Talking Taboo with Obama at 30,000 Feet
Corrected 12:49 p.m.
By Alec MacGillis
PORTLAND, ORE. -- So this is what a presidential candidate in the homestretch toward his party's nomination looks like. Barack Obama, who has generally avoided spending more time than he needs to fraternizing with the reporters and photographers on his tail, last night retreated to the press section of his plane for an unlikely and potentially risky event: an extended game of Taboo.
The game, as some readers may know, is a word-association variation on charades: A player draws a card with a word, name or phrase on it and must then, under time pressure, offer a definition to draw his teammates into identifying the mystery term, but without resorting to five "taboo" words listed on the card. For instance, he or she must define "caboose" without use of the words "little" or "red" or "train."
The game has of late become a pastime of the media pack's "embeds," the twenty-something journalists tasked by the networks and cable news channels to track the candidates for months on end. Several had suggested to campaign aides that the candidate join in, and to the embeds' surprise, early in the long flight from the District to Portland last night, he strolled back and pronounced himself up for the contest, which he said he was new to.
And through two rather long rounds of the game, he proceeded to take pleasure in it -- or at least feign pleasure to gratify the young'uns -- which could either be attributed to his competitive nature or to his higher spirits and sense of relief following Tuesday's primaries. With his red necktie pulled loose, Obama listened intently and shouted out answers as his teammates, campaign staffers, had their turn at providing definitions; he cackled when members of the other team, the embeds and a couple print reporters, suffered the punishment of a loud buzzer whenever they resorted to a taboo word.
And he made a couple sly allusions to the real contest he's been engaged in for well over a year, which his campaign hopes may at long last be drawing to a close. Fifteen minutes in, he asked, "At what point is this game over?" When a reporter answered, "When we win," he retorted with a smile: "That sounds familiar." References to the campaign from the other side were less welcome: one journalist defined "San Francisco" with the clue "Obama said his 'bitter' comments in this place," prompting Obama to mock-complain, "I was here to escape all this."
Such games range off-color at times, and Obama strove to escape without newsmaking damage in that regard. When one campaign aide tried to get Obama and his teammates to identify "G-strings," Obama shouted out "garters" instead, leaving it to his traveling assistant, Reggie Love, to shout out the right answer. When Love described the Gap as "where gay people buy clothes," Obama -- who may or may not have heard the clue right -- shouted out "Abercrombie and Fitch," drawing laughs from the younger players.
Fashion brands aside, Obama showed off an impressive range of knowledge and trivia. He shouted out "Dennis Rodman" correctly at one point, and managed to coax his teammates into identifying "cockatoo" at another. With his team trailing in the second round, he scored several points in a row by getting his teammates to identify, among others, the "X-Files" and Bruce Willis ("he was married to a famous movie actress. He was in 'Moonlighting.'") He was then faced with having to define "revolution" without resorting to "French" or "American." He dug back to his Ivy League education: "Thomas Jefferson called for it to happen every once in a while." When this highbrow clue met with blank stares, he went middlebrow instead, offering that it was also the name of a Beatles song, which did the trick.
After his team won both rounds, Obama reveled in the fact that "Team Obama" had beaten the journalists, "and you guys are professional wordsmiths!"
And on his way back to the front of the plane, he was asked: Was this lengthy sojourn in the rear of the plane a sign of a new general election tone with the fourth estate, to better compete with John McCain and his famously chummy press relations? The Taboo victor's answer came with a poker face: "We're going to be a barrel of laughs. We'll have so much fun."
This item originally reported that Obama offered the name of a "Beatles album," "Revolution," as a clue. "Revolution" is a Beatles song, not an album.
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