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Sharing a historic moment with strangers Quietly sharing historic moment

August 30, 2008|SANDY BANKS

I figured it would be one of those "Where were you when. . . ?" moments for years to come.

So I wanted to listen to Barack Obama's acceptance speech in a public place on Thursday night, to celebrate with like-minded strangers and take some small measure of what might lie ahead.

There was no shortage of possibilities. The website my.barackobama.com offered a list of "convention watch" gatherings -- from a Beverly Hills manse with "organic popcorn, cold beer" and a comfortable home theater to a "humble but cozy" North Hollywood apartment, where guests were invited to "bring snacks and drinks to share."

But I wanted to draw from a broader spectrum. So I decided to head for the hotels around LAX, the nexus of comings and goings in a region of fluid ethnic boundaries and dizzying diversity.

I imagined business travelers and vacationing families jostling for spots in front of public TVs, international guests and airport workers drawn together by shared politics, curiosity and a sense of history.

Instead, what I got was a reality check.

The desk clerk at the Crowne Plaza Hotel warned me on the phone that a jazz band would be playing in the lounge. So I skipped that hotel and headed for the Holiday Inn.

The bar there was quiet, with about a dozen middle-aged men clustered around a bank of monitors, watching sports on every screen. Here, on opening night of the college football season, sports trumped political theater.

I headed down the block to the LAX Hilton. Here, again, not one of the monitors around the spacious lounge -- and I counted 15 -- was tuned into the convention.

I asked bartender Bob if he planned to switch one of the channels when the speech began. He brushed me off: "They're watching football." He shrugged, nodding his head toward the crowd.

Then he pointed me toward the deli, where a lone customer -- an elderly woman in a green pants suit -- was carefully eating her sandwich, glancing only occasionally at the convention coverage on the deli's big-screen TV.

I was disappointed. I felt hurt that so few people seemed to care and foolish for expecting more. I realized how insular the news business can be; how easy it was for me to assume that what feels momentous in the newsroom will play out the same way on the street.

I took a seat with my friend Johnny at a table close to the TV screen. We could barely hear Obama over the restaurant's piped-in music until a cook came out from behind the counter and turned the volume up. "I want to listen while I'm working," said Leroy Hibbert, a Jamaican who came to this country 15 years ago.

He is confident that the Americans "are about to make history. . . . After eight years of George Bush," he said, shaking his head, "surely they are ready to give Obama a chance."

Then a businessman from Savannah, Ga., slid into a nearby seat and began chatting with us about the speech. He believes Obama will win his home state, which hasn't gone for a Democrat since Jimmy Carter. If Libertarian Bob Barr siphons enough votes from John McCain, Georgia could land in the Obama column.

He's not exactly Obama's demographic -- a Southern, white man heading toward retirement. But he surprised me as he got up to leave. "If Obama doesn't win," he says, "I'm heading for Australia."

I moved to another table to talk to Richard McConnell, a lawyer for Fed-Ex visiting from Memphis, Tenn., on business. He and his wife, a retired minister, are lifelong Democrats. They were Hillary Clinton supporters but had no problem transferring their allegiance to Obama.

A former Marine who was wounded in the Vietnam War, McConnell considers himself a patriot "who cries when I hear 'The Star-Spangled Banner.' "

Like me, he was surprised to find the convention speech a nonevent. "I thought there would be a big crowd down here watching," he said. He had cut short a phone conversation with his wife so he could get down to the lobby in time to find a spot. "I expected it would be standing room only. I was thinking I wouldn't even be able to find a place to eat."

Instead, we sat in a deserted deli, listening to football cheers from the bar next door and wondering what the silence around us meant. "I got the feeling those people would have thrown stones at me if I asked them to change the channel," McConnell said.

Where one person sees history in the making, another sees plain old politics.

It's not like people weren't watching on Thursday. More than 38 million people -- the most to ever watch a political speech at a convention -- tuned in to hear Obama. Maybe my search for a public spectacle was the wrong way to gauge the evening's import, its imprint on history.

Tony Caroselli wound up watching the convention by himself, though he'd offered up his "humble but cozy" apartment to convention watchers online.

An Obama volunteer, he wanted to share the occasion with other supporters -- not like when his Indianapolis Colts won the Super Bowl and he had no one to high-five.

But the solitude didn't diminish for him what it means. The phone calls he's made, the money he's donated, text messages he has sent to show Obama support. "I already feel like I'm helping to make history," he said.

And I realize I got more from my conversation with those two old Southern white guys -- and their thoughtful, heartfelt commentary -- than I would have from a giant Obama party.

--

sandy.banks@latimes.com

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