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On the road with Obama

By Justin Webb

In what could be the deciding week in the battle between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, one campaign team seems to be having all the fun.

Suicide is a serious subject and mass suicide even more so. But we had to laugh (those of us sitting on the press bus inhaling fumes from a dodgy exhaust system) at the start of another day on the road with Barack Obama.

Barack Obama speaking aboard his campaign plane (Photo: AP/Rick Bowmer)
Mr Obama has won the 11 primaries and caucuses since Super Tuesday

"Oh God," someone called out.

"They'll think we did it on purpose if we all die here. They'll think we drank the Kool Aid."

That phrase "drinking the Kool Aid" - as well as recalling the drug fuelled days of the 1960s - is associated with followers of a cult leader Jim Jones who were persuaded by him to commit suicide.

They drank bottles of pop (actually Flavor Aid, not Kool Aid, but Kool Aid has stuck) and the point anyway is that the pop was laced with cyanide.

Nine-hundred and thirteen people died and to this day nobody knows why they did it.

How apt that my journey with the Obama team begins with a Kool Aid reminder because that is the charge you hear over and over again now. A charge growing in intensity as the Tuesday showdown in Texas and Ohio draws close, that the media have drunk the Obama-flavoured fizzy drink.

"Low grade hysteria"

The press pack travelling with any presidential candidate has a feverish atmosphere "halfway between a high school bus trip and a gambler's jet junket to Las Vegas, a giddy camaraderie mixed with fear and low grade hysteria."

Not my words, sadly, and not words written about this campaign, but boy does that description still ring true!

It was actually written by Timothy Crouse whose book The Boys On The Bus deals with the 1972 campaign when it was still boys (or men) and still buses.

Now, of course, planes and girls are involved, but the Crouse book tells an eternal truth about American presidential campaigns that when they succeed everyone on board has a great time. When they crash and burn, everyone gets depressed.

Supporters of Barack Obama cheer at a rally in Ohio (Photo: AP/Rick Bowmer)
In the primaries 80% of African-Americans have backed Mr Obama

At the moment Obama is succeeding and I am not talking about the recent polls or even his chances this week. I am talking about his achievement in reaching this moment of potential history where HE is the person to beat and SHE can find no way of successfully bringing him down to earth.

And his camp followers know it so they are having fun.

Interesting comparisons

A cameraman colleague of mine was telling me the other day about his experience on the Hillary Clinton plane where he tried to take some shots of the interior.

"No," the Clinton people said. "We don't like it."

Hillary Clinton jokes with reporters aboard her campaign plane (Photo: Ap/Carolyn Kaster)
Mrs Clinton needs to win a majority of delegates in Texas and Ohio

And here is the bit that caught my attention.

"The other reporters don't like to be on camera!"

What a fun bunch they sound, hunched in their seats protecting their privacy and writing their acid prose.

On the Obama plane, I can reveal, the atmosphere could not be more different. Drinks are served early and often. The sound of laughter - low grade hysteria remember - echoes up and down the cabin.

At the front you can see Barack himself kneeling on a seat grinning from ear to ear.

Back in the middle section there is chatter about whether the secret service men (very handsome chaps on this flight) adhere to the "wheels up, rings off" rule - or in other words, is there hanky panky to be had with the men with guns.

And at the back of the plane, goodness knows what is going on there.

When we hit turbulence there are screams and more drinks are ordered. At one stage the future president - if that is what he is - comes down the aisle and feigns an effort at maintaining order.

"You don't want me to investigate you back there," he calls.

"That's the wild end of the flight."

Sense of connection

Once he is back in his seat and we are taking off there is an effort to roll an orange from the back of the plane to the front.

John Humphrys would not be allowed near this candidate

The BBC effort is hopeless, but a producer from Fox News scores a bullseye. In first class, the candidate's languid arm plucks the orange from the aisle. There is applause and a sense of connection between us and him.

And yet, of course, there is none.

Part of the genius of the Obama campaign is its discipline and its protection of the man himself from any unhelpful exposure.

He did give an exclusive interview a day or two ago to Entertainment Today, who asked him whether he was teased by his staff. John Humphrys would not be allowed near this candidate.

But I come away from my days on the road with the Obama team with, if I am honest, a very warm feeling about him and his people. They are pleasant to deal with. They are winning and having fun.

And yet, I read the other day that Jim Jones' Kool Aid cult began as a struggle for racial equality and social justice.

One account says, "his followers believed their movement was the solution to the problems of society, many did not distinguish Jones from the movement."

How disconcerting. If I go back on the Obama bus I hope I survive.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday 1 March, 2008 at 1130 GMT on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

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