Tuesday, July 27, 2004

# Posted 10:30 AM by Patrick Belton  


10:00: Show up at the Fleet Center, for a morning interview on public radio, where my letter from the DNC told me to report. My credential seems to be across town, at the Westin Hotel. Take a taxi across town (after convincing two makeup artists to let me ride with them). Get grumpy at press guy, which involves threatening to focus on him personally as a weeklong comedic interlude. Feel bad for that afterwards. Decide to send him flowers tomorrow.

11:00-12:00 - on NPR's The Connection, together with two lovely other guests, Matt Welch from Reason and Amy Sullivan from Washington Monthly. It's a wonderful experience - not only the most thoughtful questions I've been asked this week, but their studios actually make your voice sound better. Count me in as a fan of public radio - I'm even going to get the tote bag. The press line is extraordinarily long. Incidentally, a good way to cut it turns out to be shouting frantically over a cell phone that you're on the air in a minute and a half. I get to the front of the line in about 2 seconds.

12:30 - Explore the convention hall, for the first time. It's really quite moving, even if it is the largest exercise in crowd planning ever. The convention floor is surprisingly small, and it's populated mostly by security people, who are just standing around. Looking around the state delegations, the states which voted for unfortunate primary candidates have, well, unfortunate seating.

The Massachusetts delegation has pride of place. Florida also, not surprisingly. The sound system is playing the 30-minute schmaltz version of 'New York state of mind'. The sancta sanctorum, guarded by three sad-looking security staffers, is the podium, where I count roughly one hundred seats. For voting purposes, a computer is set up at the seating section of each state. An attempt to rig the floor vote for a last-minute Lieberman insurgency does not succeed.

I look for a few enthusiastic, early reporting delegates dutifully reporting to their state's seating, where they are for three more hours the only ones. Peter Jennings is in the good seats, right in front of the sanctum sanctorum that is the podium, conducting an interview surrounded by a gaggle of 12 ABC staff. It's a rather odd sight, seeing the anchors talking to their cameras, every few dozen yards, in the middle of empty chairs.

'America 2004: A Stronger America' is circulating on the neon row at the top of the box seats, where the broadcast networks are. Al Jazeera, I hear, was asked by the convention's organisers to take down their sign - bad p.r., someone decided. Sad.

1:00. Lovely interview with a few reporters about my age from National Journal. We agree to go out for drinks later. The photographer wants to take pictures of me with my laptop. There's great reportorial bonhomie, incidentally, extended from all of the journalists I strike up conversations with. A good-humoured woman from CNN swaps tips with me in the elevator. (Mine: Al Jazeera. Hers: umbrellas will be permitted, if collapsable, in the event of inclement weather. We decide to call it an even trade.) The label "Democrats Recycle" appears on all of the recycling bins. The bloggers have very good real estate, by Reuters and above Texas. We're to the left and opposite the podium.

2:00 Security people coming in by the hundreds, then hundreds more. It's like a St Patrick's Day parade. The more elite-looking ones all have black bags of different shapes. This is clearly a good day to attempt street crime in Boston. There also some extraordinarily bad musical acts rehearsing - one of whom, bless her, being Miss Teen New Mexico, who regrettably attempts the National Anthem every several minutes.

You can see the Charles from outside the nosebleed seats of the Fleet Centre - you look over I-93, near the sign for the Chinatown exit. Boston is a really beautiful city. Kudos to the residents of Beantown.

3:10 Delegates arrive - by the thousands. Marty Meehan and Tom Mann from Brookings are holding forth outside on how good campaign finance reform has been for Democrats.

I have the opportunity to speak with some people in the Texas and New York delegations, all of whom are quite enthused to be at the centre. All regard the convention as a rather nice vacation. They go shopping.

4:00 Gavelling-in of the 44th Democratic National Convention occurs precisely on time. A heavily planned national-strength motif emerges from the start -the first shot of the opening movie is of the JFK library (note theme). Invocation is by a Boston vicar, who talks about liberty, patriotism, and the armed forces, invites people to his church. Veterans' honour guard (note theme) present colours. 'Combat veteran Jay Wheatley' (did you catch the subtle restatement of the theme?) leads pledge of allegiance. The National Anthem features possibly the first flat Miss Teen New Mexico in history.

