Obama in a Hurry
By Alec MacGillis
CHICAGO -- Add this to the stresses of a primary campaign that has been going on nearly a year now, with three or more events a day and nary a break for rest: getting to the memorial service on time.
And not just any memorial service. Barack Obama and a handful of staff members rushed as fast as they could Sunday night to make it from a campaign rally in Toledo to the service at Northern Illinois University for the five students slain in a classroom by a gunman 10 days ago. The 4:20 p.m. Eastern time rally in Toledo had started late because Obama had taken time to greet some of the residents who had not made it into the packed fieldhouse at the University of Toledo -- something he often tries to do for those left outside -- and because the introductory speakers had gone on way longer than planned.
He and a few staff members rushed to a chartered Gulfstream jet waiting at the Toledo airport and, on landing in DeKalb, Ill., at 6:50 Central time, raced across snow-covered farmland to the campus.
They had been told the event was running slightly behind its 7 p.m. start time, but when they arrived about 7:12, they heard a somber voice carrying through the entrance tunnel of the arena: The university president, John G. Peters, had just begun the service.
Obama was visibly irked and chagrined to have missed the start and waited behind a curtain in an entrance tunnel for an appropriate moment to enter, pacing back and forth while the president spoke. A university official came through the curtain and apologized for starting the event without him, and Obama apologized in return for his lateness and said he did not want to enter until he could do so unobtrusively.
He bowed his head while the president's wife, Barbara Peters, read the names of the fallen, and during the invocation, and then entered the hall during a selection by the university choir, at 7:25. He slipped up steps on the rear side of the dais and stooped over as he crossed the dais to take a seat in the second of two rows of seats, the row he'd have sat in even if he had been on time.
Sen. Dick Durbin, the senior Illinois senator, acknowledged Obama when it came time for him to give some remarks on behalf of the state's congressional delegation. Obama did not speak, as had been decided before.
At the end of the roughly hour-long service, Obama descended to the floor to greet members of the victims' families, who had sat in the front two rows on the floor, holding white roses. He shook their hands, embraced several, expressed his condolences, and asked them to let him know "if there is anything I can do."
Several family members said they were grateful that Obama had taken time from the campaign trail to attend. Gene Mace, the grandfather of victim Ryanne Mace, and someone who had met Obama several times previously, said he was untroubled by Obama's late arrival, adding that he had not been sure whether Obama was planning to attend and did not notice when he slipped in. "I think everyone will understand," he said. "I think everyone will appreciate that he got here at all."
On the way out, Obama waved briefly to those of the 12,000 in attendance who had gathered near the tunnel to wave to him and snap pictures, and he signed a few autographs. But there was not a hint of the smile that usually is flashed in such moments on the trail. He got back in his SUV and sped back across the fields.
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