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Sweet Potato Pie in Philly (Web Dispatch) View other pieces in "The New York Review of Books"
By Mark Danner October 16, 2008
Tags: Sweet Potato Pie | Obama | Philly | Elections Print
You would think first of all of a village fair: the entire community of Germantown, Northwest Philly, taking itself up on the brightest of bright sunny fall days and moving en masse, clumps of people—groups of young men in the obligatory hoodies and low-riding jeans, moms pushing strollers, dads lugging car seats, and everywhere children, from toddlers on up, being pulled along ("You'll remember this all your life!")—almost all of them African-American and all melding together, as they crowded toward the entrance to Vernon Park, into a full running, laughing stream. Hawkers hawked "Obamaniana"—the man's face glowing on posters, some huge, floating above the crowd; his name carved in wood or stone; the Obama keychains and wallets and everywhere the volunteers with their blue buttons and their clipboards, making sure it all works smoothly.

Once in the park, enfolded in those several thousand happy people, there was the dancing. Over the loudspeakers, inevitably, "The Power of One!"and of course "Power to the People,"and beneath where I stood on the riser, among the generally bored press corps, two blond girls danced and laughed and bumped hips. I chat with a local volunteer, a middle-aged lady with a café au lait face, and when I ask her how it's going she fixes me first of all with a slightly scolding look—how can you ask that?—and then says it simply and without doubt, "Oh, we're gonna do it this time. This time it's ours!"

Knowing politicians and his schedule of four appearances on this one bright day in Philly I'd been prepared to wait but it was only twenty minutes after the appointed time when after a series of very quick introductions from the young black mayor, Michael Nutter, and Senator Robert Casey, and the gravel-voiced bearish Governor Ed Rendell—hardly more than a minute each, a never-before-glimpsed discipline from politicians—he rose from a stairway at the back of the stage into an explosion of sound, grinning with pleasure in an open-collared white dress shirt and black dress slacks.

He seems slender and slight and young, astonishingly young, and you notice first of all, for it is impossible not to, the physical grace; he moves like an athlete much more than a politician, taking pleasure in his body: bursting up onto the stage, the lanky highly stylized movement, shoulders bent slightly concave, gathering everything into those constantly clapping hands, using the hands in their clapping to acknowledge the crowd, his head nodding all the while, as if he is drawing his energy only from them and showing that energy with his clapping and nodding, with the bursting energy of his body that is an embodiment of theirs, an embodied picture of what they're giving him. He prances with evident pleasure around the little stage, moving his head in big theatrical nods, embracing each politician in turn, big full-bodied embraces, and again one thinks of an athlete on the sidelines or in the dugout: all of it is done with the unhindered pleasure of the body, all of it says confidence and pleasure, as if this, being bathed in the huge cheers, taking sustenance and energy from the wave of sounds and the shouts of his name, is the place where he breathes his true oxygen, where he really lives. He seems made to be precisely here—in the midst of these thousands of sun-drenched cheering people. On this perfect mid-October day, there is only him and them and what is between them.

"How's it goin', Northwest?"That salutation, and the enormous opening roar in response, tells you that he knows these people and they know him. "What a beautiful day the Lord has made!"It's a black crowd and his speech immediately acquires, not broadly but noticeably, a tinge of blackness: the Southern tones, the slight mid-Carolina or midSouth softening, the falling final g's. He knows these people, each one of them, that's what the grin says—wherever he comes from he will be this day the local boy made good: theirs. They can take pleasure in that and he can, too, and he is telling them he knows it.

He goes quickly through the thanks to the local politicians and then moves into the stump speech, a stripped-down version for this heavily packed day, and I was impressed again by the absolute clarity and simplicity of the language. The transformational "post-partisanship"of the primaries is nowhere to be seen, burned away in the fires and fears of the financial crisis. Frank, rousing Democratic populism now: jobs and the hurt people are feeling. "Now's not the time for fear,"he declares. "Now's the time for leadership. The disastrous policies of the last four years cannot continue. We have seen the final verdict of Bush economics. We don't need four more years of that."

The ease and simplicity of the message: things are bad now, real bad. Do you want that to continue or do you want things to get better? In this construction McCain is Bush. The two are identical and that identification, which handcuffs the Republican to the disaster wrought by the incumbent in the White House, and which is taken for granted here, is all you need to know.

In the midst of this he lets drop today's "bite." "I want to acknowledge,"he says, "that Senator McCain tried to tone down the rhetoric at his town hall meeting yesterday."It is the line the traveling press, who know his stump speech by heart, have been waiting for. Looking across from my riser toward the reporters gathered at the long card tables arrayed on the grass, I see heads suddenly bend over laptops, fingers flying. The day before, in a town meeting in Lakeville, Minnesota, McCain had taken the microphone from an elderly woman who was saying she didn't "trust Obama"because she had "read about him and he's"—a big pause here—"an Arab."McCain, who had been shaking his head, took the mike and said, "No ma'am, no ma'am, he's a decent, family man, citizen, that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues, and that's what this campaign is all about."Earlier he had told another angry supporter, a man who had shouted that he would be "scared"to bring up his child in a country with a President Obama, that Obama was "a decent person, and a person that you do not have to be scared as president of the United States."

