John Kerry's stop in Atlanta was held the day before Super Tuesday, and I was dragged to the rally by the woman I am involved with, who is something of a political conspiracy theorist and loans her time and effort to the Kerry campaign, more in an effort to do whatever she can to oust Bush than any significant support of Kerry in particular, although since he was the forerunner on the Democratic side, it made sense to lend support to him.
The avenue chosen for this was, curiously enough, the Tabernacle. I find this somewhat incongruous with the rock shows and other music events typically held at this establishment, especially given the Tabernacle's lack of seating on the main floor. However, no one asks my opinion on these matters, and so to the Tabernacle we drove.
I had previously agreed to volunteer in whatever way necessary for this particular stop on the campaign trail. Unfortunately, my credentials were lacking, inasmuch as I had not signed up prior to actual arrival, instead expecting that I would be able to sign up right then and there. The upshot of this is that my companion went off to do whatever it is she does at these things - handing out fliers, attempting to peddle various wares, and so forth - and I was left to wait in line with the commoners for almost an hour while the Secret Service swept the building, a task which they had been undertaking since three in the afternoon.
I wish to note that this line was enormous, wrapping around the block, and populated by a wide-ranging demographic from high school students to elderly citizens of all races and, I presume, religions. I spent my time in this queue turning down offers of stickers and making fun of the various security and police officers who were riding on Segways, which have been a target of my derision since before they were released on the market, but which I had never actually observed in person. They look even more ridiculous in real life than they appear in the various videos and commercials, which says quite a lot, and frankly I think it is something of a detriment to the Atlanta police force's image of professionalism to ride these contraptions. Once again, though, no one asks my opinion on these matters, so I contented myself with making snide remarks about them.
I waited in this line for about half an hour, during which time various media groups set up their broadcast equipment and police officers patrolled the area keeping a stern eye on the goings-on. Quite unexpectedly, a friend of mine walked past the Tabernacle on his way home from class at GSU. Like me, he is of the same mentality when it comes to matters political: It is our version of spectator sports, which makes the November election our Superbowl and World Series rolled into one. However, we also maintain a sense of detached amusement and psuedointellectual humor regarding these sorts of things, and so, I reached out from the line and dragged him in, whereupon we now both slowly advanced towards the front entrance.
Security, as can be expected, was handled almost entirely by the Secret Service, with an array of metal detectors, firearms, and very slim wristwatches. Surprisingly, they were not quite as thorough as I expected them to be, although admittedly this may be because they are trained to know what they're doing and I am not. The contents of my friend's bag were given a cursory examination, and I was not physically searched after my combat boots set off the metal detectors. They took my word for it that the steel in the boots were at fault and let me go on my way, which seems to me a mistake, for I could easily have had a knife or small gun concealed there. During the rally itself I also noted a man with an exceptionally large camera with an enormous lens apparatus, inside of which could have been contained, by a sufficiently motivated person, a crude but effective gun. I did not feel it was my place to question the Secret Service's competency, however, and so I kept my silence while my friend and I made our way to the main floor, approximately five minutes before the festivities were to begin.
A word about the Secret Service: Having never seen them in person or interacted with them in any way, which I do not consider a bad thing, it was my impression that every stereotype about them is absolutely true. One agent in particular was standing about ten feet away from me for the entire rally, and I watched him carefully. The man's expression did not change once in three hours: not a yawn, not a cough, not an idle scratching of the nose, and I could not testify under oath that he even blinked. Whatever his personal opinion of Kerry may have been, he was clearly there to do his job and utterly segregate his personal convictions from his professional charge. Without speaking to him or knowing any more about him than the manner with which he carried himself, I got the distinct impression that he probably knew seventeen ways to incapacitate a man with a rolled-up newspaper and could kill me six ways before I hit the ground if I made the slightest wrong move.
At this point, various high-ranking officials and backers of the Kerry campaign began to shuffle in and fill the seats on the stage. I thought that Kerry would follow soon after, welcome the high-rollers and deliver his speech.
How wrong I was.
Instead, we were subjected to about twenty minutes of a three-piece band playing Muzak versions of popular songs. This is the sort of band you imagine playing at the fiftieth wedding anniversary of your aunt and uncle. In and of itself this was tolerable, despite the odd mannerisms of the trombone player, and provided a decent enough ambient background sound while we waited. Once the band finished, however, the true atrocity was inflicted upon us, as a church choir was introduced and their conductor took the stage.
We stood there and listened to deafening Gospel music for a half hour.
