JARDINE: You can get a peek at Obama on big day

December 27, 2008 

Terri Bryant, part of Tosaw’s Obama-Scope team, tries one of the periscopes, which are made of corrugated cardboard. (Brian Ramsay/The Modesto Bee)

As President-elect Barack Obama motors through the nation's capital Jan. 20, people will line the parade route several deep to witness history.

The problem: Unless you're in front -- or unless you're an NBA power forward or circus giant -- don't expect to see much more than someone else's back or head as Obama's motorcade passes by.

Modesto attorney Richard Tosaw offers a solution: the Obama-Scope. It's a lightweight cardboard periscope that enables you to rise above the crowd without leaving your feet to see the nation's 44th president, or at least his limousine, pass by.

If Tosaw's name sounds familiar, it's because he's a former FBI agent who wrote the book "D.B. Cooper: Dead or Alive?" He's an oft-quoted expert on the case involving the man who in 1971 hijacked an airliner, got $200,000 in ransom and bailed out somewhere over the Pacific Northwest.

Neither Cooper nor any identifiable remains have been found, and only about $5,900 of the money -- found rotting along the Columbia River nine years later -- has surfaced.

Tosaw, 83, also owns the Ceres-based Bureau of Missing Heirs Inc., locating people whose names turn up in wills and trusts but have been estranged from their families.

The Obama-Scope venture, he said, is more of a hobby than a moneymaker.

He developed his first periscope to use at major sporting events such as the AT&T Pro-Am golf tournament and when Pope John Paul II drew 50,000 people to a service at Monterey's Laguna Seca Raceway in 1987.

The early model didn't do well.

"It was too bulky," Tosaw said.

He built a better one for Bill Clinton's first inauguration, but it, too, had drawbacks.

"We made the earlier ones out of plastic," Tosaw said. "They were more expensive because plastic is made out of oil. It was harder to put artwork on them. About all you could do was to put a sticker on them."

Even so, he sold about 3,000 of them on Inauguration Day in 1993.

"They did well," Tosaw said. "I have pictures of people holding them up in the crowd.

The Obama version is the next generation. It's made of corrugated cardboard, which allowed Tosaw to print portraits of the 12 presidents preceding Obama -- Franklin D. Roosevelt through George W. Bush -- along with the U.S. flag and five images of Obama.

"This is better: Lighter, taller and more artwork," he said.

He also opted for lightweight plastic mirrors that have surprisingly good clarity, replacing the heavier -- and breakable -- glass ones.

They have no telescopic features to make things look closer. They provide only a better vantage point.

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Tosaw also sees a future for the scopes at major events such as parades on St. Patrick's Day and Thanksgiving Day in New York City, and the Tournament of Roses Parade in Pasadena.

Give him credit. Tosaw had International Paper, in the Beard Industrial District in Modesto, make the 5,000 Obama-Scopes. Yes, the gadget is made here in good ol' Modesto, USA. Tosaw's staff at the Bureau of Missing Persons folded and assembled the scopes, adding the two plastic mirrors. Each has been numbered by hand, adding to their collector's value.

He's selling them on eBay at $20 per scope. He'll also ship thousands to Washington, D.C., where he'll try to sell them to the street vendors licensed by the city to sell inauguration items and souvenirs. And he's selling them through his office in downtown Modesto.

He expects the scopes to sell well because Obama will become the first U.S. president of African- American descent -- a historic moment expected to draw millions of people to Washington.

And if Obama had lost in November?

"I'd still be going back for (John) McCain," Tosaw said. "He wouldn't draw a crowd, though. I like to participate in historic events, and this (Obama's inauguration) is one."

Jeff Jardine's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays in Local News. He can be reached at 578-2383 or jjardine@modbee.com.

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