South Asian Fundraiser for Senator Obama – August 17, 2008

Note to the curious – Barack Obama has the perfect politician’s handshake – soft, warm and dry. This broke blogger found out for herself thanks to a friend who couldn’t make it to the South Asian and Pacific Islander fundraiser at the Fairmont on Sunday( thanks, Madie!)

Leaving the kids with a babysitter, I set off with some trepidation towards San Francisco. I just hate those steep streets and sure enough on Pine I was gripping the steering wheel really hard and praying that I wouldn't roll backwards into the Bay before I met Obama.

At 3 p.m. there were already a bunch of Obama supporters outside, cordoned off across the street by the police. They carried mostly Obama '08 posters, though there were some on impeachment and some home made ones (O yes, O yes, O yes, O bama).

Inside were a bunch of people holding up Obama signs like limo drivers at the airport. They directed me to the right venue( I heard from one of the attendees later that the campaign actually had 3 other events set up at the hotel – the candidate just went from one to the other – hopefully pulling out the right cue cards at each one- and ended up collecting millions of dollars in one night.)

I didn't think I'd know anybody at the fund raiser and had a fixed smile plastered on my face (everybody did – with furtive looks at the name tag to see if the other person was halfway important – my handwritten name tag obviously signaled a nobody!) I spotted Talat Hasan, who along with husband Kamil was one of the co-chairs for the event. ( Talat and Kamil have been politically active in the area and have now started iForum, an organization that encourages political participation among Asian Americans.) Talat was extremely gracious but looked tired. No surprise – an Indian and his money are not easily parted!

The crowd was predominantly male, so it was a sea of black suits enlivened by the occasional flash of color. Surprisingly, everybody had opted for the blend-in Silicon Valley uniform of dark suit and tie. I would have expected to see a few sherwanis – maybe they did not want to eclipse the candidate. I spoke to a few guests as we waited to enter the venue. Some had brought their kids. 5 year old Saffron  was dumbstruck with excitement at the thought of meeting Obama. 7-year old Rayan Rizvi looked spiffy and had a big grin on his face. The veepstakes were on everyone’s mind and names like Kerry and Clinton were tossed around.

We endured a thorough patting down by the security to finally get in. I munched and drank tea and introduced myself around. It was about 4:30 now and there was no sign of the senator. After a while the intros began. First up was Kamala Harris, the District Attorney of San Francisco,  whose charisma leads me to predict higher office in the not-so-distant future. Talat Hassan followed, then Congressman Mike Honda, Kamil, another co-host and then Steve Westly, who is the California Co-Chair for Obama for America.

At this point the crowd was getting restless. As it is they were not the best of audiences( just the barest of polite laughter at the jokes) and they were not getting their money's worth. I could not help feeling that there would have been much more enthusiasm at a Hillary reception. Maybe it was based on my experiences from the exhausting primary season, maybe it was the month-long barrage of unanswered attacks from the McCain campaign, but even though everyone I spoke to assured me they were big Obama supporters, I felt that the atmosphere could be summed up by one word – resignation( Kya karen, Democrat ke liye to vote karna hi padega). Poor Steve Westly ran out talking points as we waited for  Senator O  and started resorting to stand-up comedy- it brought the first genuine laughter of the afternoon in the crowd.

Eventually, flanked by Secret Service, Senator Obama made an appearance. In the sea of brown he looked very much at home. He flashed his brilliant smile a few times and then got up the podium to speak. He began with a joke about his days in Occidental college with Desi roommates (and how he had become an honorary 'Desi' ). In his dorm, he said with a smile, “Indians and Pakistanis came cause havoc in the university!” He also said he had become quite the expert in cooking dal. An abbreviated stump speech followed. 

Barack Obama's voice, not in oratory mode, is calm and lulling – I was actually getting irritated that he treats most speeches like conversations, or maybe I've heard it all before. He didn't take any q & a's but one enterprising Sardarji shouted out "You be hard on McCain,ok?".

After the speech he circulated a little bit. I managed to squeeze up front and shake his hand, but I could tell that he is not a true-blue politician. He can't fake the sincerity some seasoned pols have when they look into your eyes and assure you that you are the most important person in the world in that moment. He's more like a professor who just wants to get on with his job and realizes he has to do some of this stuff to get to it. He looked distracted throughout, and I later found out he was nursing a cold.  

I remember being more impressed with John Edwards in a 25-dollar fundraiser 10 months ago, (not that that turned out to be good indicator of character) but it seems to me that unless Obama ups his people skills a bit, he might have a real problem connecting in intimate settings like debates. From all accounts McCain turned in a much better populist performance at Rick Warren's Faith Forum and if Obama is gambling that the average American voter wants somebody who actually makes sense as opposed to someone who'll tell them what they want to hear, he is gambling like Kerry did 4 years ago. (Ugh!)

I left before the second event. Outside, the crowd of supporters had  swelled with much more raucous enthusiasm than at the pricey events inside. That’s the kind of hooting and cheering I was expecting at the $2300 fund raiser but I guess a sense of decorum and a feeling of nostalgia for the Clinton years kept the emotions well buttoned up.

Since then, the hard-hitting attacks by Barack Obama on John McCain’s ‘Country Club Economics’ have cheered me up considerably and I feel much more confident about the fighting abilities of the man who ( I hope) will be the next President of the United States. I can’t help feeling that had the fund raiser been this Sunday instead of the last, I would have seen a completely different dynamic in the room.

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