Published by Esquire in 2008
The cynic knows he'll never make Oshkosh. He took the wrong exit and went too far north, and now he has to double back. He gives up, finally, and turns down County Road S in central Wisconsin, looking for a place where he can park and listen to the speech on the radio. It has warmed up well into the double digits, and the snow is sliding slowly off the roofs of the barns along the way.
The speech is not going to be anything the cynic hasn't heard over the past week, in four or five different places all over the state, on the last really good week Barack Obama will have in his campaign to be president of the United States. He's running up the score in Wisconsin, the campaign of Hillary Rodham Clinton having virtually abandoned its efforts when the polls went sour.
The country is not yet familiar with the words of the Reverend Jeremiah Wright. Tony Rezko isn't on trial in Chicago yet. Obama has not yet collided with the bitter small-town gunmen of Pennsylvania. There's a brief, silly dustup about whether Obama has lifted one of his applause lines -- "Don't tell me words don't matter!" -- from the campaign of Governor Deval Patrick of Massachusetts, who happens to be one of his best friends and most enthusiastic supporters. But it dies aborning, and he rolls through Wisconsin on golden wheels, talking about hope and an America free from rancor and bitterness and partisan strife. The cynic drives deeper into the farm-quilted countryside and thinks to himself, Yeah, sure, absolutely. In a place like this, the cynic knows, you can see trouble coming from miles off.
The cynic likes the stump speech, even the fourth time around, and even though it's oddly impervious to the immediate events of the day. The previous day, a gunman had shot up the campus of Northern Illinois University, not far from the Wisconsin border. At the very least, he thought, this was a divisive act that would be of great rhetorical utility, given the theme of the Obama campaign. Flog your cause with the dead, the cynic thought. But it was barely mentioned in the candidate's speeches that day, and the day after that, and the cynic was disappointed.