In November of the year 1996 President William Jefferson Clinton came to Springfield to give a speech in front of City Hall. I was there, and this is what I wrote about it afterwards.
I don't want to make a big deal out of this, but remember the widely reported figure claiming that 25,000 people attended the Election Eve rally in downtown Springfield at which President Clinton spoke? That figure is almost certainly false. There was unquestionably quite a large crowd, especially considering the cold weather, but I strongly suspect that the numbers that were reported to be in attendance that night were exaggerated. I say this because if there had been anything like the 25,000 reported, the exceptional events which ultimately placed me just a stone's throw away from President Clinton could never have occurred.
This my ticket to the event: (click to enlarge)
Here's the way it went down. Professor Richard "The Twig Painter" Doyle of American International College, my brother-in-law Steve Schneider and myself were originally watching the Nov. 3, 1996 rally from a fenced in area enclosing the back half of Court Square. It wasn't a bad location, as we were right up against the fence and so could see and hear quite clearly everything that was taking place on the stage that was set up at the base of the steps of City Hall. However, without special tickets or passes, the security controlled fence kept us from entering the front section of Court Square, where the best views of the proceedings were available. That seemed a shame, because Professor Doyle was hoping to get photographs that he could use to create a painting that would memorialize the President's visit. There was no place in our closed-in section that would allow us to get close enough in order to get photos of sufficient quality to create a painting.
It was from this somewhat distant location that we listened to the first round of warm-up speakers. State Rep. Paul Caron made some forgettable remarks, as did Mayor Albano, but at least the Mayor's comments were redeemed by the fun of seeing him so gosh darn happy. Usually an emotionally reserved man, that evening the Mayor seemed as thrilled as a kid at Fenway who's unexpectedly been invited to watch the game from the dugout.
One unexpected surprise was seeing at the podium "Good Time Charlie" Flaherty, the disgraced former House leader who was forced to resign in the wake of his conviction on felony tax charges. Then again, what would a political rally in Springfield be without at least one convicted felon on hand? Rounding out the sleaze quota that evening was former State Rep. Ray Jordan, better known in some circles as "The Godfather of Mason Square," who was up there talking as innocently as if no seas of controversy had ever swirled around him.
By far the best of the local speakers that night was Hampden County Sheriff Michael Ashe. Years of unchallenged incumbency have made occasions for him to give serious political speeches quite rare, and I had forgotten what a barnburning, almost evangelical speech Ashe is capable of giving when the spirit moves him.
Then, during an interlude when the UMass band was playing and before the President had arrived, something almost surreal happened. Without warning, several security people walked up to the fence directly in front of where we were standing and opened it up wide. We were so surprised we almost didn't have sense enough to step forward, until suddenly we felt pushed by this enormous swelling from behind us. All at once I was propelled forward into a crowd so tightly packed that my arms were pinned helplessly to my side, and I was forced to waddle along in this human wave like a penguin in bondage.
It was genuinely scary, for if I had tripped and fallen, I would have been discovered afterwards as a gooey red smear on the pavement. I think I may even have screamed at one point, but in the roar of the mob I couldn't hear my own voice. The people who were already standing in the front section were understandably resentful of this relentless tide of humanity wedging its way like a Panzer Division into their midst. Yet the force of the crowd behind me was such that it was impossible not to keep going forward. I could not have stopped or turned back had I seen myself advancing on the Gates of Hell.
With unexpected suddenness this relentless forward thrust came to a halt (I assume because they closed the gate). I was amazed to discover where I was. Incredibly, I found myself standing dead center in front of the Presidential podium. Somewhere in that human tidal wave my brother-in-law had been swept away from us in another direction, but the Professor was still by my side, and we looked at one another in disbelief. Had the President sent the secret service to personally escort us to the best location on the premises, they could not have brought us to a better site. Had we been any closer, we would have had to look upward at the podium where the microphones would have blocked our view. Had we been further back, the crowd in front of us would have been in the way. It was uncanny, if I had had a rubber ball in my pocket, I could have easily thrown it and bounced it off the Presidential seal on the podium.
There is only one logical explanation that I can think of for why they went and opened that gate, letting so many of us pour into the front section. That could only have happened if someone decided that there were an unsatisfactory number of people in the fenced-in front section to make the crowd look sufficiently packed for the TV cameras. The order must have gone out to let more people from the back section into the front so as to flesh out the crowd standing in the area before the podium. In any case, nothing like that would have happened if there had been the overflow crowd of 25,000 that was claimed.
I don't blame the organizers of the event for exaggerating the turnout, it was in their best interest to do so if they could get away with it. But shame on our lazy local media for accepting that spin at face value. (I later heard from a well-placed media insider that the President's advance team was surprised and amused by the passive way the local media blindly reported anything they were told. As a joke, the president's people told the local media that the largest crowd of the entire campaign was expected in Springfield. That of course was patently absurd -surely the President was capable of drawing larger crowds in places like oh, New York City? Los Angeles? Supposedly the President's team laughed out loud when they saw that their ridiculous prediction was printed in all seriousness in the Union-News the next day).
Unfortunately, much of what I experienced from my ideal location was anti-climatic. Only Ted Kennedy was in top form, alternating between the persona of a droll Irish bartender and then shouting and waving his arms like an angry union boss. Ted's nephew Joe, the himbo (male bimbo) of Massachusetts politics did what he does best - smiled and waved. He did attempt to speak at one point, but couldn't even remember the Mayor's name, mispronouncing it as "Mayor Albono."
As for the President's address, ABC's David Brinkly put it best in his controversial Election Night commentary, when he said that as a speaker Bill Clinton is "a bore, and will always be a bore." Yet there were a few moments, when the President first stepped to the podium, that were truly magical in a way that not even I could resist. Putting partisanship aside, it's hard to be in the presence of the office once held by Jefferson and Lincoln, Coolidge and Reagan, and not be in awe of the history it represents. With the band playing, the crowd cheering and the majestic columns of City Hall towering in the background, one would have had to have been terribly cynical not to have been moved. It was a proud night for Springfield whatever your political persuasion, and a special occasion for everyone present, whatever the numbers.
After writing about former Valley Advocate reporter Al Giordano recently, some people emailed asking what Al is up to these days. He currently writes for the Huffington Post, and is fighting for credentials to the Democrat Convention to be held in Denver later this year. Read all about it by clicking here.
This weekend I was passing by the Academy of Music in Northampton when I noticed a rare sight - the door was open!
Peeking inside, I saw that the old fashioned concessions stand is still intact.
I hope to see the place open more often! Later at Raos in downtown Amherst I sat at a table that was covered with graffiti.
This afternoon my friend and I were walking down Fearing Street in Amherst when suddenly a torrential downpour occurred. We were forced to run onto a stranger's porch to avoid getting soaked. Fortunately it was just a cloudburst caused by the humidity, and in twenty minutes or so we could leave the porch and continue down Fearing Street. When we reached the little brook that feeds the UMass Campus Pond I was surprised to see that in the storm's aftermath the usually calm brook had become a wildly raging stream.
"When I speak I put on a mask. When I act, I am forced to take it off."