Jack Tame: Grand theatre in the stadiums of the voting faithful

Bill Clinton knew how to play the crowd. Photo / AP
Bill Clinton knew how to play the crowd. Photo / AP

The woman next to me spread over two chairs. She was big, but could have fitted into one. This way she had room to throw her arms about and half a seat on which to rest her sign. I watched her face as her eyes focused on the stage below, as the pores of her cheeks prickled with sweat.

The speaker worked to a crescendo and the woman anticipated his peak. Her top lip quivered for a moment and she screamed aloud, stretching her neck and scrunching her eyes like a wolf at full moon.

She laughed and grinned and slapped her thigh as the rest of the stadium cheered too. I felt sure she was leading the chorus, the first tumbling domino of delirium.

Political rallies are infectious environments, much different from sports games and pop concerts. Fuelled not by overpriced beer or physical competition or the pleasure of a familiar song, they're simply a collective celebration of an idea.

To be drunk on the promise of a better life, no matter how empty the promise may prove to be, is an intoxicating experience.

And it's worryingly simpler to be caught up with the masses than to pause and differentiate between visionary and tyrant.

"For Kiwis this is completely foreign," said New Zealand ambassador Mike Moore, when we met outside in the convention halls. He's right; somehow I can't imagine Peter Dunne standing before tens of thousands, whipping his disciples into frenzied adoration. But for both US political conventions - the Republicans' and the Democrats' - the power of a singular preaching orator was humbling. At both conventions and for both political leaders, I found myself sitting in the stands semi-hypnotised, subconsciously clapping with the masses.

The shows were actually very similar. The Democratic crowd was predictably more diverse than the Republicans.

There were more than just white men. Many were reluctant to concede that in some quarters Barack Obama hadn't met expectations.

Support, I was repeatedly assured, was unwavering, though chatting in the breaks between speakers, many of the faithful were less than convincing in impressing upon me the President's economic credentials.

The woman with two seats was called Chandra.

She had a nametag on a lanyard, and a full-white outfit that reminded me of someone going to church. In many ways she was.

As Bill Clinton strolled out she slapped her hands together, spreading her arms between each clap as wide as an accordion player.

I counted nine badges on her jacket and chest. One said, "Once you go Black you never go back", and is apparently a top-seller. Another, "I still believe".

In 50 minutes, Chandra's focus never faltered. Clinton luxuriated in the power. I could see a teleprompter and as his confidence built steadily and his voice grew strong, the former President repeatedly ad libbed lines and added jokes.

There were dashes in the script at the end of each paragraph to allow for predicted applause.

The crowd never missed its cue. Clinton would give a little, tease a little, stretch. The masses would follow his every inflection, his every repetition and every step.

They surged and cheered and pumped their fists. It was a dance. They were courting. It was sex.

As with Romney, the crowd sensed the end. The matador lifted his final sword for a final crescendo; Chandra pulled herself from her seat.

A stadium stood tall, drowning his final words. It was all theatre, grand theatre. Then Barack Obama stepped out.

- Herald on Sunday

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