A Gathering of the Hopeful


MARINA, CALIFORNIA – In cluttered room above a strip mall in Marina last Saturday, 31 volunteers made clear why, win or lose, the Obama campaign is igniting a passion among many Americans that has been doused for decades.

"I've never done anything like this," said Ginny Miller shyly, as she waited for a laptop to give her another name from a database of registered Democrats and Independents so she could place her next phone call. Miller, a dental hygienist who lives in Pacific Grove, says Iowa was the turning point. "My sister and I watched Sen. Obama's victory speech that night and I began to cry. I was planning to vote for Hillary Clinton, but Obama's speech gave me goose bumps."

David Lyon of Pebble Beach was sitting on the floor in the opposite corner of the room, his deep voice cutting through the hash of a dozen people speaking at once. Lyon spent most of the last 33 years in the diplomatic corps, serving in American embassies in eight different countries – prohibited by law from working on political campaigns. "I retired last year," he explained. "I read Obama's book 'Audacity of Hope,' and it gave me hope. I think we need more of that."

People who have watched Barack Obama in person say his style and substance have an electrifying effect. Critics insist that his message is still incomplete, lacking detailed plans for a nation sorely in need of, yes, change.

But as the local Obama volunteers dialed their cell phones, hoping to reach someone receptive to a pep talk about the importance of voting on Feb. 5, they weren’t worrying about policy details. They seemed to be feeding off each other’s enthusiasm.

“I became a U.S. citizen two years ago, so this is my first presidential election,” said a glowing young lady named Cristina Ilangakoon, now living in Monterey. Born and raised in Sri Lanka, and having traveled widely before settling here, she expressed dismay about America’s tarnished image around the world. “I’m inspired by Barack. I think the world will welcome him.”

As new volunteers squeezed into the room, Quinn Gardner, the precinct captain, decided he’d need to rush home for more chairs. The operation has no budget, he explained, so volunteers were asked to bring their own laptops, cell phones, pencils and paper. But most forgot to bring chairs.

“This is about as grassroots as it gets,” said Gardner, who works as a regional manager for a beer company. “We expected about a dozen volunteers to show up today and we’ve had three times that many.”

Those of us old enough to recall the magic of the Kennedy years have long wished for its return. Not so much because of policy, but for purpose. Kennedy’s Camelot was also about change – a change in the nation’s collective spirit.

“I have never had a president who inspired me the way people tell me that my father inspired them,” writes Caroline Kennedy in a column for The New York Times. Her stirring endorsement of Sen. Obama included the observation, “Sometimes it takes a while to recognize that someone has a special ability to get us to believe in ourselves…”

By 4 p.m., as some of the Obama workers were drifting out, one young man managed to punch up CNN on his laptop. “They’re giving South Carolina to Obama,” he exclaimed. There were whoops of joy from the volunteers.

“We’re celebrating at 5:30 at the Hyatt,” announced Quinn, the beer man. “And the bartender’s giving us a 15-percent discount.”

Maybe it wasn’t Camelot. But for this small band of believers in the Obama phone room, there was a bit of magic in Marina.

© Peter Funt. This article first appeared in The Monterey Herald.

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