It was a picture-perfect day in Chicago – temperatures in the 70s, a clear-blue sky, and the crowds building inside and alongside Grant Park, where Barack Obama is scheduled to hold his election night rally.
The setting is rich with history – the park, of course, is named for Ulysses S. Grant, who commanded the Union Army during the Civil War – and the park was also the scene of rioting during the Democratic Convention of 1968, which occurred during a period of great concern over civil rights just after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.
Today, many of the larger buildings along the southern stretch of Michigan Avenue have American flags mounted to their facades, and the Hilton Chicago, a hotel closely associated with the 1968 unrest, is festooned with red-white-and-blue bunting. Along the avenue, which runs parallel to the west side of the park, vendors are hawking Obama merchandise – buttons and T-shirts, mostly – and many people are decked out in as much Obama gear as they could find. On Congress Parkway, where the crowds waited for access to the fields, there was a guy posing for photographers wearing a pinstriped baseball uniform with the name Obama and the number 08, a young woman was selling T-shirts saying “Obama 08/Grant Park/I Was There,’’ and a teenager was playing an electronic version of “Somewhere over the Rainbow” on his guitar. On Roosevelt Road, across from the entrance to the press area, a union has hung a banner reading “Local ironworkers support Barack Obama for president,” and a station wagon drove by covered in quotes from Martin Luther King Jr., blaring Obama speeches from a bullhorn. On its roof, a giant picture of Obama and the words “The dream comes true.’’ A middle-aged couple walked by me, arm-in-arm; he was wearing a T-shirt that said, “Bush Lied,’’ and she was wearing one reading “O1.20.09,’’ referring to the final day of the Bush administration. Ben King, 24, of Gary, Indiana, was selling T-shirts and buttons; he told me the most popular was an iconic Obama image with the word Victory, but he also has high hopes for a mock-front page of tomorrow’s Chicago Tribune that says, in huge letters, “Obama Wins.’’ One vendor was selling T-shirts describing Obama as commander-in-chief, and he was shouting “the first black commander-in-chief’’ as he hawked his wares for $5 apiece.
Obama is to speak in Hutchinson Field to a crowd of about 80,000 people who got tickets; a much larger crowd is expected to watch or listen from nearby Butler Field and from the streets. The park is lined with port-a-potties and food vendors selling Intelligentsia coffee and Connie’s pizza.
There is an enormous security presence. When I walked through the lobby at the Hilton, it was swarming with Secret Service. There are various types of police on every street corner, and a police boat patrolling Lake Michigan. Lake Shore Drive has been lined on both sides with chain link fences, and no traffic is being allowed to cross the park. There are barricades everywhere. Inside Hutchinson Field, the press is going through metal detectors and the platform where Obama is to speak has what appears to be bulletproof glass in front of it.
People lined up for hours to get into the fields – I spoke with Tom Krieglstein, 28, of Chicago, who managed to be first in line by showing up at 7:30 last night. He slept for a bit in a bus station and a hotel lobby, while his brother held his place. “It’s the front row of history, literally, today,’’ he said.
Archie Garomondeh, a 27-year-old Liberian-American, told me he flew to Chicago this morning from his home in Louisville, Ky., in the hopes that he might catch a glimpse of Obama. “I wanted to be here to be a part of making history, and I want to be on the ground where the history will be made,’’ he said. “It is like coming from somewhere, and going to another place. It’s a history-making election.’’
Teri McClain, 41, flew out to Chicago from Seattle without a ticket to the rally; this afternoon she was walking through the crowd wearing a white sandwich board reading “Please take me as your guest to the rally.” She had at least 7 Obama buttons along her neckline, an Obama T-shirt, an Obama doll in her front pocket, and an American flag in her back pocket. McClain (who worries that her name too closely resembles McCain) is a bit of an Obama groupie – she works for Alaska Airlines, so she travels for free, and she said she has been to 18 Obama rallies, has hugged him three times, and has 17 autographs. “I got hooked when he went to Key Arena (in Seattle) in February,’’ she said. “He has brought so many people together.’’
About Political Intelligence
Glen Johnson is Politics Editor at boston.com and lead blogger for "Political Intelligence." He moved to Massachusetts in the fourth grade, and has covered local, state, and national politics for over 25 years. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @globeglen.