Now Obama, in the midst of this increasingly raucous conversation with the crowd, has issued his answer and by the time I would return to my hotel room a few hours later there it would"¨be leading that day's news on all the cable networks. For the purposes of the "national campaign," what the bloviators bloviate about, what the commentators comment about, what most Americans manage to glimpse of the campaign, this is what "really"happened that day: the campaigns continued to "dial back the rhetoric,"which in previous days "had grown increasingly poisonous."

Indeed, the other bit of political news, which reinforced this now superseded "poisonous"plotline, had Congressman and civil rights hero John Lewis issuing a statement that seemed to compare the McCain campaign, in the increasing vehemence of its language, to George Wallace, whose overheated rhetoric had also led to an "atmosphere of hate,"and "because of this..., four little girls were killed on Sunday morning when a church was bombed in Birmingham, Alabama"—itself an overheated comparison Obama could now declare "inappropriate."

Watching the day's events, and their televised packaging, one is struck once again by the profound bifurcated strangeness of American politics. Impossible to know what is the "real"campaign. Was it that rousing event I was attending, full of uplifting words and calls to arms and inspiration, which so many children and young people will never forget? Or is it this battle of sound bites, carefully crafted each morning by the campaign "strategists"and tossed with casual precision by each candidate into the maw of the hungry press corps? Seen from Vernon Park the national campaign is a strange disembodied electronic cloud, floating out there in the ether, with an almost laughably tangential relation to what actually occurs before the people themselves. What would those who had attended the rally feel when they looked at their television sets that evening? Bewilderment? Disgust? Bemusement? Pity?
For the national campaign, on the other hand, for the commentators and bloviators and battalions of Democratic and Republican "strategists"ushered in and out of the television studios, the battle of the bites was the campaign, and that campaign had reached the point where "things were getting increasingly ugly."There was no trace of this whatever at the event in Vernon Park, beyond that wisp of a sentence from the candidate acknowledging that his opponent had tried to "tone down the rhetoric...yesterday."But he knew and every member of the campaign and press present knew—all the "professionals" knew—that this was all that had been said that day that would be part of the national campaign. And to all the commentators and strategists, and all the millions who that day would see and hear, on the cable stations and on talk radio and on the networks and the blogs only what they had produced, this was the real campaign, for which the rallies only existed as a kind of"¨artificially constructed pageant. It was comprised of the cheering ranks of those who had already committed, out of which one could daily extract those tiny preformed packets of "news,"intended to persuade, via the electronic ether, those who had not.

Everything else they would never see. It existed only for the several thousand cheering people in Vernon Park on that bright morning in Germantown. They would never see, for instance, Obama's riff on sweet potato pie. It came as he told a story about his campaigning "the other day in a little town in Ohio, with the governor there,"about how he and the governor suddenly felt hungry and "decided we'd stop right there and get some pie."Now here began a little gem of a story, which had at its center the diner employees who wanted to take a picture with Obama, not least because, as they told him, their boss was a die-hard Republican and "they wanted to tweak him a little with that picture."All this was heading toward a carefully choreographed finale, where the owner appeared personally with the pie for candidate and governor and Obama looked at the pie and looked at the pie-carrying die-hard Republican owner and "then I said to him"—perfectly elongated pause—"How's business?"

This brought on great gales of laughter from the crowd. For the joke turned on a point already precisely made: How can even the most die-hard of die-hard Republicans, if he is thinking of his self-interest, how can he vote Republican this year? "If you beat your head against the wall,"Obama demanded of that faraway Republican with his pie, to a blizzard of "oh yeahs!"and "you got that right!"from the crowd, "and it hurts and hurts, how can you keep doing it?"But it was those two words, "How's business?"—that casual greeting thrown at the Republican diner owner that showed that there simply could be no other choice this year—that showed the case proved, wrapped up, unassailable.
And yet what struck me in this little model of political art was a tiny riff the candidate effortlessly worked into it from his banter with the crowd. When Obama launched into his story with "Because I love pie,"a woman out in that sea of cheering, laughing people shouted back, "I'll make you pie, baby!"and to the general hooting laughter the candidate returned, "Oh yeah, you gonna make me pie?"Then, after a beat, amid even more raucous laughter, and several other female voices shouting out invitations, "You gonna make me sweet potato pie?"More shouts and laughter. "All you gonna make me pie?"
"Well you know I love sweet potato pie. And I think what we're going to have to do here"—and the laughter and the shouting rose and as it did his voice rose above it—"what we're going to have to do here is have a sweet potato pie contest.... That's right. And in this contest, I'm gonna be the judge."The laughter rose and you could hear not only the women but the deep laughter of the men taking delight in the double entendre that was not only about the women and their laughing, teasing offers and about their pie that that lanky confident smiling young man knew how to eat and enjoy and judge, but even more now, amazingly, as people came one by one to recognize, about something else. To those people gathered in Vernon Park that bright sun-drenched morning, it was an even more titillating and more pleasurable double entendre, for it was most clearly about something they'd never had but hoped and dreamed of having and now had begun to believe they were within the shortest of short distances of finally tasting. "Because you all know,"their candidate told them, "that I know sweet potato pie."

© 2021 Mark Danner