Last week, I went to the Apollo to see the Prez. Let me repeat that because there’s something magical and ridiculously unlikely in that sentence. Obama, is, of course, the first sitting president to ever come to the Apollo. Ten or fifteen years ago, Harlem was much less safe and chic than it is today, and a presidential visit to the theater would have been unthinkable. But then, to paraphrase Tom Tomorrow, if Dr. Who had landed in 2001 and announced that in 2008 America would elect a black man named Barack Hussein Obama president, it wouldn’t be the time travel part that would sound crazy.
Today 125th street has tour buses and chain stores, but still the feeling of history, and the Apollo is history. Tickets were reasonably priced, starting at $100, far less than a Broadway show or a concert. This was not a big donor crowd, just enthusiastic constituents, still proud of their President though some may have been a little disappointed that he hasn’t always been as forceful as we’d hoped. (As someone said to me recently, “I still love the President. I’m just not in love with him anymore.)
Our politically savvy cousin (a former campaign manager for a sitting senator) who accompanied us, reviewed the President’s speech as a “incoherent, but exciting.” Obama was trying out different things, honing his message for the coming election. He was in training.
The speech reminded me of why we had expected so much. He hit the right populist notes, sounding like Jimmy Stewart in the never released Capra sequel, President Smith Runs for Re-election. He talked about the economic mess he inherited, how hard it will be to pull ourselves out, the need for the same rules to apply to everyone, and that we are all in this together. He talked about the good that government can do and referenced social security as well as health care reform. He mentioned the GI bill, which his grandfather had used to go to college after the war. My father also went to school on the GI bill. In his case to attended optometry school at Columbia, although before the war he’d gotten a bachelor’s degree at City College (also in Harlem, USA), which back then didn’t charge tuition. Imagine that! A free university education. What a country we once were back when that socialist FDR was in charge.
Obama talked about his opponents and how much the republicans had changed, referencing both Lincoln who created the Internal Revenue Service and Teddy (Bust the Trust) Roosevelt.
But the moment that would be immortalized on YouTube was when he first came out, after the Reverend Al Green, and he began to sing Let’s Stay Together. The crowd went wild. Obama beamed that big smile, the one that inspired crazy Pam Geller to speculate that Malcolm X was his biological father (my absolute favorite conspiracy theory, not only for its absurdity and physical impossibility, but because I kind of wish, if only.) At the time, I just enjoyed the moment. It only hit me hours later that of course the singing was staged.
When the stakes are this high, nothing is left to chance. I can imagine Obama with his advisers planning the marathon of his New York night — three dinners and a show. I could see him being told that the entertainment would include Al Green, prompting an impromptu song burst, followed by one of the bright not-so-young men saying, “You’ve got to do that!”
I accept that he is after all a politician, an incumbent running for re-election in a tough economy. The line that has haunted me since Thursday wasn’t the musical interlude, it was when he said that this is not the same Republican party he ran against in 2008, that back then he ran against an opponent “who agreed that we should ban torture, believed in climate change, [and] had worked on immigration reform.”
Here’s what it comes down to. On one side are the republican candidates left standing. There’s Romney, a rich man who can joke about betting $10,000, and about his being “unemployed,” then turn earnest about corporations’ being people. If he didn’t actually exist, Stephen Colbert would have had to invent him. There’s Gingrich who doesn’t just pander to racists, he incites them while playing the victim. And Santorum is still in the race, a man openly disdainful of science, education and contraception. Here are people advocating policies that would rid us of even the small safety net that exists, who would happily gut social security, rescind health care reform, destroy public education and leave an economy in shambles, men who talk about limiting government while advocating its entry into our bedrooms.
Before the show, as we waited on line (this being New York) that cold winter’s night. Across the street, there were the usual motley band of protesters, occupy Wall Street types with signs about corporations and Guantanomo, proclaiming their status as part of the 99%. Of course this was an event for the 99%. Ironically, many of us had probably at least visited Zuccotti Park. While some will argue that there isn’t much difference between the parties, at this point that’s unaffordable nihilism. Maybe Obama is too “centrist” for some or too much of a gentleman when times call for a street fighter, but we are all standing on a precipice and it’s either him or the abyss.