By Tamas Soos
The lineup wrapped around the streets. People buzzed and were anxious with restrained excitement.
They clenched their tickets, ready and eager to enter the venue. Soon enough, United States President George W. Bush would take the stage and in Ohio, he is a rock star.
Regardless of where you stand politically, few would pass up an opportunity to see “Dubya” live in action. So when my dad asked if I wanted to go watch a Republican rally in Troy, Ohio, I couldn’t refuse.
We entered the States through Windsor, Ont. and immediately, the atmosphere changed. I remember visiting the States pre 9/11, when the boarder guards were friendly and willing to chit-chat. Post9/11 they mechanically herd you through. Hundreds of billboards lined the highways. One advised drivers that they would be arrested if they didn’t pay child support. Restaurants, gas stations and strip clubs were well represented, too.
Dad and I woke up early the next morning and by 7 a.m. we were on the I75 heading north to Troy. More billboards bombarded drivers. This time though, the billboards were moving.
In America, cars serve the double function of transportation and advertising political slants.
The majority of passing cars were decorated with American flags and ribbon stickers. Yellow ribbons to support the troops. Black ribbons to support soldiers who were MIA, or PoWs. But ribbons displaying the stars and stripes pattern were most popular.
By 8 a.m. I was waiting in line. The crowd was swelling around me, and eventually grew to 25,000 people-it was the largest political rally in Ohio history.
Bush was to speak just off of Walnut Street, which was converted into a mini-market selling only Republican merchandise. Everything Bush- Cheney was for sale and the more you bought the more you saved. One Bush-Cheney button sold for $5 – you could get two for $7. The same principle applied to shirts and everyone was taking advantage of the deals.
At the gates to the town square, a surreal feeling overcame me. As a Canadian, the strict nature of the security was foreign and uncomfortable.
Cell-phones and cameras had to be turned on so security could verify they were in fact electronic equipment and not explosive devices. My poor voice recorder was meticulously scrutinized while department of homeland security officers stood armed at the gates, watching.
Once I passed through the metal detectors, I found myself in the venue, ready for a show and sealed off from the outside world. I was in a bubble, functioning independently from the rest of America. Secret Service officers were scattered or, more likely, carefully placed, throughout the area, and were generally friendly.
They helped as best as they could with directions. The skies above the town square were restricted to a no-fly zone; a precaution to ensure the safety of the president by limiting the chance of an air strike.
A fighter jet could be seen escorting a plane out of the airspace. A single black helicopter circled above the town square. After vanishing out of sight for a few minutes, the helicopter reappeared only to disappear once more.
Local law enforcement and Secret Service were perched on the roofs. Some of the men had large black binoculars and continuously scanned the crowd. Some men carried walkie-talkies and some had large, black sniper rifles.
Bush’s speech was scheduled to start at 10:30 a.m., but it was delayed as the president himself was late. While we waited, many people took the stage, discussing local issues. Then the mayor, followed by the governor, all singing the president’s praises.
But finally, the moment had arrived and we got our first glimpse of Dubya.
“Ladies and gentlemen! George W. Bush,” a speaker announced. The music was drowned out by the cheers. The president looked out to the audience and grinned. He started working the crowd.
“Thank you for inviting me to your great town.” Hysterical cheering. “I have a message for the mayor. Fix the pot holes.”
Even more cheering. The snipers vanished from our minds. Bush grabbed the crowd’s attention as he lunged head first into his “set.” Many have lablled Dubya a poor public speaker, but he has come a long way from the man who was elected in 2000.
His speaking skills have improved since he abandoned the practice of using words that don’t exist or are unfittingly large for his speeches.
In Ohio, he stuck to simple language. He included local references and kept the atmosphere light and upbeat. Dubya told the people of Troy that, of the many reasons to re-elect him, the “most important was so that Laura [Bush] will be first lady for four more years.” In an anthem-like style, chants of “Four more years!” erupted.
Bush smiled as he waited for the crowd to settle down. It was almost like it had been told when to cheer. Bush defended the war on terror using Afghanistan as his case study and emphasized that voting for him promotes democracy around the world.
Prior to the Americans going into Afghanistan, he said, girls there were disallowed from receiving an education. Now, he said, they are attending schools and learning. “Four more years! Four more years!”
The president also defended his actions in Iraq. “Knowing what I know today, I would have made the same decision [to go to war],” he said. “[America] must take threats seriously before they materialize.” “Four more years!” “America and the world are safer because Saddam Hussein is sitting in a prison cell.”
Bush also didn’t miss an opportunity to get in a few digs at his opponent, John Kerry. “There are still a little more than 60 days for [Kerry] to change his mind again.”
Both Bush and Kerry were criticized for mud slinging during their campaigns. But the people of Troy didn’t care. They continued chanting. Those Americans who stand behind their politicians stand behind them firmly – something you don’t often see in Canada. Outside the rally, about a dozen protestors showed up – late – to protest Bush.
On the inside, 11 Kerry-Edwards signs postered a window. The one visible policeman with riot equipment seemed unbothered by the protesters. Bush held another rally in West Chester, Ohio, on Sept. 27, and this time, Dubya drew close to 55,000 people.
For the second time in less than a month, he set a new record for the largest political rally in Ohio.