By BRAD WARTHEN
EDITORIAL PAGE EDITOR
LIKE A ROCK STAR who prefers to do his new stuff, Barack Obama had not played his greatest hit in several weeks.
At least, Kevin Griffis hadn’t heard it for awhile, not until Sen. Obama “pulled it out” at the Corn Palace in Mitchell, S.D., the week that he sewed up the Democratic nomination.
He rocked the house. Like besotted boomers doing the “na, na, na, na-na-na-na” part of “Hey Jude” with Paul McCartney, the fans sang right along.
Mr. Griffis, 34, who spent much of 2007 here in South Carolina handling the press for the Obama campaign, was there when the hit was born.
You’ve heard the story; Mr. Obama has told it often enough. He went to Greenwood on June 15, 2007 — one year ago today — as a favor to S.C. Rep. Anne Parks. He wasn’t having a great day. As he told the crowd at the Corn Palace:
I feel terrible…. It is a miserable day. Pouring down rain, looks awful. I stagger over to the door and I pull open the door and pick up the newspaper and start drinking some coffee and there’s a bad story about me in The New York Times.
I pack up my belongings and go down stairs and as I’m about to get in the car my umbrella blows open and I get soaked. So by the time I’m in the car I am mad, I am sleepy and I’m wet….
“He really was grumpy there that morning,” said Mr. Griffis. But he did the drill, quietly, doggedly, doing what you do when you’ve promised to show up — working the room, one dutiful handshake at a time. “I wasn’t paying attention,” said Mr. Griffis. Just the usual, numb routine.
Suddenly, this little lady — Greenwood County councilwoman Edith Childs, whom Obama describes as just over five feet tall, 65 years old, with “a big church hat” — starts her patented chant: “Fired up!” The Greenwood folks, for whom this is habit, echo the call, which she follows with “Ready to go!”
The senator would later recall being startled: “I jumped.” Mr. Griffis, a quiet, sober-faced young white guy from Atlanta, reacted this way:
“It really kind of scared me — I didn’t know what was going on.”
And he had no idea how the thing would become a rallying cry. For a long time, neither did the rest of the country.
For the next few months, Mr. Griffis recalled last week, the media narrative was all about how Obama wasn’t catching fire, how he was trailing in the polls among black voters in South Carolina — a self-fulfilling perception.
Then, in the last weeks of the year, the narrative changed. In a Dec. 23 column, David Broder of The Washington Post wrote that “The stump speech he has developed in the closing stages of the pre-Christmas campaign is a thing of beauty… Hillary Clinton has nothing to match it.”
It was the speech that climaxed each time with “Fired up… Ready to go!” Reality matching perception, Sen. Obama rose quickly in the polls, and won the Iowa caucuses on Jan. 3.
As the campaign suffered a setback in New Hampshire and moved on to South Carolina, William Safire — former speechwriter for Richard Nixon, and ardent student of words and their power — wrote in The New York Times Magazine on Jan. 20 about the speech and its origins: “That local origin of the inspiring chant, and its familiarity to many voters in South Carolina’s Democratic presidential primary this week, means a lot to the Obama campaign.”
Jim Davenport of The Associated Press (and formerly of The State) reported that Ms. Childs — who insisted to reporters as her fame grew that she was 59, not 65 — got the “Fired up” routine from Nelson Rivers, NAACP field operations chief, and he got it from the late civil rights activist and Charleston native Jondelle Harris Johnson.
But however it started, Obama has taken the chant to undreamt-of places: Des Moines, Iowa. The Corn Palace in Mitchell, S.D. The Democratic nomination for president of the United States.
Long before he got “fired up,” of course, Barack Obama was a gifted and charismatic speaker, one who could get any Democratic crowd “ready to go.” And he’s going up against a Republican who is not a master of the set-piece speech, as he demonstrated when he tried upstaging Sen. Obama on the night he clinched the nomination, and bombed on national television.
So it was that John McCain challenged Mr. Obama to meet him on his turf — the “town hall”-style meeting. On Friday, the campaigns were squabbling over whether the events would even take place.
I hope they do. I had the chance to see how Sen. McCain connected with voters in small venues in South Carolina last year, during the months that his campaign was down and out, according to conventional “wisdom” at the time.
And as Mr. Griffis said last week in Columbia (where he was getting reacquainted with his 4-year-old daughter, after having been away in Virginia, Ohio, Mississippi, Indiana and South Dakota almost every minute since January), such a format plays to his candidate’s strength as well.
“He’s a remarkably empathetic person,” he said, “and so fiercely intelligent,” he shines when given “the opportunity to put that on display.”
I agree. For the first time in many an election cycle, my first choice in both major parties will be on the ballot in the fall. Each of them got to where he is by pulling away from the polarizing force of his respective party.
The nation deserves to see them interact — repeatedly, if possible — in a setting as free of artifice as possible. That would be something for all of us to get fired up about.