Oxygen (O2) in Montecito

We were among the first to arrive by motor coach and to be dropped off at Oprah’s estate around 3 pm Saturday, September 8, after a short security check-in at Earl Warren Showgrounds. A small brass band serenaded us as the gates slowly opened wide to greet us and then gently closed behind us to prepare for the next group. As we began our short walk along the well-groomed dirt pathway that led to a forested area and then “the meadow,” waiters and waitresses in crisp white aprons offered us our choice of red or white wine, sparkling water, or "electric (vodka-spiked) lemonade" on silver platters. Clearly this setting was a classy use of contrast, combining raw nature and refined elegance, with many more surprises just up ahead.

We entered a grove of Eucalyptus trees – a virtual forested wonderland that had been transformed into a gathering place replete with tall linen-draped cocktail tables and white-capped food stands; if conversation didn’t flow, there was an out: we were serenaded by a mariachi ban.

Each stand served a colorful assortment of picnic goodies including sweet corn on the cob, mini hamburgers, miniature Polish hot dogs, homemade potato chips, guacamole, and fresh baked cookies. The ground was covered with bark, and the flat shoes we had been instructed to wear served their purpose well.

The colors of the day were white and green: green as in grass, as in a “grassroots campaign.” The theme colors wove their way through everything from “Obama” buttons – handed out as one entered the gate – to wheat grass decorations at the food stands, to the “picnic on the grass” on green and white “Obama ‘08” blankets.

An arched arbor beckoned us out onto the sloping back meadow of Oprah’s 42-acre estate, where the warm afternoon sun and long, cushy “meadow-like grass” reminded us again why we had been cautioned to dress in “garden attire” and to “wear flats.” Any woman who scoffed at the warning (a few tried stiletto heels) was walking barefoot (or wishing she was) in no time.

At the bottom of this hillside (which was conservatively the size of a football field) stood the staging area fully prepared for the show that would follow. Halfway up the slope opposite the staging area were more linen-draped tables and chairs arrayed under six raised and shaded wooden-framed gazebos forming a U-shaped backdrop; at least one of them reserved for VIPs and celebrities.

In the middle of the meadow between the stage and the gazebos lay rows of thick, soft, (green and white) “Obama ‘08” two-person blankets – many with little wooden and metal drink and food holders nearby. We dropped a sweater and a jacket on two different blankets to reserve them for four of us later.

To the left of the stage, a huge pond and footbridge graced the property below. High atop the hill, Oprah’s mansion peered down over the entire scene.

A Diverse Crowd

We made our way first to the gazebos to be out of the direct sun and to socialize. From the gazebo, we spotted Oprah waving with other friends from the balcony of her home; afterwards, many of them came down to join us below.

The first two and a half hours of the event were designed strictly for mingling. We could wander anywhere we wanted, within reason (security guards placed in strategic locations defined what was “within reason”). We ventured to the pond and footbridge, walked through the meadow, and engaged in conversation with people who had flown in from all over the country, from as far away as Florida, Michigan, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Washington, D.C., and Illinois, and as close as San Francisco, Los Angeles and Manhattan Beach, to gather with Oprah, Stedman, Barack, and Michelle.

The crowd was made up of CEOs, investment bankers, doctors, lawyers, financial brokers, communications professionals, and people from many other industries, along with law-school and Senatorial campaign friends of Barack Obama’s, and a list of promised celebrities. If one were searching for diversity, one would have found it here; the racial mix appeared to be approximately 45% Caucasian, 45% African-American, with a mix of the remaining races making up the balance.

Among the recognizable notables were George Lucas, Forrest Whitaker, Jasmine Guy, Luis Gossett, Jr., Ellen Pompeo, Linda Evans, Russell Simmons, Kenny "Babyface" Edmonds, Anthony (Tony) Cornelius, Jimmy Connors, Chris Rock, Eric Benet, Dennis Haysbert, Bill Russell, Charles Oakley, The Allstate Guy, and Oprah’s best friend, Gayle King. Whoopie Goldberg and Sydney Poitier were listed as guests and one attendee is 99% certain he spotted Halle Berry.

Obama's finance chairwoman, Julianna Smoot, was present, as was Deborah Hayes, one of Oprah’s top former PR aides. Ms Smoot led a nearly $119-million fundraising effort for the committee responsible for the Democratic takeover of Congress.

