Obama speaks in El Dorado

Jon Pic

The collective chattering of teeth could almost be heard as thousands of people – whether supporters, press or just those curious to see the man who could be the next president – braved the sudden freezing winds and snow.

A snap blizzard marked the occasion as Illinois senator and Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama addressed a crowd gathered on Tuesday afternoon in Butler Community College’s gymnasium – not to mention the other overflow rooms on campus.

Once inside the gymnasium, cheers and chants welcomed Obama before he ever stood atop the stage.

Upon taking his position behind the podium, he asked the crowd to have a seat, telling them, “We’re among friends here. We’re family.”

Obama thanked his supporters and those who made the visit possible before getting to the meat of his oration.

“Well, we have been told for many years that we are becoming a more divided nation,” Obama said. “We have been made to believe that differences of race and region, wealth and gender, party and religion, have separated us into warring factions.

“Into red states – that would be Kansas – and blue states made up of individuals with opposing wants and needs and with conflicting hopes and dreams.

“It is a vision of America that’s been exploited and encouraged by pundits and politicians who need this division to score points and win elections. It’s an easy shorthand that a lot of people use to describe our political landscape.

“But it is a vision of America that I am running for president to fundamentally reject,” he told the crowd to assorted cheers. “I reject it not because of blind optimism, but because of a story that I’ve lived.”

He told the attendees of a young man in El Dorado who fell in love with a young woman “down the road in Augusta” who came of age in the midst of the Depression – his grandparents.

“In a time of great uncertainty and great anxiety, my grandparents held on to a simple dream,” he said, “that they could raise my mother in a land of boundless opportunity.

“That their generation’s struggle and sacrifice could give her the freedom to be what she wanted to be, to live how she wanted to live. I am standing here today because that dream was realized.”

He also talked of the struggles of his single mother and the triumphs of his wife Michelle’s working-class family.

“So our family’s story – the story of my grandfather and grandmother, my mother, the story of Michelle and her parents – it’s a story that spans miles and generations, it spans races and realities,” Obama said. “It is a varied and unlikely journey, but one that’s held together by the same simple dream, that is why it’s an American story. That’s why I can stand here and talk about why how this country is more than a collection of red states and blue states, because my story could only happen in the United States of America.”

Over the course of his 45-minute speech, he discussed his plans for presidency, making a host of promises which included making college “affordable for every single American child,” reforming healthcare, shifting the allotment of tax cuts from the rich to the working class, actively researching non-petroleum energy sources, changing the focus of education and helping workers with early preparation for retirement.

“This election is our chance,” Obama said, “to restore the simple dream of those who came before us for another generation of Americans.”

Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius made a surprise appearance to give an “enthusiastic endorsement” of Obama’s campaign for presidency.

“Barack Obama has Midwestern values, values that we know about,” Sebelius said. “He understands how to bring people together across party lines. He understands how to give people hope for the future. He understands the transformational power of education. He will lead with those values.”

Butler President Jackie Vietti discovered Saturday that Obama’s camp was officially planning a visit to the area, giving the college a short time to turn the event around.

“It’s a hallmark of Butler to say ‘yes, we can do this no matter what has to be done to make this happen,’” Vietti said. “We just saw an incredible opportunity for our students and our faculty and staff and the communities around us to experience a presidential candidate.

“I’m understanding that the last time a presidential candidate was in Kansas was in 1968, so 40 years ago. Butler is just thrilled to have played a small role. The stars aligned beautifully.”

Vietti said she thought Obama made “some very salient points,” particularly those that would impact the future of education.

“Those are the ones that struck the greatest chord with me, of course,” she said. “In terms of early childhood education, of valuing our teachers, in terms of focusing on the learning process rather than teaching to the test.”

“I liked it, it was great,” said Jamal Jones, president of Butler’s student council.

Jones said the speech had an impact on him, but his vote could still swing. Particularly he was fond of Obama’s plan to make “education for everyone regardless of the status of the person.”

“I don’t really know,” Jones said. “I’m kind of leaning more toward Obama because of his speech and the plans he’s going to bring forth. I don‘t really know, though.”

“I will remember this as long as I have memory,” said Sheila Johnson. “This was awesome to have this in El Dorado, Kansas on Kansas Day. I’m still thinking ‘this isn’t happening, it’s all a dream.’”

Johnson said she’d first heard about Obama while watching The Charlie Rose Show on PBS in 2005.

“He was interviewing this young man who was a freshman Senator from Illinois named Barack Obama,” Johnson said. “I had to wait until they wrote it on the screen so I could write it down so I would remember it. I thought ‘oh, we’re going to hear more from him.’ By golly, we have!”

She recalls while watching him on TV, “everything he said was so rational, so reasonable. I was just hooked.”

Briony Barnes was asked to sit on stage during the speech. She called his visit to the college a “once-in-a-life time opportunity.”

“I think I got lucky,” she said. “I am very excited about his ideas. I was leaning toward Obama, now I’m pretty sure I will definitely vote for Obama.”

Having worked in a hospital, she said, Barnes is excited about Obama’s ideas on healthcare reform.

“I’ve seen people go into debt,” Barnes said.

Ron Koppenhaver was also among the crowd, cheering for Obama.

“He’s right on in all the issues,” Koppenhaver said. “He’s been my candidate for a long time now. I hope he can continue to gain support.

“I think it’d be fantastic if Kansas would finally vote for a democrat in a presidential election.”

Specifically, Koppenhaver said, the first issue he and Obama agree on is opposition of the war in Iraq.

“That’s probably the most important,” he said. “But I think he’s pretty much right on (in regard to) education, health care, everything … tax (breaks) for the people who really need them and not the super-wealthy.”

Koppenhaver hopes the support for Obama in El Dorado Tuesday is indicative of his popularity.

“The fact that people were willing to stand for two hours out there in that terrible cold is just amazing,” Koppenhaver said. “It just shows the kind of enthusiasm that he’s bringing. I just don’t think any other candidate could have done that.”

Before the speech in the gymnasium Obama made a point of trekking over to the overflow rooms and greeting and shaking hands with some of the eager fans.

After the speech, Susie’s Chili Parlor welcomed the senator for a late lunch.

One point that was echoed throughout the afternoon was the importance of turning out for Kansas’ Democratic Caucus on Feb. 5. For El Doradoans, the nearest will be held in the Civic Center next Tuesday. Doors open at 6 p.m. and will lock at 7.

El Dorado Times