We arrived at the gates of INVESCO Field an hour after paying $40 to park next to a nearby Denny’s. On the walk to the press entrance, we passed vendors selling Barack Obama lapel pins, towels, and car flags. “Make your car sexy,” that last vendor yelled. “You could get a date!”
No one was 100 percent clear on where the press was supposed to go. We knew we wanted to avoid the main line, which snaked around the stadium and down a closed-down chunk of I-25, patrolled by steel-thighed cops on bicycles.
”You can’t head down there,” one of them said, pointing at the place we’d previously been told to go. “You’ll have problems.”
After finally getting in, it became tough to remember why this speech was so controversial. Are NFL games elitist? School graduations? That’s what this looked like. The crowd was decidedly normal-looking, overrunning the number of delegates, volunteers, and hacks who had populated the Pepsi Center for the three previous days.
The big pre-emptive attack on this speech, one that had been thought very effective, was the “celebrity” campaign to tar the Democratic nominee as an elitist. Since Obama returned from Berlin, fresh off a speech that was so powerful and moving that I dare you to name a line from it now, John McCain's campaign has pounded Obama with ads comparing him to wan celebrities such as Britney Spears and Paris Hilton. His celebrated speaking ability was credited to his lightness, arrogance, and hubris. It was that rare political attack that successfully turned an asset into something to apologize for.
In one way, Obama did apologize. He checked off a list of McCain attacks and answered them. "I don't know what kind of lives John McCain thinks that celebrities lead,” Obama said, “but this has been mine.” Cue recitation of his fatherless childhood.
In another way, Obama told McCain where he could stick his Straight Talk. The INVESCO rally was the most over-the-top political event I have ever seen—and ever hope to see—because to surpass it you’d need to re-enact a Roman pageant updated with T-72 tanks.
The temple that the Denver Broncos play football in was repurposed to sell Barack Obama, to sell “history.” On the walk to the stadium, throughout the hall, and virtually anywhere outside, vendors were selling T-Shirts portraying Obama back-to-back with Martin Luther King, Jr. “The Dreamer and the Dream,” said one. “Change is the New Black,” said another. A vendor hocking a coffee tumbler celebrating “45 years to the date” of the "I have a dream" speech told me that the timing was “providential.” “There’s something happening here, but what it is ain’t exactly clear. You know?” (Certainly, the ghost of Buffalo Springfield does.) A few steps further from his table you could buy an $8 beer or a similarly overpriced repast. “It’s more crowded now than it is during a game,” said Denver lawyer Danny Hahn, munching a $9.50 steak sandwich.
The enormous size of the field and its stage let Obama infuse everything with the sort of leg-tingling flag worship that Democrats used to make fun of Republicans for doing. The people who grumbled at Ray Charles’ 1984 rendition of “America the Beautiful” sang along to Michael McDonald’s update. Applause and cheers were spontaneous, mostly, but some were prompted by a God-sized YES WE CAN on a Jumbotron that alternately read BARACKOBAMA.COM and THE CHANGE WE NEED.
The Democrats were in the throes of full-throated populism. One of the “real Americans” tasked with introducing Obama was former Republican Barney Smith, who griped that his job had gone to a “foreign worker.” Those foreigners! What won’t they steal? Yet Smith’s speech blew the doors off the place. He asked for a president who looks out for “Barney Smith, not Smith Barney,” a little zinger that got the crowd spontaneously cheering “BARNEY! BARNEY!”
Those cheers weren’t as loud as the ones that greeted attacks on McCain and Bush. Nothing could be. The connectivity of the positive applause lines was their focus on how much more America can and should do. When Obama promised to save the world from genocide and disease, the flags went up. Americanism, in this context, is the government doing whatever it can. Bushism has failed, so its opposite must be true. And it all ended with fireworks—what’s more American than that?
David Weigel is an associate editor of reason.