Last week, I sat in the lounge of the glittering Sheraton Hotel in downtown Denver typing medical symptoms into a search engine on my laptop. The list included fever, nausea, chills, body aches, stomach cramps, headaches, abdominal pain, disorientation, vomiting and watery stool, the one seat at the bar nobody wants. The results came back gleefully exotic. It could be malaria. Or dengue fever. Maybe even typhoid. Or perhaps Salmonella. No, definitely dengue fever.
In any case, the Democratic National Convention made me sick. Or, rather, I was sick at the Mile-High Melee (Rumble in the Rockies? Donnybrook in Denver?), but, admittedly, it probably wasn't a donkey that did me in. It was a goat.
I spent the week preceding the DNC visiting relatives in an isolated village in Sicily with old-world charm to go with old-world food-preparation standards. Regardless, it was a merciful break from the mind-numbing minutiae and nit-picking punditry of the 2008 presidential election, which I had followed (to varying degrees) for more than 19 months starting when I began covering New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson's fledgling candidacy for the Santa Fe Reporter.
I returned from Italy to discover that Michael Phelps had won eight gold medals, Bernie Mac was dead and John Edwards might as well be. I also came back with a sickness (likely due to an ill-advised going-away meal of, um, goat) that could be politely described as a “food-borne illness” but was, in fact, the eight-day extended director's cut of the documentary I Think I'm Dying: Parts I-XXVI.
So when I ran into Barack Obama upon arriving at Denver International Airport on Aug. 24, the day before the DNC began, I naturally chalked it up to my fever-induced delirium. Yet there he was. Wearing jeans and a faded sweatshirt, backpack slung over his shoulder, talking to a local television crew as gawking bystanders snapped photos.
I understand Everyman appeal, but this seemed a little absurd.
Turns out, it wasn't actually Obama but a guy named Girardo Puisseaux—who happens to look a helluva lot like the junior senator from Illinois—flown in by a Miami television station with the explicit purpose of messing with my head, among others. But this surreal introduction to the DNC was just a precursor to the bizarre spectacle that lay ahead.
When it comes to anything, but particularly presidential elections, journalists like to play a fun game we call Objectivity, a sort of metaphorical mix between Trivial Pursuit, Balderdash and Chutes & Ladders. Unless we're being paid to share our opinions, we pretend to not have personal judgments about politics, religion or whether or not most Greenpeace activists are out of their fucking minds.
No, what most of us strive for is simply to be “fair and balanced,” a term that used to have meaning before it woke up with smeared makeup and a torn dress in the back of a taxi after Fox News slipped a roofie in its drink.
We are dispassionate Infomatic 3000s that ingest, process and expel just the facts, ma'am. We do not sleep. We do not eat. We do not smile or frown. And we certainly do not get the least bit giddy when we see the cast of The Daily Show filming outside the Pepsi Center in Denver.
Normally, I'm one of those reporters who refuse to cheer in the press box, who feel uncomfortable with PDAs (Public Displays of Affiliation) and who declines to vote in elections where I've written extensively about the candidates.
The tendency is to focus so much attention on the fiddler (Name? Age? Criminal record? Classically trained or self-taught? Last book he or she read?) and the fire (Arson? Small blaze or roaring inferno? How many fire trucks were dispatched? Any casualties?) that we often neglect the fact that Rome is burning to the ground.
But this 2008 election is too important to sit on the fence as an indifferent observer of the human condition. As such, I feel compelled to shed any pretense.
I am a registered Democrat. I voted for Barack Obama in the primary and donated all of $25 to his campaign (the first and only time I've ever donated to a political cause). I'm a semi-militant atheist married to a devout Catholic. I'm an elitist from a tiny rural town. I drive an enormous earth-raping SUV (that I tell people gets 17 to 20 miles per gallon but really gets closer to 13 to 15) with an “O8AMA” sticker on the bumper.
I think high gas prices are the best thing to happen to renewable energy since the solar panel. I want to protect the environment but find hardcore environmentalists insufferable. I consider myself a feminist, but actual feminists give me a migraine. I have white liberal guilt. I think gay people have every right to be as miserable as the rest of us. The war in Afghanistan is defensible, but Iraq never was. I support the troops in principle, not practice. I believe in a woman's right to choose, and I think stabbing Ann Coulter in the throat could be considered justifiable homicide. I have a Republican friend (several, actually) but still think most Republicans are ignorant and/or evil.
At one point during the DNC, I had diarrhea 12 times in one day (yes, I counted). I also have a “too much information” sharing problem. I think the postured pageantry of political conventions is ludicrous. I'm seldom prone to making grandiose melodramatic statements. And the 2008 Democratic National Convention was one of the most extraordinary events I've ever witnessed.
It quickly became obvious that this wasn't the annual United Association of Plumbers and Pipefitters convention the moment I stepped off the airport shuttle bus in downtown Denver and promptly ran into actress Annette Bening on the sidewalk. Next thing you know, you're watching Spike Lee cross the street, you pass Dan Rather in the hall, you bump into U.S. Rep. Rahm Emanuel on your way to the bar and then you ride an escalator with Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.
“I'm excited,” Villaraigosa tells you during the slow ascent. “I think we're all waiting with bated breath to hear Barack Obama's [acceptance] speech. His nomination, his candidacy represents the culmination of decades of struggle and represents the hope and change we want for our future.”
