The Detroit News - Obama Skips Political Speech, Asks Prayer for Gustav Victims
Charlie Cain and George Hunter
It was to be a day in which Barack Obama revved up his supporters -- particularly union members -- by walking in the footsteps of Harry Truman, Adlai Stevenson, John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson.
But in two Labor Day events in Michigan Monday, Obama sheathed his attack on Republican John McCain, in deference to those in the path of Hurricane Gustav, asking his supporters to donate to relief agencies. Republicans already had set aside politics for the day, cancelling most of the activities at their national convention in St. Paul.
"Instead of a speech, what I'd like to do is to ask all of us join in some silent prayer for all those Americans who are spending this Labor Day in a shelter waiting for another storm to pass," Obama told what appeared to be many thousands who had marched in the annual Labor Day parade, or waited for him at the parade's end, in Hart Plaza. Detroit Police had no immediate crowd estimate.
He took a similar tack at an afternoon picnic with union members in Monroe.
"Today is not the day for political speeches," Obama said in a Detroit speech lasting just 10 minutes. "I hope you will forgive me and I hope you don't mind."
Obama, who said he was being briefed on Gustav by the Department of Homeland Security, said "there's a time for us to argue politics, but there's a time for us to come together as Americans.
"I know John McCain wants what's best for the people who have been evacuated. I know George Bush wants what's best for them and so do I."
In an e-mail sent to hundreds of thousands of his supporters, Obama said, "Please give whatever you can afford, even $10, to make sure the American Red Cross has the resources to help those in the path of this storm."
Some of those who jammed into Hart Plaza were disappointed that Obama didn't give a red-meat political speech. They were expecting a fiery address like those delivered by Democratic candidates who launched their White House stretch runs at the Detroit Labor Day march in the 1950s, 60s and 70s. Obama was the first to revive the custom since Johnson.
"I wanted to hear how he's going to change our world and put Michigan back on the map. I wanted to hear some Bush-bashing," said Haik Karapetian, a 49-year-old truck driver from Taylor.
But others said they appreciated Obama's approach, given the circumstances.
Larry Simon, a 58-year-old Southfield resident, called Obama's brief remarks "heart warming. I was glad he stayed away from negative politics."
While he passed on shots at McCain, Obama did take the opportunity to pay tribute to organized labor.
"I believe it's important to have a president who doesn't choke on the word 'union,'" he said.
Later Monday, Obama told about 200 people gathered for the Plumbers and Pipefitters Local 671 picnic in Monroe that the country needs to return to a time when everyone pulls together for the common good.
"We are all in this together. We rise and fall as one nation," he said.
Obama was introduced in Detroit by United Auto Workers union President Ron Gettelfinger, who said labor "has to stand shoulder to shoulder with him on the journey to restore America's middle classOther labor leaders attending the march included AFL-CIO President John Sweeney and Teamsters President James Hoffa.The turnout in Detroit was huge and crowds gathered hours before Obama's speech -- some forced to watch on a large TV monitor near the plaza entrance.
Michigan is considered a battleground state, and he needs to do well among the 820,000 unionists who are members of the Democratic base.
McCain is due in Sterling Heights Friday, at a rally at Freedom Hill.
Chris Lawson, 58, of South Rockwood, believes Obama will be better for labor -- even though he's not totally sold on him.
"McCain keeps voting down the minimum wage, so Obama's the man even if I don't really like him," said Lawson, a member of the Boilermakers Local 169 who took part in Monday's observance.
Lawson said he agrees with AFL-CIO international secretary-treasurer Richard Trumka, who at the Democratic Convention said last week said he's concerned some white union members won't vote for Obama because he is black.
"You'll still find prejudice everywhere," Lawson said.
Rob Pellerito, 42, of Novi, has heard the same rumblings.
"I hate to say it and I can't believe that in 2008 people still think this way, but I've had guys tell me they won't vote for him because of his race," said Pellerito as he waited for the parade to step off.
"But then again, I've heard some people say they won't vote for McCain because he has a woman for vice president."