Obama's Big Fat Greek Setting

By Dana Milbank
Friday, August 29, 2008

DENVER, Aug. 28 It was a ceremony fit for the gods.

Fireworks exploded overhead. A skycam soared through the air the way it does during "Monday Night Football." Strobe lights flashed, spotlights circled. Eighty-four thousand adoring fans, after waiting hours to enter Invesco Field at Mile High, waved flags, tossed beach balls and undulated in a massive human wave.

And, in the middle of it all, stood Barack Obama, accepting the Democratic presidential nomination with "great humility." On a stage with an ancient Greek colonnade.

Well, maybe not so ancient: On closer inspection, the columns turned out to be made of drywall and laminated plywood, giving an overall effect that was more Cheesecake Factory than Parthenon. The 14 pillars, connected by a classical frieze, towered over the delegates, lending the impression that Obama was speaking in front of another classical structure -- like, say, the White House.

From the columns, garnished with two dozen American flags, a royal-blue peninsula led to the podium, tiered like a wedding cake. All that was missing were the laurel crown, the eunuchs and the sacrifice of the white oxen.

Republicans gleefully called it the "Barackopolis." (Technically, the columns were Doric, so a better name might have been the "Barackenon.") The McCain campaign sent out a memo advising people about "proper attire for the Temple of Obama," complete with pictures of togas and robes.

Calling it a temple was a bit over the top. But, then again, it was a night of excess all around.

The fireworks -- literally -- began when smoke and fire shot above the Jumbotron the moment Jennifer Hudson belted out the "rockets' red glare" line of the national anthem. Oprah Winfrey, Susan Sarandon and Anne Hathaway worked the crowd. Stevie Wonder and Sheryl Crow performed. High rollers sipped Stolichnaya in skyboxes. And many of the concession stands ran out of food and drink. Said the cashier at Mile High Pizza on the first level: "These Democrats are hungry."

They certainly are. Ravenous in their desire to reclaim the White House, they took a gamble by moving the last night of the convention to the massive stadium -- and a further gamble by creating the Olympian backdrop for Obama's acceptance speech. John McCain had already drawn blood with his ad likening Obama to a Britney Spears-style celebrity. Obama had invited the problem with a showy overseas trip and such displays of hubris as a faux presidential seal on his lectern. Since then, the Democrat has been laboring to prove that he is a common man.

"I don't know what kind of lives John McCain thinks that celebrities lead, but this has been mine," he said last night as he described his family and his modest upbringing. The conventioneers jumped to their feet.

But Obama's everyman efforts are unlikely to be aided by accepting the nomination in front of Greek-style columns in the middle of a football stadium. Privately, Democrats cringed. They had no John Ashcroft to cover the offending pillars with his famous blue curtains. Luckily, Democrats had the foresight to remove the Air Force One model, the presidential limousine, the full-size replica of the Oval Office and the inauguration gowns that had been on exhibit earlier in the week.

In the end, the stadium and the setting were probably unnecessary, as Obama's acceptance speech, coming on the 45th anniversary of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech, would have been an epic moment even if it had been held in a trailer. On this, even McCain agreed. He put out a magnanimous ad saying to Obama: "How perfect that your nomination [acceptance] would come on this historic day."

But instead of savoring the history-making, Obama aides found themselves answering questions about the columns and the stadium from anxious Democrats and from journalists -- as when Obama campaign manager David Plouffe was asked Thursday in an interview with Washington Post reporters and editors whether he was concerned about the "Grecian columns" and a "carnival atmosphere."

"Not one bit," he replied. "The backdrop is about exactly what President Bush used in 2004."

Well, yes, there were images of pillars behind Bush four years ago. But Bush is also the guy who landed in a flight suit on an aircraft carrier to declare victory in Iraq beneath a "Mission Accomplished" banner.

The football-stadium option also meant that the Democrats had to contend with the daunting logistics of putting more than 84,000 people through security, and the effort teetered on disaster. Attendees waited upward of three hours in lines estimated to extend for miles; empty seats near the top of the stadium suggested that some gave up.

After nightfall, the nominee emerged between the columns, walked out to the wedding cake and waved skyward. He delivered a speech that soared to the heights of Mount Olympus.

"Tonight, I say to the American people, to Democrats and Republicans and independents across this great land: Enough!" he thundered.

Before he finished, Obama served up some Greek mythology. "They claim that our insistence on something larger, something firmer and more honest in our public life is just a Trojan horse for higher taxes and the abandonment of traditional values," he said. "If you don't have a record to run on, then you paint your opponent as someone people should run from. You make a big election about small things."

He didn't say whether he had the Barackopolis in mind.

The speech ended, the nominee gazed heavenward, and red, white and blue fireworks poured from the tops of the columns. Streamers hung over the Doric frieze. Triumphant orchestral music played, and Obama, his running mate, and his family departed through the still-smoking Pillars of Hercules.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company