Waiting for Obama

If the press doesn’t witness a campaign event, did it happen?

Columbia, SC — By the time I arrived at the late-night Obama rally yesterday at South Carolina University’s Koger Center, the doors had been locked. A stony-faced secret service man, arms folded over his chest, looked out through the glass at the cold, damp night. In addition to myself, half the press corps was outside, too. The fire marshal had declared the building full to capacity and was letting no one else in. No exceptions. “Should we start a Hillary chant?” said one of thirty-odd reporters huddled close to the door like a group of refugees.

Most seemed to have a sense of humor about the situation, but not all. Jumping up and down to keep himself warm, one cameraman holding a boom mike said, with exasperation, “But how can they not let press in? They invited us, didn’t they?”

What good was an event, after all, if the press wasn’t there to witness it?

Minutes passed but the crowd refused to thin. A surly-looking radio reporter for Voice of America started smoking a cigarette. Everyone else was busy working their Blackberries.

When Richard Rosenthal, a logistics man for the Illinois senator, walked up in his blue Obama fleece and identified himself, everyone turned. He tried to reassure us that he was doing everything he could to right this egregious wrong. “We don’t need the public. We need you,” he insisted.

“I’m just a blogger. You don’t need me,” answered Christine Pelosi, daughter of the House speaker who also writes occasionally for the Huffington Post. She was there with Indira Laskshmanan of Bloomberg. After about half an hour of waiting, they went back to their hotel.

When a man carrying a camera on his shoulder emerged from the building, someone in the crowd shouted out, “Is he talking yet?”

“For thirty minutes already,” the guy with the camera answered. At that, three Japanese reporters from Asahi, all in brown trench coats, whom I’d earlier that evening overheard calling around town looking for open barbecue joints, started chanting, “Obama! Obama! Obama!” Rosenthal, the Obama man, was on the phone still trying to make it happen. “It’s very simple. Take fifteen of our people out and replace them with press people.”

After forty-five minutes of waiting and with the group of journalists, now down to ten and gloomy about their prospects, I was done with my sociological observations—what happens when the rat isn’t even allowed in his maze?—freezing, and ready to go back to the hotel. The last thing I heard as I headed to my car was a French reporter, who was puffing away on a cigarette and staring intently at the glass doors, say, “Hope. I thought the whole theme of this campaign was hope.”

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Gal Beckerman is a former staff writer at CJR.