my first ever political donations to the McCain campaign but I did not volunteer for the campaign.  This is by far the most involved I have ever been in politics.
KB: Tell me more about how you got involved with the Obama campaign.

DL: As I followed the Presidential campaign–something that one cannot avoid with willful effort living 18 miles from the White House–it became apparent to me that Barack was the only potential nominee of either party that recognized that we must govern this country from the center, by building coalitions and having reasoned discussions, as opposed to divisive partisan politics embraced by most contemporary politicians.  I also came to realize that feeling strongly about the value of his candidacy to the country that if I was going to have a positive impact on his candidacy that merely casting a ballot in Maryland February 12th primary was not going to be a meaningful contribution to the effort.  Given this my wife and I decided to travel to states where our efforts might be able to influence the course of the campaign in a meaningful way.
KB: Which issues really drew you to Obama?

DL: In general his willingness to recognize that very few issues are binary, that most are nuanced and require a thoughtful consideration and discussion.  I cannot say that his position on any single issue, or group of issues, gained my support; it is his position on most issues, reasoned consideration, that while does not always result in a position that I would personally adopt they are positions that I can respect for their intellectual integrity.
KB: Which issues do you disagree with him over?

DL: Of recent, some of his statements about how he would deal with Iraq appear to be somewhat less temperate and reasoned that some of his previous statements.  In an effort compete with his competitors it appears to me he has become more strident in his position on the war which I am not sure is beneficial.  I am a bit concerned that he is boxing himself into a corner that he may find difficult to manage from should he get to the White House.
The reality is, whether or not we agree on whether we should have taken military action in Iraq begin with (an issue for another discussion), that we have made a tremendous investment as a nation in lives and dollars in Iraq.  A precipitous withdraw could very well result in a situation that is less desirable than the current state of affairs and that will subsequently require a much more substantial investment of both to resolve.  Until we as a country wean ourselves from our dependence on oil we are fundamentally dependent on resources from the Middle East.  As a result we cannot walk away from the problem for two reasons; first the reality that members of the Islamic religion want to kill us (and available technology makes that very possible), and secondly because our economy stops functioning if we don’t have access to oil.
We must address both problems.  Fixing the oil dependency may give us more options in dealing with the first problem, those members of the Islamic religion who believe that they have a religious duty to kill us.  Neither problem can be ignored or minimized.
KB: What do you see that sets him apart from other Democrats?

DL: His recognition that there are many people from many different backgrounds and political philosophies that must be included in addressing the many very difficult challenges facing the country.  I believe that this sets him apart not only from the other Democrats but the Republicans too.
KB: Can you tell me about your experiences volunteering first in Iowa and then in South Carolina? What were the differences in the two states?

DL: I had great experiences in both Iowa and South Carolina (although the weather in South Carolina was much preferable to Iowa; highs in the teens aren’t happy).  In both places I was very impressed by the Obama campaign staff; I found them to be a group of very committed, intelligent, personable, and honorable people without exception.  I cannot say enough about how impressed I have been with the campaign staff.  I have been equally impressed by the other volunteers that I have met for the same reasons.
I think that aside from weather, one difference I noted between the states is that the people in South Carolina were somewhat more circumspect about discussing their political inclinations than people in Iowa.  In Iowa I found many people that were very willing, even eager, to discuss politics.  In South Carolina people in general seemed more reserved on the topic that Iowans.
KB: Did you run up against any negative campaigning by the other candidates?

DL: No, not really.  I spoke to one man in Iowa who said he wouldn’t vote for Barack because he is a Muslim [Note: Obama is not Muslim] but as it turned out after further discussion it turn out the man was a racist.
In general my experience has been that I have spoken to very very few people that even allude to any of the negative issues that have most recently been very prevalent in the campaign in South Carolina.
KB: Who would your second choice be for President?

DL: Barack is my only choice for President.
KB: You mentioned that you wouldn’t vote for Hillary Clinton. Would you then vote for a Republican candidate or a third party? Cynthia McKinney, a Libertarian, etc?

DL: Subsequent to our conversation about Hillary I can now say that not only will I not vote for her, I will now actively and aggressively campaign against her if she gets the nomination based on the behavior that she and Bill have been exhibiting in their campaign of slanders and lies that they have launched against Barack.
If Hillary is the Democratic nominee I will probably still vote for Barack as a write-in while actively campaigning against her. 
While I found McCain a compelling candidate in the 2000 cycle I believe that he has compromised his principles and integrity in an unforgivable manner in this campaign.  I consider the other Republican candidates more troublesome (by far) than McCain if that tells you something about my current opinion of the Republican Presidential politics.

Photos by Jeanine Cafaro. Thanks!








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