4:13 Credentials committee. The credentials committee report seems principally to be about how the Bush administration is outsourcing jobs to foreigners, but Kerry, however, will create 10 million new jobs. Also, cheap drugs.

Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin paraphrases Martin Luther King and RFK to say that she's PROUD to say that this credentials report is unanimous.

Bob Menendez, whose introduction gets messed up, introduces the second part of the credentials report, which is mostly about how his family fled Cuba to a free country which would elect John Kerry to give all American families the ability to give heir children cheap drugs and send seniors to college. Or vice versa. Actually, it was a good speech.

4:55 Woman behind me already asleep.

5:00 I can understand the longing, particularly pronounced among people one generation older than me, to actually have something go massively, extraordinarily, democratically wrong, such that the platform and slate are junked, and the delegates rise up in a Jeffersonian parliamentary fury to junk the nominees presumptive, and instead nominate, say, Peter Jennings.

5:05 Speakers deal with introducing the rules committee chair as though they were entering an approximate-JFK's-inaugural-address contest. It doesn't make for good speechmaking, particularly.

5:30 Sudden halt of speeches for a rather eerie JFK movement, with his 'Let the word go forth' speech playing over what seems to be planetarium music.

Most members of the Clinton family, including Socks, are speaking during the first day's prime time. I talk next to a Suffolk County legislator named Vivienne Fisher, a lovely woman who claims credit for making Suffolk the first county in New York to outlaw restaurant smoking and use of cell phones in cars. She seems rather proud.

5:35 Terry McAuliffe said something that was meant, I'm told by Vivienne, to be Spanish in introducing Bill Richardson. Bill Richardson appears anyway.

5:40 Rosa DeLauro offers the platform. Rosa, who I love dearly, was a bit wooden, though she became less so by the end.

You can be guaranteed substantial network coverage by simply wearing odd headgear. Actually, very few delegates dress like Village People or NFL attendees, but they feature disproportionately in TV coverage. So don't be fooled.

6:00: dinner, such as it is (popcorn and an Italian sausage), with Oxfriends Jeff Hauser and Nathan Paxton. In the meantime, Kerry/Edwards signs magically appear in everyone's hands. You also get the wooden stick (attached, sorry) if you're a delegate.

Emerge back into the convention hall to hear Al Gore (hasn't he done enough damage to the party already?) proclaiming that JOHN KERRY AND JOHN EDWARDS ARE FIGHTING FOR US!!!! SO, WE HAVE TO FIGHT FOR THEM!!!! I ask the guests around me what they think of Al Gore. They shrug.

8:27: live feed, this time of a random guy in Canton, Ohio.

There is a pleasant mood among the delegates and guests: they're not politicos for the most part, and they aren't angry leftists. You feel at any time they're entirely liable to fall into a group hug. The speeches are markedly better in the evening than in the afternoon. Introducing the Democratic women senators, Mikulski has an energetic delivery, if not profundity, and pulled off some memorable phrases.

Nancy Donahue, Harvard endowment manager and Emily's List volunteer, sitting next to me: 'What convention is complete without a youth choir?' (Response to being asked what she thought of Gore: shrug.)

8:41: Democratic Song Time: this one is 'This land is your land'. Mikulski obliged by pointing out female Senators from California, New York Island, and the Gulf Stream waters.

8:44: Profiles of every Democratic voter, in alphabetic order: this time, a black woman from Little Rock, Arkansas. Then another round of Democratic song time. 'I am everyday people.'

9:00 Democratic attic: Wait, you've already brought out Gore, now you're bringing out Carter? The role of the ghosts of conventions past seems mostly to be to reiterate their most well known campaign line, and attribute it to Kerry. Thus, we're told that Kerry and Edwards will give us a government as good as the American people. (There's also another subtle restatement of the Kerry-was-in-the-navy theme.)

9:10: More rumbling about damn foreigners: 'The American dream is not only the property of those who can afford expensive trips overseas to visit all the jobs they sent there', complains Rep Stephanie Stubbs (Ohio). It's a capable speech - good lines, and she becomes the darling of the delegates, who momentarily stop playing with their voting machines.

9:28 Democratic Songs: Johnny Be Good. Then more profiles of random Democrats: this one in Milwaukee.

