I went to Joe Biden’s speech in St. Louis before the Missouri primary. It was my first political rally in decades. It turned out to be one of the last crowd events before coronavirus locked down the campaign.
This was on March 7, which now feels like a distant epoch. At Kiener Plaza, nobody was wearing masks or gloves or keeping a distance from others. People blithely passed around posters, flags and stickers; they shook hands and hugged.
The last rally I attended had been an appearance by Richard Nixon at what was then Kiel Auditorium in 1968. I wouldn’t say that he single-handedly put me off political events for half a century. By nature, I’m not a joiner. The litany of big promises that makes up a stump speech tends to leave me cold. And I don’t like standing around waiting. I try to do my civic duty, though. I always vote. But ordinarily I watch the speeches and debates on TV and read the newspaper.
This year is different. With government driven by partisanship, the media reporting, seemingly, on two different Americas, and the election process under cyberthreat, it seemed important to go to an event, stand in the crowd and see the candidate I supported with my own eyes.
My inexperience showed. The announcement had said that the doors would open at 11 am. Though that was a puzzling statement to make of an outdoor event, I arrived at 11. The plaza was half-empty. Entry was surprisingly casual, with no metal detectors or bag searches to go through. I ended up only 60 feet or so from the podium. For almost an hour, nothing much happened.
By the time the speeches began, the plaza was full. Environmentalist Ben May and former ambassador Kevin O’Malley made the case against Trump, but avoided the trash talk of his rallies. The meanest thing O’Malley said about anybody was that he wanted to send Bill Barr back to the private sector.
Finally the candidate himself stepped up to the podium. Reporters and opponents both Democratic and Republican had led me to fear Biden would be frail, doddery and confused. But he looked robust and delivered his speech without committing any of his infamous gaffes. As an orator he’s no Obama, but he spoke well as he made the case that he is the candidate to bring the party together and win in November.
Missouri Democrats were convinced. Though Bernie Sanders’ St. Louis rally was said to be bigger and more enthusiastic, Biden won the primary.
Sanders supporters say that we Biden supporters are making a big mistake, backing the candidate we think can beat Trump, rather than the candidate with exciting, transformative ideas. They remind us of moderate nominees who lost, like John Kerry and Al Gore. But the lesson of history isn’t that clear cut. The last two Democratic nominees who won, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, were also moderates. And I’m old enough to remember that when we turned sharp left with George McGovern, it was a disaster.
Now we’re in the coronavirus era, and the campaign has taken a strange, new form. The president is on TV every day, promoting himself as a wartime leader while continuing to be his ill-informed, irresponsible self. Biden was in the unenviable position of trying to model leadership while not in office. Officials are considering holding the remaining primaries and even the general election by mail-in ballot.
I’m glad I seized that last chance to go to a live event. A minor incident sticks in my mind. During the long wait for the speeches to begin, a man next to me was trying to attract the attention of a distant friend. He was shouting “Melissa! Melissaaaaah!” over and over and waving his arms. I did what I usually do in such situations, which is feel annoyed and hold my tongue. But a guy standing behind me had another idea. He announced to everyone around us, “Hey, let’s give this guy a hand. One-two-three.” And we all bellowed “MELISSA!” It worked.
This was instructive. The type of folks who go to political rallies knew something that I didn’t: people who band together can do things that we non-joiners can’t. Maybe even defeat the current occupant of the White House.
Apparently there are a lot of people who, like me, have felt the need to take to the streets. In 2012, according a Pew poll, only 10% of Americans said they had ever attended a political rally. Since Trump was elected, 20% of Americans say they have attended a rally or protest, and almost three-quarters of them were Trump opponents.
We may not be able to gather in person, but it’s comforting to think of the millions at home, waiting for their chance to vote against Trump.