Video: Not-So-Close Encounters of the Michelle Obama Kind
In this week's fresh edition of Orlando Weekly, I take a break from my usual arts and entertainment topics and devote my Live Active Cultures column to the stagecraft of the current presidential campaign. I wouldn't presume to wade into arguments over policy or principles, but I am particularly fascinated by the show biz acumen (or lack thereof) displayed by our local organizations supporting the national candidates.
As a result of my curiosity (and my wife's urging), last Saturday I attempted to secure tickets to see First Lady Michelle Obama's “grassroots” rally at UCF yesterday. Thanks to the organizational inefficiency of Obama's downtown Orlando office, I found myself ensnared in an aggravating clusterf@&k of epic proportions (which you can read about in detail in the latest LAC) but after finally snagging my passes, I thought I was in the clear. Oh, how I was wrong.
To be clear, it was completely my own fault that my experience at UCF on Tuesday started off on the wrong foot. I neglected to bring enough cash for the campus parking garage, and had to go back home to get some, so I didn't arrive until an hour after the venue doors opened at 3pm. At first that seemed a blessing in disguise, since the queue of waiting ticket holders still stretched outside along the front of the arena facade. I joined the crowd, and quickly found a campaign worker who assured me that there was plenty of room inside for everyone with a ticket. That assertion, which turned out to be absurdly inaccurate, was repeated several times over the following hours by numerous Obama representatives. I was also surprised to discover that I could not enter unless I provided my private phone number; guess I'm now in for a flood of fundraising calls.
Having surrendered my personal data, I embarked on an achingly slow tour through the bowels of UCF Arena, as the sweating crowd inched slowly down unglamorous service corridors towards the security checkpoint. After about 45 minutes in line, I finally realized that the several-thousand-strong audience wasn't being aimed towards the ample arena (which was bafflingly vacant except for a couple summer camp kids bouncing volleyballs around) but instead was being crammed into the undersized basketball venue.
Another 45 minutes later, I discovered the reason why the line's pace was so leisurely. Just before approaching the security inspection, the queue was being split into two lines, then recombined back into one at a doorway just a dozen feet further down the hall. Like a poorly engineered highway construction project, the irrational division and mangled merge point resulted in the kind of unnecessary bottleneck that would give any experienced event organizer an embolism.
Compounding the problem was the uniformed Secret Service staff, who seem to have found exciting new way to make their security inspections even less efficient and effective than the TSA's. As a frequent flyer, I've never seen so many officers needed to do so little; the grade-school children ahead of me were subjected to rigorous scrutiny, but no one questioned the potentially-suspicious iPhone backup battery I was carrying. The only thing they did seem to be aware of was people taking pictures; despite “cameras allowed” being clearly printed on our tickets, an agent demanded I delete my image after snapping a picture in his vicinity.
As it turned out, I was the very last person allowed into the building that day. Despite repeated announcements that there was room for all, security closed the doors immediately after I stepped inside, shutting out several hundred who had waited in line for an hour and a half or more. Just as I thought “lucky me,” I found myself herded livestock-like into a gymnasium with no sign of Michelle. This “overflow room” offered no way to hear or see the event, except through a half-open doorway barred by a security guard and choked with fellow craning overflowees. Perhaps to ensure that we weren't lonely, a squad of junior volleyballers also joined us in the gym, bouncing balls loudly enough to drown out the pre-show pop music barely bleeding in from the other side of the wall.
At this point, many of my fellow attendees became fed up and attempted to leave our holding cell, only to be informed that if they exited they would not be let back in the building. Accurate information on what was happening (or why rows of seats were being left empty while we wiggled like canned sardines) was impossible to draw from anyone with an Obama badge. The only communicative official I encountered all day was a UCF safety officer, who was “sweating” because the campaign was trying to overload an underbuilt balcony (the venue's maximum fire code capacity of 1500 with seats appeared easily exceeded to me).
One hour after the originally announced start time, a muted roar from the crowd next door alerted us to the First Lady's arrival. By extending my camera-clutching hand overhead, I managed to capture the following shaky-cam video of her speech, though it's mostly inaudible due to the vocal audience around me. Her 25-minute remarks combined her standard stump speech advocating education, strong families, hard work, and personal responsibility (you know, scary socialist stuff) with exhortations for students to “tell people what Barack is doing” on behalf of students and women. More importantly, Michelle wore a flattering sea-foam green gown with matching shoes and bare shoulders (natch).
From what I could hear, Michelle Obama received a warm reception from those down front who could see her, and I'm sure the secret service bubble she travels in made her visit seem smooth as butter from her perspective. So whoever was responsible for the dysfunctional disorganization and maddening misinformation — not to mention the distribution of far more tickets than they had room for in this ill-chosen venue — will likely get a pat on the back, instead of becoming unemployed as they've earned. Sadly, while the individual volunteers I interacted were uniformly friendly and enthusiastic, those above them need to visit an Orlando theme park ASAP for some education on how to manage masses efficiently.
I'm sure I could have pulled the press card and gotten myself a better view, but I wanted to see how the average voter is treated. And to be clear, I don't know that the lack of respect shown is a partisan problem; I'd love to see how a Romney event compares in execution. At least when an airline overbooks, they give bumped passengers a flight voucher; when an Obama does it, you don't even get peanuts.