The chess-playing regulars, not to mention those New York University freshmen still naive enough to believe the legends and think they can buy weed in the large urban park bordering their campus, must have been disappointed to be shut out of their hangout Thursday evening. For one night, Washington Square Park belonged to the youth of New York City and the man they'd come to see: Democratic presidential candidate and Illinois Sen. Barack Obama.
This wasn't the typical campaign event -- this looked much more like a big concert. As at any good concert, the gates opened more than an hour before the headliner actually came onstage, to give the crowd time to file slowly past the metal detectors. It had an almost entirely young crowd; there were some older people sprinkled here and there, but most were college age or younger. Some will be lucky to be eligible to vote by the time this drawn-out election cycle is done. And, as at any good concert, there was a big, standing-room-only crowd. The campaign e-mailed reporters shortly afterward, saying its audience estimate was 24,000 people; that seems high, and there was no count from city authorities to check against, but there were certainly thousands in attendance.
And, as at any good music festival, there were opening acts before the main attraction came on. There was, first, a band from NYU, the Northern. Between songs, when not tossing out a few complimentary words about Obama, they were reminding those in attendance to check them out on MySpace. There was an actress from "Xanadu," a musical currently on Broadway, who sang the national anthem.
Then there was Temo Figueroa, the campaign's national field director. Figueroa did nothing to dispel the concert atmosphere, calling out once, "Hello, New York!" then, when the crowd wasn't loud enough for his taste, yelling it again. That wasn't it for Figueroa's time as hype man cliché -- he'd brought two campaign volunteers onstage, referring to them as his posse, and he gave a "shout-out" to the people who still hadn't gotten through the gates.
And there was more: Actor Jeffrey Wright came onstage to introduce some local endorsers, and rapper Jin performed a song about Obama, after, as any rapper would, getting the crowd to join him in a chant.
By 6:40 p.m., more than an hour and a half after the gates had opened, the large backlog still left outside suddenly started rushing in, and it seemed from the opposite end of the park as if the Secret Service had simply stopped trying to get everyone checked before the rally's appointed end at 8 p.m. (A group of New York City police confirmed to Salon after the rally that the crowd had not broken through, and that the Secret Service had made a decision to just let people in.)
Ten minutes later, Elvis entered the building. Flanked by seven Secret Service agents, Obama came out to the sound of applause and the strains of Kanye West's "Touch the Sky." "What's up, New York?" was his call to the assembled.
It's safe to say that, as performances go, Obama killed. For more than half an hour, he kept the audience hanging on his every word as he delivered a speech building on the themes he and his campaign have worked so hard to project: hope, togetherness and a new future promised by and, according to the campaign rhetoric, deliverable only by Obama.
The crowd and its enthusiasm were well and good for the campaign, of course, but there's no guarantee events like Thursday night's will translate into results when it matters. Youth voter turnout did grow in the 2004 and 2006 elections, but it has always lagged far behind the turnout numbers for those in older age brackets. And even though this group would most likely be more educated and more active than the average 18-to-24-year-old, it was clear that when the crowd didn't respond enthusiastically to Obama, it was during the parts of the speech geared more toward older, savvier voters. General statements about hope, or about ending the war in Iraq, or about the Bush administration, drew at times thunderous applause; more specific policy prescriptions and references to other politicians and political events, not so much. When Obama told the crowd, for example, that "we can't just talk to our friends, we have to talk to our enemies," the response was huge, but when he referred to the public spat he'd gotten in with rival candidate Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., about that issue, he was met with silence.
Of course, the crowd wasn't just young people. Gregory H. Smith, 42, was standing with his 5-year-old son, Gabriel -- who held his own Obama '08 sign -- on his shoulders. Smith is something of a local celebrity in New York City; a doorman at the Bryant Park Hotel, in 2004 Smith read Obama's book "Dreams From My Father." Inspired, he wrote Obama a letter and sent him a $25 donation, which prompted a call from the candidate himself, asking for help with the campaign. At the rally, recalling it, he told Salon, "My wife, Jackie, she's Caucasian, and when she picked up the phone she turned paler than ever. She said, 'Gregory, I think you better take this.'" Jackie, standing next to him with their 20-month-old son, Caleb, on her shoulders, smiled at the memory.
Smith has since introduced Obama at a Brooklyn rally, and he spent time earlier this week helping to get the word out. He has devoted so much time to Obama, and had so many calls coming in to work about it, that he was suspended from his job Wednesday and Thursday. "Hopefully I'll have a job to go back to on Monday," Smith said, adding that he believed he would.
Gabriel seemed to be taking after his father. Asked why he was out in Washington Square Park for Obama, he replied, "'Cause he's my favorite friend," and told a reporter he had shaken the senator's hand. And why would Obama make a good president? "'Cause I love him too much," Gabriel said.