Spotted among Oprah’s guests were a few locals, including Michael and Ann Towbes, Vicki Riskin, Terrence and Catherine Ladd, Montecito realtor John Sener and his wife, Linda, marketing and public relations specialist Jonatha King (that would be me), author Patricia Bisch, impressionist painter Arden Rose, author and curator of Chinese Collections Beverley Jackson, Elaine Duffins, and Alan Harrison.

Speeches and Entertainment

At about 5:30 pm, the show began. Oprah introduced “The Two Poets” – a poetic comedy act – to warm up the crowd. Then she introduced Michelle Obama, whom she applauded for being willing to make the sacrifices required of a presidential candidate’s wife, to serve the public, and to take the stinging comments and threats that often accompany the role.

Oprah’s introduction of Barack Obama followed. As Linda Sener put it, “She was passionate, gracious, ‘fully in the moment,’ and intoxicating.” These were some of Oprah’s introductory remarks:

“Those of you who know me know that I don't do this kind of thing. My home in Santa Barbara is sacred to me. This is where Stedman and I lead our private life. I did one event here for Legends, but that's it. … I haven't participated in politics for a long time, because no one inspired me until now. … After all of my years in business I don't trust many people, but I have learned to trust my own instincts. … I believe we have a man here who can make a difference and bring dignity back to the people of the United States. …I believe in destiny; if someone has a calling, there is nothing that can stop that destiny….I want a president who has more than intelligence and (she named a number of values), I also want him to have good sense.” Oprah spoke of Obama's “authenticity, honesty, passion, commitment, and convictions.” She also referenced the $2,300 price tag for the event and said that no one got in without paying. She also said to the crowd, “That was just your entry fee. There is a lot of work to be done.” She made warm jokes about Obama complimenting her home as “nice,” saying, “I think it’s more than nice.”

Obama followed suit in his own 20-30 minute speech with references to the local area as “nice,” and that it was “nice” of Oprah to host this event; he said it was “nice” that so many people had come out on such a “nice” day, cheerfully implying that the word "nice" in every instance was clearly an understatement. He then spoke of the importance of Americans, how power must come from the bottom up, not the top down (hence the “grassroots” aspect of the campaign), and how he wanted to “restore” Americans’ dignity in the world so that America could continue to make a positive difference “in a world that needs hope.”

Linda Sener seemed impressed, calling Obama “mesmerizing, charismatic, inspired and inspiring.” She added, "People may say he is naïve and inexperienced and maybe I am too about politics, but I saw a visionary and a man willing to step into his place and stand up to lead a nation with grace, intelligence, hope, and honesty."

Catherine (Cat) Ladd said of the day, “The mood and energy was great. I loved the different parts of the day: the peaceful reflective setting in the afternoon on the bridge at the pond; the glasses of wine and mingling; and then how the energy changed as soon as Oprah and Obama stepped on the stage. I loved the fact that the event attracted a very sharp group of people from all walks of life, who moved closer to the stage and stood mesmerized as Obama spoke. It was clear that everyone knew why they were there, and that they had a sense of the importance of why they were there.”

Many people at the event said they came to shake Obama’s hand, look him in the eyes and determine if he was truly coming from a place of honesty and authenticity. John Sener said, “I got what I came for. I shook his hand, looked in his eyes and saw conviction. I haven’t felt this way in a long time. For the first time in a long time I’m inspired. His message was about hope and change and I’m ready for it. It makes me again proud to be an American.”

And while almost everyone we spoke to said that they came here either for Obama or to determine if they would like to be “for” Obama, it was clear they also came, as did we, to see and hear the legend that is “Oprah.”

We were fortunate to have chosen just the right blanket on the lawn; after she introduced the next one-hour act of the evening – Stevie Wonder – Oprah walked off the stage and came and sat down one blanket away from us. Stedman joined her. Michelle and Barack Obama also found a blanket in the crowd – a little to the left and closer to the stage. By the end of the concert, nearly everyone was on their feet “rockin’” with the music.

Oprah made everyone feel – all 1,657 us – as though we were just hangin' out in her backyard. (Oprah said that she personally knew only about 100 to 105 of the attendees.) At the end of what had already become a spectacular evening, Oprah announced that “Bebe Winans will now sing us out.”