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Backstage with Barack

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WASHINGTON —The subject of the email was "I want to meet Allen" and the sender was Barack Obama.

"This may be our toughest fight yet," my web friend wrote. "I want to meet three supporters like you backstage at a rally in Las Vegas — one of the last big rallies of this campaign.

"Please make a $3 donation now to be automatically entered to win a trip to be at my side at the rally in Vegas."

The email went on to describe a meeting that Obama held, just before his acceptance speech at the Mile High football stadium in Denver in 2008, with 10 fervent supporters whose names had been chosen from the millions who sent him a campaign donation.

"I still remember the time we spent together," the president wrote, "because these are the people, like you, who stood with me in 2008, and got me through the tough fights since… . This movement has always been about more than me."

I entered the contest. And I figured that, since I am certain to win and spend an evening at the president’s side in Sin City, I should get some advice from previous winners.

So I called and emailed the Backstage Ten and asked if they still adored the president, or if, like millions of other American voters on the eve of the Democrats’ (and Obama’s) looming electoral repudiation, they already had defriended their BFF-In-Chief.

What I heard in reply were men and women defiantly singing Dido’s White Flag: "I will go down with this ship…"

There was this from Anne Rector, a retired federal budget analyst in Indianapolis:

"I still support him, unabashedly. I think he has done a magnificent job considering this country had been dismantled and almost destroyed."

And Lenny Julius, a retired naval officer, originally from the Bronx, now lounging on the powdery Carolina beaches, said:

"I’m still an Obama guy. If you look at the policy side of things, he’s already done more than the last two presidents combined, including Bill Clinton. On the politics side of it, he’s been overwhelmed by what I feel is nonsense. It goes back to last summer with all that insanity going on at various meetings about health care. I guess if you pile enough crap up long enough it starts to smell."

I received this note from Holly Miowak Stebing, an Inupiaq Eskimo from Alaska now working as the native undergraduate recruiter at Stanford University in California:

"Overall, I have been very pleased with President Obama’s concern over national and international issues. I continue to look to Obama as a leader for the U.S. and as an excellent role model. I think the fact that he has been the first U.S. president to win the Nobel Peace Prize is pretty amazing and even awe-inspiring."

(Actually, he wasn’t. Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson and Jimmy Carter all received the award, though not while they were in office. But what do they know at Stanford?)

The Backstage Ten had not been selected at random. Ms. Rector was a longtime partisan, with a Democratic U.S. senator and a member of the House of Representatives on her family tree. Lt. Commander Julius had met John McCain in passing when they both were on active duty during the Vietnam War, but by 2008, he publicly was supporting Mr. McCain’s opponent.

Eric Melder of Pennsylvania was a fundamentalist Christian — "but not one of the nut ones" — who had turned away from Republican Mike Huckabee to laud Obama’s candidacy and win a trip to Denver after sending two donations of $25 each.

"When I voted for Obama, I didn’t vote him for two years or four years, I voted for eight," Melder told me. "Obama is calm, cool, competent and collected and I’m quite sure he will excel if we ever must face another national emergency like 9/11. "Unfortunately, that’s probably what it will take for Americans to respect and support our president, and follow his lead."

On one thing, the Backstage Ten (or at least these four) agreed: Obama had been too cool, much too hip for the house. The movement ALWAYS had been about him, and on election day 2010, it still would be, even though he wasn’t running.

"The mandate and the excitement that he had in 2008, he didn’t take that out for a spin," Eric Melder said. "He gave up too quick. I think they went in a little soft on leadership style. I assumed that, being from Chicago, they would know how it’s done in America.

"You can’t just have power, you’ve got to WIELD it. The best government of all is a benevolent monarchy. The trouble with a monarchy is their kids become jerks."

"He’s tried to bring government back to a PROPER government," Anne Melder said. "I’m disappointed that he has not been a little more proactive in tooting his own horn. The government is not there to interfere. It’s there to support and to supply."

What do you think about the people who oppose him? I asked her.

"I think they’re traitors, or at least treasonous," she replied. "To call a man a Marxist when he saved General Motors single-handedly is just asinine. Barack Obama may be charismatic, but that’s not HIS fault."

"Part of the problem is that a logical, rational person, at a certain level, believes there is goodness in every one," Lenny Julius said. "Obama didn’t realize until it was too late that the Republicans in the Senate were his enemies."

Ten minutes in a room with Barack Obama, these folks agreed, had been unforgettable.

"He was so relaxed, yet this was the biggest moment of his life," Anne Rector said. (This was high praise from a woman who also had met Bill Clinton, and who met and revered Gordon Lightfoot, especially when he sang that line from Carefree Highway: "Her name was Ann and I’ll be damned if I recall her face…")

I checked my email again. It was "Please donate $3 or more to be automatically entered to win a trip to Las Vegas to meet me backstage."

I scrolled down to the fine print. "Approximate combined retail value $1,200."

I clicked the link and crossed my fingers. This contest was like life itself, I thought: Odds of winning vary. Some conditions apply.


Allen Abel is a Brooklyn-born Canadian journalist based in Washington, D.C.

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