It would seem a terrible place to hold a large political rally: an elementary school soccer field in a remote New Hampshire town of 1,700 people, a town so inconvenient to access that no one can remember the last time a presidential candidate visited, or if one ever had. And in fact, it was a terrible place to hold a large political rally.
Unity, N.H., is not just small, it’s small and out-of-the-way. The town has no major roads, just winding country ones. It has a single school, the elementary school, no large retail center and no parking. It is an hour and a half from the nearest sizeable airport, and hotels for traveling press are nowhere to be found. Who in the world would hold a political rally for several thousand people here? Barack Obama would.
Unity might be one of the worst towns in America in which to hold a major political rally, but symbolically it was ideal for the Obama campaign. Where better to have Hillary Clinton join Obama on stage in a display of party loyalty, showing her supporters that there are no hard feelings for her loss to Obama and urging them to work hard to make him President, than in a town named Unity, where in the New Hampshire primary in January the vote for Obama and Clinton was evenly split — 107 apiece?
For the attendees, the choice of location would be a nightmare. For the Obama campaign, a campaign based entirely on symbolism, it was perfect.
Because there really is no parking at all in Unity, N.H., the campaign had to bus attendees in from nearby Claremont, an old industrial city, and Newbury, a resort town. Yet the campaign didn’t limit the number of guests to a total that would be easy to truck in and out in a short time, which proved to be a real problem when the thunderstorm hit.
OBAMA AND CLINTON supporters arrived in Claremont as early as 6 a.m. for the 1 p.m. event. Many were from nearby Vermont. Some traveled hours to get there, from as far as Massachusetts. They waited at the parking lot (a local race track) until almost 11 a.m., took a 15-minute ride to the elementary school, then had to stand in line to get through the security bottleneck. (The Secret Service had set up metal detectors and was duplicating your typical airport security checkpoint.)
As it did during the primary, the Obama campaign went to great lengths to separate the media from the crowd, deliberately making it difficult for reporters to interview attendees. The media were separated from the crowd this time by a metal fence put up by the campaign. The press was corralled like cattle into a segregated portion of the field and was not let into the public section. The only exception was to get refreshments. Reporters were allowed to go straight to the concession stand and back, provided they agreed to go with an escort from the campaign. No escort, no refreshments.
I confronted the staffer in charge about this. She told me three times that it was for “security.” When I asked her to explain what that meant, she repeated that it was a Secret Service mandate and it was out of her hands. That was a lie. I asked the Secret Service and was told that they didn’t care one way or another; the order to keep the media separate from the public came from the campaign, not them.
It was a hot day, nearly 90 degrees, and there was no shelter. There was a single refreshment tent, where hot dogs, burgers, and water were being sold. By the time the speakers came out, several elderly women had already taken shelter under their “Unite for Change” signs. Even as the band played protest songs (what Democratic Party rally is complete without Neil Young?), some children had to be carried out, and people reported later that several elderly attendees had fainted or were about to.
OBLIVIOUS TO THE CONDITIONS, the Obama campaign arranged for six speakers (including Clinton and Obama) that burning afternoon. The state’s two Democratic members of Congress, Carol Shea-Porter and Paul Hodes, kicked things off, followed by U.S. Senate candidate Jeanne Shaheen, Gov. John Lynch, and Ken Hall, the “honorary mayor of Unity.”
With so many speakers, the campaign might have vetted the speeches to make sure each made different points. Instead, everyone save Hall, a Republican, gave almost the exact same speech. And that includes the headliners. Remove the personal references, and the speeches delivered by Clinton and Obama could have been given by any random Democrat running for any random office.
The crowd, however, seemed to enjoy the talking-point speeches. When Clinton asked for party unity, saying “we are one party” and urging her supporters to back Obama, the crowd erupted in cheers and applause. The only remarkable aspect of any speech that day was the number of times Clinton made a point of telling her supporters to vote for Obama for president. She could have given vague instructions to support Obama the individual, without mentioning the office, or the Democratic nominee. But she chose to say she supported him for president. The crowd seemed to pick up on that, and there were cheers every time she said it.
Before the event, I approached groups of women to ask which candidate they supported in the primary and whether they backed Obama with any reservations. To a person they all said their support for Obama was unequivocal. The Clinton supporters said they had no reservations at all and were happy to support the nominee. One, however, said that if there really were a significant number of Clinton supporters who would not back Obama in the fall, they wouldn’t have made the effort to come to Unity that day.
She was correct, with the exception of a pair of Clinton supporters who parked themselves in front of the CNN cameras and defiantly waived Clinton signs. The two booed when Clinton asked her supporters to back Obama, and they tried to interrupt Obama’s speech, but they weren’t loud enough. That odd couple aside, the crowd was unified in support for Obama. And not even being stranded in a thunderstorm by the event’s poor organization was enough to change their minds.
ABOUT 10 MINUTES after Obama and Clinton left the stage, the rain began. It started softly, but the clouds unloaded a few minutes later, before the first bus had even made it to the parking lot. The absence of a main road, and the presence of so many steep hills, forced the bus drivers to take longer routes back in the rain, as the police directing traffic wouldn’t let them go the shortest route. As the 15-minute one-way trip to the parking lot turned into a more than 20-minute trip, thousands of attendees stood in the downpour awaiting their bus.
I made it out early. Later in the afternoon I spoke with someone who had been stranded at the site for several hours. Only after people began cursing the staff and some senior citizens were in obvious need of revival did the campaign start handing out free bottled water to the soaked, overheated guests. The campaign even held buses so some dignitaries could get out first.
It had become apparent by the end of the day that the campaign really hadn’t given any thought to the comfort of the people it had bused in. They were nothing more than props, hauled in and out of this tiny town to serve as a backdrop for the media event (and campaign commercial?) the campaign had dreamed up.
The poor folks who gave up an entire day of their lives to see this event got sunburned, dehydrated, then soaked all so Obama could have his symbolic unification rally in this remote town.
It was also ironic that the campaign that has made so much out of promising the swift and orderly withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq could not even manage an exit strategy for Unity, N.H.
But, hey, what’s the suffering of a few thousand people if it serves the greater cause of getting Barack Obama elected president?