Three things seemed to be on everyone's mind here at Barack Obama's presidential announcement: his White House bid, the symbol of Abraham Lincoln, and the bitter cold.
And not necessarily in that order.
Obama, in fact, began his speech with a nod to the 16-degrees weather (with a wind chill of 5 degrees), which had forced those in attendance to wear multiple layers of clothes, frozen the ink of reporters’ pens, and sent nearly the entire audience to the one nearby Starbucks for coffee and hot chocolate.
“Let me begin by saying thanks to all you who've traveled from far and wide to brave the cold today,” he said. “I know it’s a little chilly.” (A little chilly?)
The cold, however, didn’t appear to stop the 15,000 to 17,000 supporters -- per the Obama campaign’s estimate -- who had assembled outside the historic Old State Capitol here. Some have referred to Obama as the “rock star” of the Democratic Party. And, perhaps appropriately, the audience participated as if they were at a rock concert, not a political rally.
Rock star atmosphere
Indeed, some supporters wore T-shirts declaring, “Are you ready to Barack?” Also, right before the program began, Van Halen’s “Right Now” blared over the loudspeakers. And when Obama took to the podium, the music in the background was U2’s “City of Blinding Lights.”
Those weren’t the only examples of the rock star-like atmosphere in this usually quiet capital city. The campaign credentialed 525 journalists, and nearly a quarter of those were foreign press. What’s more, television crews began setting up at least 4:00 a.m. C.S.T. -- six hours before the event was to take place.
Memories of Lincoln
But in the Illinois senator’s approximately 21-minute speech, the star he had on his mind was a tall, bearded one from almost 150 years ago: Abraham Lincoln. In fact, the Old State Capitol that served as the backdrop for Obama’s presidential announcement was where Lincoln gave his famous 1858 “House Divided” speech, in which he railed against slavery and how it had torn the nation into two. (“A house divided against itself cannot stand.”)
“The life of a tall, gangly, self-made Springfield lawyer tells us that a different future is possible,” Obama said. “He tells us that there is power in words. He tells us that there is power in conviction. That beneath all the differences of race and region, faith and station, we are one people. He tells us that there is power in hope.”
That is our purpose here today,” he continued. “That is why I'm in this race. Not just to hold an office, but to gather with you to transform a nation.”
Lincoln, of course, is a fitting symbol for someone who is running to become the nation’s first African-American president. He’s also fitting for someone who’s making such a bid with a relatively thin national resume. Like Obama, Lincoln spent eight years serving in the Illinois legislature. And also like Obama, he served just two full years in Congress before running for president.
Yet Obama, his speechwriters, and his event planners might not have considered this: Lincoln gave that 1858 “House Divided” speech after winning his party’s nomination to run for the Senate against Stephen Douglas, and he actually lost that race -- although he did go on to beat Douglas (and others) in the presidential contest just two years later.
Besides that little bit of history, the only thing that didn’t seem to go according to plan were several loud abortion protesters who had assembled just a block away from the event. Displaying large posters that featured aborted fetuses, these people chanted “Life, yes; Obama, no” -- proof that Obama’s desire to transform this nation and the politics it practices won’t be easy.
Mark Murray covers politics for NBC News