Barack Obama is black. Science has confirmed this.
Butte, Montana, on the other hand, is white. Lawn-art-and-RVs white. Extraordinarily white, absurdly white, 96 percent white! I was born and grew up in Butte, so I should know. Before age 14, I had never laid eyes on a bona fide black person who wasn't a Cosby.
So how did it come to pass that, in the blistering July sun, I enjoyed Butte's annual July 4 Independence Day Parade sitting less than three feet from Barack frickin' Obama—The Man Who Just Might Save The World!—and his entire miscegenetic brood? And also Mama Obama whose name is Michelle, their two young daughters, Malia and Sasha, Obama's half-sister, Maya, her Chinese-Canadian husband, Konrad, and their little girl, Suhaila? Why did Barack Obama—in the mad heat of a presidential campaign—drag his entire family to celebrate America's most American of holidays in a conservative backwoods with only three sad little electoral votes and almost no appreciable sway in the course of presidential doings?
When the Obama campaign announced that its candidate—our candidate!—would be spending/enduring Friday, July 4, in Butte, pundits and politicos fussed and clamored and posited many theories on why, most of them crap. Only The Stranger was brave enough to send me home to unravel the mystery of it all.
1. The Journey.
I'm smashed up against the window, praying for my life, hoping beyond hope that the prehistoric, itsy-bitsy, two-engine, dual-propellered puke bucket I'm sitting in won't crack open and drop me screaming into the sky. The only plane that Alaska/Horizon Air feels fit to spare for a trip to Butte is the size of a Toyota. I'm trying not to barf. Falling asleep is clearly my best option for survival, but my seatmate, damn it, is a Chatty Cathy.
"Whatcha doing in Butte?" he asks.
"I'm following Barack Obama—he's marching in Butte's Fourth of July Parade," responds I.
"Obama? Really? Wow. That's awesome," he says. "Yeah." Pause. Beat. "I really like Hillary."
Now everyone knows that I was originally Hillary's boy. It's not that I didn't appreciate Obama (I love almost everyone Oprah has invented, barring Dr. fucking Phil), I simply felt that what this country needs is a nice pair of boobs in the Oval Office, not more balls—of whatever color.
Of course, I say none of this to my seatmate. I close my eyes (the universal gesture of "Leave me the fuck alone!") and, despite the plane's wretched heavings, I gently drift off to sleep and have a really strange dream about Jesus.
Three hours later, I touch down in Butte and begin my hunt for Our First Black President.
2. Butte, um, "America."
Butte is a tough town.
A rough town, a poor town. But it hasn't always been the whitest place in the universe: It was once a hopping hotbed of ethnicities of all sorts—mostly the Irish, who drank, fought, and worked the copper mines; and the Chinese, who did laundry, made noodles, and ran a thriving underground trade in opium.
The influx of miners gave Butte a reputation as a fabulous den of sin where any vice could be had. And so it was. The city's saloon and red-light district were infamous, and the last whorehouse didn't close until the late 1980s. The town has been literally and metaphorically depressed ever since.
Butte takes its holidays most seriously. St. Patrick's Day, weirdly, is the biggest. Every March 17, the entire city shuts down, turns green, and gets shitty drunk—drunken grade-schoolers, drunken grandmas, drunken houseplants. The Fourth of July is Butte's second-most-important holiday. Front yards fill up with inflatable Uncle Sams, backyards sprout barbecues, American flags pop up like mushrooms, and acres of red, white, and blue bunting are unleashed without pity. The parade and fireworks show are worthy of a much grander place.
Butte has a habit of calling itself "Butte, America." Who is to blame for this impudence? One "President" Reagan, if you'll pardon the expression, who christened Butte the "All-American City" sometime in the mid 1980s. At the time, Butte was depressed, polluted, and had a gigantic, mile-deep hole at its center that was rapidly filling with toxic sludge. So perhaps by Reagan's twisted yardstick, Butte was the All-American City. Butte still is.
Reagan, of course, is not. Not anymore.
3. The Man, Some Myths.
According to early intelligence, Obama is going to lead Butte's Fourth of July parade. I plan to follow him along the parade route, hidden in the crowd. I will observe the reactions of the locals, and take notes.