It was at this point that I decided, half-seriously, that my vote would be for Ralph Nader. Ralph Nader didn't make me sit through thirty minutes of Gospel music. I did, however, find this particular musical choice interesting, for Kerry has, throughout most of his political career, been largely silent when it comes to religious issues, but is now being somewhat derided for boasting of his Christian leanings, perhaps in an effort to gain support among the moderates who might otherwise lean towards Bush.
I am a man of extreme outward patience and calm, but even I have my limit on how much Gospel music I will listen to before going mad, and so I stepped outside for a quick cigarette. Outside, I approached two or three gentlemen who were standing around being glared at by a cop, and asked them for a lighter. I was initially denied this request, for as it turns out, these men were Bush supporters, and under some strange and misguided principle of conduct, were reluctant to grant favors such as this to a Kerry backer. I finally talked them into it, and during the course of the discussion, I was given to understand that they were standing on the street because they had been thrown out by the Secret Service. Apparently they had walked in and before they even went through the security pillbox, had loudly announced to the agents that they supported Bush and despised Kerry. Sensing that these men were only present to cause problems, the Secret Service discharged them from the premises and told them that they could not set foot on the sidewalk of the Tabernacle, though they were free to remain standing on the street - which they did, until the end of the rally. Had they merely been present to observe, I would have had a major problem with their banishment, but considering that they went out of their way to act like jackasses, I feel the Secret Service took the appropriate precautions. Even if they were not actually planning to do anything, which they probably weren't, I feel they should have been rebuked on grounds of general idiocy. Strolling up to a Secret Service agent and getting in his face about political issues is not a wise thing to do.
Back inside, the choir was wrapping it up. The head of the student association for Kerry in GSU presented some of the more prominent persons in attendance. I regret that I cannot recall most of them, but mayor Franklin was among the supporters and delivered a brief speech. She was shadowed, however, by the ace in the sleeve of the Democrat party, Senator Max Cleland, who spoke for about ten minutes in praise of John Kerry.
I truly wish that I could relate some of the things Cleland spoke of during his oration, but I must confess that I found it difficult to pay attention. This is not because he was boring or because I found the material uninteresting. No, my attention was lacking because seated stage right was the head of the church whose choir had sung, and I swear this man forget to take his Zoloft that afternoon. Every fifth or sixth word uttered by Cleland was punctuated by this lunatic with a loud "Amen!", "Preach it!", "That's right! Say it loud!", and a string of other vapid platitudes. These utterances were usually accompanied by a wild gesticulation in the form of spastic hand-waving, as one would expect from a televangelist; several times, he felt that his mere vocal support wasn't enough, and brought out a tambourine with a picture of Jesus on it, which he would shake recklessly.
When Cleland had concluded, Kerry finally walked out, greeted by almost a full minute of thunderous applause and cheering (and tambourine waving, courtesy of the overcaffienated preacher). The crowd finally settled down and Kerry, after profusely thanking his supporters, particularly Cleland, delivered his speech. He far surpassed anything I have ever seen by Bush in the public-oration department, speaking not only with force and authority, but with a touch of good humor. He genuinely knew how to work the crowd, in his own style, and appeared to be enjoying himself a great deal, but sombering when the material called for it.
As expected, his speech was largely just political noise, and not much was introduced that followers of the presidential race haven't already heard ad nauseum. It was gratifying, however, to be able to hear him say it in person. He did not speak much about national security, a topic which the conservatives feel is of utmost importance. Instead, he focused his attention on the other issues on the table, with the US economy being featured heavily. He expressed contempt for the manner in which the Bush administration dealt with education, for example, and complained that in that area, the Bush battle cry of "Mission Accomplished" should be modified to "Mission Not Even Attempted", a sentiment which elicited roaring cheers from the audience. He noted that the current education budget on the federal level was less than half of what was currently being spent on the Iraq war effort, and further condemned Bush for fiscal irresponsibility in other areas. He also touched on unemployment issues and gave extremely brief outlines - notes and ideas, really - on how he felt such things should be handled.
His speech centered mostly on criticism of the Bush administration and an enumeration of grievances against Bush and his policies, which is a valid methodology, but I personally would have preferred to hear more about how he would deal with such things, rather than just pointing out what Bush had done wrong. As noted before, his complaints were loud but his speech was mostly noise, though this is to be expected from a professional politician.
Overall this was an experience which I shall not soon forget - not just the rally proper but the general atmosphere surrounding it. I cannot say I was particularly swayed by anything that occurred there, but this is only because I supported Kerry already, though I must admit this is not because of anything particular to Kerry, but because I would vote for a silverback gorilla if he ran against Bush.
Although I am still considering throwing my vote away on Nader. Maybe next time Kerry will reconsider forcing Gospel choirs on his supporters.