DENVER — Imagine you’re married to a community organizer and instead of dinner for two, five more people drop in and you have to go out on the porch to find room for everybody.
That’s what happened here in Denver Thursday night, as the Democratic National Convention moved outdoors, grew by tens of thousands and transformed a giant football stadium into the nation’s front porch — all to hear Barack Obama deliver his acceptance address as the first African-American ever to be nominated for president by a major party.
Call it Barack being Brueghel. Or “Yes, we can” survive long lines in the summer heat and stage one of the biggest political rallies in American history.
“America, now is not the time for small plans,” Obama told his cheering audience. And there against the front range of the Rockies and the gaudy lights of Invesco Field — still known by the locals as Mile High Stadium — was a foot-stomping, flag-waving, human-wave landscape of all kinds and races.
“Change, Change, Change” read the message on the scoreboard, even as armed security forces, silhouetted against the fading sky, manned stations at the foot of the white statue of the Denver Broncos 'stallion.
Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., whose father had run and failed to win the presidency in the '80s, danced on a chair singing “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s Armani neatness was suddenly splashed across a stadium screen more accustomed to recording long passes and touchdowns. And up in the fifth level “nosebleed” section, Michael Pearson, a black Virginia bail bondsman, was just happy to have a seat.
Pearson, 45, wasn’t yet born when another young Democrat, John F. Kennedy, accepted his party’s nomination at an open event in the Los Angeles Coliseum in the summer of 1960 — best remembered for Kennedy’s “New Frontier” speech. That also drew tens of thousands, but America has changed dramatically since with the 1960s' civil rights movement and the waves of new immigrants who have helped empower Obama.
“It’s so different, now versus then. … You see all religions and all background of people come together. That’s a blessing,” said Pearson. “I have never been so excited about a campaign.”
“This reflects the New America,” film director Spike Lee told Politico. “Look around. There is brown, black, white and yellow. Contrast that with what you will see at the Republican convention next week.”
Obama saw this as well, closing his speech with allusions to another 45 years ago: Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous “I Have a Dream” address at a civil rights rally on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington.
“`We cannot walk alone,’” Obama said, quoting King. “`And as we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall always march ahead. We cannot turn back.’”
After the “celebrity” fallout from his Berlin speech, Obama took some risk with another big-stage, big-crowd event with stars like Jennifer Hudson, Sheryl Crow and Stevie Wonder.
With night falling, Obama entered to the tune of U2’s “City of Blinding Lights,” and as cameras flashed, the stadium fulfilled the song’s lyric: “A city lit by fireflies.” Fireworks followed his 50-minute speech, along with the traditional confetti drop.
But the Illinois senator remains a community organizer at heart, and the multitiered football stadium had been converted into its own meritocracy to entice campaign volunteers.
Delegates and their guests did their best, of course, with floor seats or at the 50-yard line. But closer to the end zone, volunteers who had performed at least six hours of work in a prescribed period were rewarded with tickets. And those who made at least 10 calls from stadium phone banks to urge outsiders to turn on their television sets to see Obama had a chance to move up closer under an elaborate lottery system.
Obama’s communication director, Dan Pfieffer, said that 10 people were chosen to go back and meet Obama as part of a separate e-mail contest, and the 100 winners of the afternoon phone bank lottery got to sit on the floor, front and center.
“This event is a tribute people who didn’t get here because they have a buddy who is a major donor,” said Rep. Artur Davis of Alabama, an early Obama supporter. “This is a tribute to the grass-roots fervor.”
For Bonnie Dodd-Bensen, a 40-year-old speech therapist from Littleton, Colo., it was a first-in-a-lifetime experience. “I’ve never been to a convention before. This is brand new. I’m pretty excited,” she said.
For a Broncos football fan like Gwendolyn Wooten, it was also a chance to sit in a seat she could never afford during the season. A 47-year-old Denver social worker, Wooten said she had thrown herself into volunteer work for Obama long before the convention. “I did it because I want change. It wasn’t about color,” she said.
Still, looking up at the fifth level, she couldn’t help but relish her better view. “I would be way up there. I hate it up there too. It’s colder up there,” she said. “This would be an excellent seat.”
In the run-up to Obama’s appearance, the program seemed calibrated to mix stars, pols, everyday people, punctuated by a film of Obama’s past speeches, played on the stadium’s big screens.
“It’s overstimulating, but in a good way,” said Matt Sutton, an Oregon delegate viewing the scene from the stadium floor.
And even hard-edged Hillary Rodham Clinton hands couldn’t hide their awe at what the political newcomer had pulled off. “You can’t help but be impressed and moved by it,” Clinton’s former campaign communications director, Howard Wolfson, said in an interview. “My hat is off to the Obama campaign.”
“People keep calling Obama a rock star but they got nothing on him,” said Morgan Gengenbaum, 17, who said she waited an hour and half to get into the stadium.
“I like the idea of change. I really wanted to be part of history, though I can’t vote.”