9:32: Bob Menendez completely loses the crowd, because of unfortunate positioning in the bathroom break after Carter and before Hillary. He's one of the more naturally intelligent of the congressional Democrats. He makes a number of thinly veiled accusations that Bush should be blamed for 9/11 - that it ought to have been prevented. Quote: 'you get a lot more firepower on your side if you can organise a posse.' Ambient noise in the convention hall shoots way up, as delegates ignore him.

9:49 Film narrating how John Kerry, in blatant disregard of his own safety and under fire from both banks, conducted congressional casework to help one of his constituents, a cute, sick kid named Joey.

9:52: Profiles of every Democrat in the country: a Canton, Ohio, veteran and steelworker union member. We're told how illegal immigrants came, stole his job, and brought it (and others) overseas.

9:57-59: absolute quiet, as the Convention waits for prime time - i.e., its sole hour of fame.

10:00 Black presidential candidate Shirley Chisholm's speech appears over the planetarium music and on the screen, and was apparently not proofread, given that it includes a major typographical error.

10:10 candles and violin solo of amazing grace, in an attempt to make use of - erm, I meant to say commemorate - the memory of 9/11. Blue spotlights fan the delegates. Shockingly, the violinist was neither black nor female, and - quite possibly - may have been heterosexual. That this is a party which wishes to base itself upon compassion and inclusion is beyond doubt. But the point can be made so frequently and unsubtly - and even ham-handedly - by the convention organisers that it frequently assumes something of the character of self-caricature.

I discuss the hidden messages being conveyed by all of the veteran symbology with the delegate next to me. We decide the message transmitted by all of the invocation of veterans is:

mendacious government at the time of Vietnam = Bush
speaking the truth to power = veterans, Kerry, and RFK

This, of course, puts the Democratic back on the solid and successful footing of the Chicago convention of 1968.

10:20, video vignette: Kerry's office performed casework in yet a second instance, this time involving cute, disabled kids who played little league. Generally, they did so in slow motion, to the accompaniment of arpeggiated piano chords.

10:21 Then the omnipresent planetarium music, reappearing underneath President Clinton's voice. Is the hidden message that Democrats are from Mars?

10:23 Enter Hillary stage right, to Billy Joel's New York State of Mind. America's Future 2004 signs magically appear in the hall. If only. Perhaps the signs are the signal to begin the secret insurgency of the Delegates Revolt of 2004, nominating Hillary, or even more adventurously, some randomly chosen Democrat off of the video screen.

Hillary speech: She's gotten less reliant on the single descending tone, with its tendency toward preachiness. The time in the Senate has made her more statesmanlike; on the other hand, her speech is fairly empty, touching on old, trusted but overworn notes. Looking into the gates of hell at ground zero. Veterans. Etc.

10:35. Enter Bill, to Don't Stop Thinking About Tomorrow, and the cheering of the delegates raises the roof by several inches.

10:35-37: two minutes of standing applause. Clinton then proceeds to give the only masterful political speech I have heard since ... since he retired from politics. His timing is perfect - there's enough policy meatiness to save the speech from vacuousness, but it's folksy, funny. It is a brilliant speech, and it seems just possible that Clinton could, in a perfectly-executed speech, win one more election, this time for someone else.

He puts his own embarassing war record out in public view, a brave move in a saccharine convention, and contrasts it with Kerry's declaration 'Send me', which he repeats and weaves around other threads of the candidate's record and the coming election, the entire crowd answering 'send me' after each rhetorical interrogative. He does the same thing several minutes later with 'we chose to form a more perfect union.' He ends at 11 precisely, after weaving together rhetoric of opportunity and optimism ('creating a world where we can celebrate our religious differences'), humorous jabs at the other side, and the gentlest stroking of economic populism in the evening (you know, when I was in office, Republicans were kind of mean to me. Now that I'm making some money, I'm part of the most important group in the world to them). His last riff, with the structural elegance of a black minister, is a litany of '...If you like those choices, you should vote to return them to the White House and Congress (boos)..if not, you should look at giving John Kerry and John Edwards a chance! (cheers)' In an evening of forgettable political rhetoric, it was the best political speech of the millennium thus far. For one blissful second, it brings people around me to hope that he might just perhaps, with his Yale law education, have found a way to run once again.

Midnight, on the red line back to Cambridge: an eerily exuberant girl shares the joke: 'What do you call a fish with eight eyes? Fiiiiiiiish.' It doesn't necessarily work better aloud.
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