Moments after I arrive, however, I learn that Obama has opted out at the last minute; the man who won't wear a flag pin on his lapel or put his hand over his heart during the pledge of a grievance isn't going to march in Butte's Fourth of July parade! His new plan is to sit safely in a well-protected designated area and watch the damn thing go by. No satisfying reason is given. There are rumors claiming that the amount of death threats against Obama's life has been greater than what could normally be expected. But nothing is confirmable, and among the Secret Service agents I quiz, the word is "mum." Naturally.
I'm going to have to replan my attack.
I wake up at the crack of dawn on the Fourth and begin calling Obama's press office—I have to get into that restricted area with the man himself! And the woman herself! And the children themselves! I have to crash the postparade picnic reception! I drop names! Pull strings! Lie a little, maybe! And within the hour, I'm sitting in the press area with the national press.
Obama's schedule, we are told, is simple: The Obama family will appear any second and stand atop a blue X painted on the street in front of us. Obama will speechify for precisely five minutes, then skitter off to the bleachers set up for him and his family nearby. (I'm to follow them there and then observe.) Obama and family will sit and watch the endless snake of floats, flatbed trucks, and vintage cars for exactly 45 minutes, and then it is off to the picnic.
Suddenly, a great cheer goes up in the crowd, and Obama and family appear. It is my first in-person look at the man.
"Hello, Butte, Montana!" he yells to the crowd. "I'm trying to think if there's a better place in America to celebrate the Fourth of July!"
Obama then makes a grand, sweeping gesture toward the crowd, which, of course, goes batshit.
When the roar finally dies down, Obama apologizes for not marching. "This is the first parade where I haven't walked," he explains. "The problem is, if we start walking then the Secret Service was going to have everybody put their hands up the whole parade route."
Is this a confirmation of the death-threat rumors? Is some psychotic Butte-ician gunning for the man? If so, Mr. President-To-Be seems totally unperturbed. He stands waving and smiling and ignoring the sharpshooters—the ones on his side—who are perched on every rooftop. And then he addresses the other great riddle of his visit: Why Butte? Why the hell Butte?
"Today is my daughter Malia's 10th birthday," he says. "When we visited in April, she fell in love with Butte and she insisted that we celebrate her birthday here!"
This is his daughter's fault?
The crowd goes insane again. And like the theories put forth by pundits about the true motivation for Obama's appearance in Butte—he came to piss off McCain! Butte is politically important somehow! he has brain damage!—it sounds like total crap. But the crowd laughs and cheers, and then, as if it had been rehearsed (it hadn't), burst forth with a serenade of "Happy Birthday," as Malia blushes and waves and squiggles. It is disgustingly charming.
It bears noting that young Miss Obama's birthday is the same day that contemptible old bastard Jesse Helms finally (FINALLY!!!) dropped dead and went to hell. I am not sure why it bears noting, but I'm keeping my eye on this girl.
5. The Picnic, The Meeting.
After exactly 45 minutes of basic Fourth-of-July parading, the Obama clan is swept off to the picnic reception. I follow.
The turnout at the picnic is astonishingly meager. This is blamed on the last-minuteness of it all. Nobody even knew he was coming until practically the night before, and then a false report went out that tickets were sold out—a barefaced lie. By the time many people make it through security, Obama's speaking is over and he is on his way out. Obama stands and gives the standard lines: "The fierce urgency of now!" and "End the war in a thoughtful, careful manner!" and so forth. But the power of seeing him repeat himself in person, close up, is astonishing.
His charisma is bigger than both of us.
"The country is at a crossroad and people need to make a choice!" he concludes. "And now, I'm going to have a hot dog."
And so he did.
No private time is scheduled for the press, so I do what I have to do: I slip off my press pass, shove it in my pocket, and disappear into the small crowd. I stand in line. After 15 minutes, I'm shaking the hand of Our Chocolate Kennedy, looking straight into those big gorgeous eyes. I say the only thing I CAN say.
"Senator Obama? Any word on a running mate? How about me?"
He laughs. Really laughs! It is fucking adorable.
"I'll consider it," he says. I'm hypnotized. I think I actually blush. And before I know it, our moment is over.
I don't come down for two days.
6. Journey's End.
On the return Seattle flight, I'm still smashed against the window and worried for my life, but I am abuzz with post-Obama afterglow. The chatty girl sitting next to me asks what I had been doing in Butte. I tell her.
"Obama? Really?! Oh my God..." she says. Pause. Beat. "I love him!"
"I know," says I. "I know."