Turns out, politicians on escalators are still politicians. The Democratic National Convention is a lot of things, perhaps the least of which is a convention. Even if you're not planning your day's route to ensure you'll be within 100 yards of the nearest bathroom, the multi-faceted spectacle can easily induce dizziness, especially among the uninitiated. Each day, there are delegate meetings and caucuses and lectures and protests, and that's before the official convention sessions even begin.
And then, of course, there are the parties. Everything from a happy hour sponsored by the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (seriously) to a “Condomvention” event moderated by Bill Maher (and hosted by Rolling Stone and Trojan Condoms) to semi-private concerts (featuring acts ranging from N.E.R.D. and Willie Nelson to Death Cab For Cutie and Melissa Etheridge) to select soirées sponsored by everyone from Vanity Fair and Politico.com to The Creative Coalition and Planned Parenthood.
“One thing I discovered early on is there are way more things to do than is humanly possible,” says Jess Durfee, chair of the San Diego County Democratic Party. “You start off the week thinking you'll be going here, here, here and here, and you end it by saying, ‘I think maybe I'll try to go here.' There are so many opportunities, and you have to be selective. Even then it's still exhausting.”
I needed no convincing. The night before the convention began, I was sprawled on the couch in a friend's apartment freebasing DayQuil and ibuprofen with an extra pair of boxer shorts that I'd run under a cold tap covering my throbbing forehead.
My friend—a reporter for The New York Times—returned from a party at the Denver Art Museum that night after witnessing Charles Schumer, the senior senator from New York, jokingly sing “Lipstick on Your Collar” while surrounded by a group of women before regaling anyone within earshot with tales about the trip he took with his wife to Turkey (“We had such a time!”).
The following night, after watching compelling speeches from Sen. Ted Kennedy and Michelle Obama, my evening ended with me lying on the floor of the Times' local bureau office, my body convulsing with fever chills as my friend spoke to the Denver Police Department about three suspects who had been arrested in an apparent plot to assassinate Barack Obama.
Where was the first suspect arrested? What type of vehicle? So there were two walkie-talkies, two bulletproof vests and two rifles? What kind of rifles? One of them had a scope? Does the suspect have a criminal record?
I'm a skeptic by nurture—what you might call a cynical idealist or perhaps even a pessimistic optimist. I hope for the best in people but expect the worst, and, unfortunately, my expectations are met (if not exceeded) with great regularity.
Back in November 2004, my tenuous faith in the political process (if not all of humanity) slipped like Sylvester Stallone's grip in the opening scene of Cliffhanger. I became disenchanted with the prospect of four more years of watching Dubya lord over the country like a sledgehammer-wielding Kathy Bates over a bed-ridden James Caan.
Then something—someone—happened. Like many in my generation, my tendency is to view current events through a pop-culture kaleidoscope. I wasn't around for Martin Luther King Jr. or Woodstock or the Kennedy brothers. All I know of the feelings they inspired comes from books, movies and those '60s video montages that always have “All Along the Watchtower” (the Hendrix version) playing in the background. But the closest I can come to grasping that sense of a singular entity offering hope amid despair is manifested in Barack Obama.
I know. I know. Cue the violins.
I'm perceptive enough to know that the man and his platform have loose ends that can't be neatly tied up just by sprinkling them with the “Yes we can” dust. In fact, I have a persistent fear that he'll end up being that five-disc '80s Hits compilation you ordered from the nice man on the television for $19.99 (plus shipping and handling) only to discover that the shipping and handling costs $121.65. But you can't understand the atmosphere of the 2008 DNC without understanding how Obama inspires people with the “H” word (“hope”).
“This is the first time I've had that strong sense of belief in a long time,” says Tony Thurmond, a 40-year-old member of the California delegation and a member of the Richmond City Council. “People believe in Barack Obama. I think those who take issue with slogans like ‘Yes we can' are missing the point. It's about empowering people to feel that they can impact their government. And when did hope become such a bad thing?”
Of course, Barack Obama is now much bigger than just Barack Obama. At the most idealistic level, he is representative of what could be one of the most transformative elections in U.S. history. On a more basic level, he's a brand. Or, as the slogan of one popular T-shirt for sale in Denver put it, he's a “Barack Star.”
The numerous vendors lining the streets of Denver weren't just selling your typical assortment of shirts, posters, buttons and bumper stickers, either. There were “Barack-a-Bye Baby” onesies and “Barack and Roll” halter tops, tins of Barack Obama breath mints (dubbed “Peppermints for Change”) and even Barack Obama action figures (“An action figure you can believe in”). Paul Wenig, a resident of nearby Boulder, estimated that he sold between 500 and 600 of the action figures (which are made by a New York company) a day during the peak of the convention.
“I don't know that I could see there being any McCain oil paintings or McCain action figures,” Wenig says. “I don't know what it is, but it just seems like history in the making right now, and I think people are just trying to savor the moment and take home some kind of souvenir. It's not just one specific demographic, either—it's everybody.”
Well, maybe not everybody. For the counterpoint, I give you roughly half of the country's population. And dissenting voices were plentiful in Denver. There were the occasional John McCain supporters (and a couple militant Hillary Clintonites) and the guy holding the “Real Americans love O'Reilly, Hannity and Fox News” sign, but the most visible element were the asylum escapees commonly known as the pro-life movement.
They placed roses in the security barricades (to commemorate the “murder victims”) and stood on street corners barking into bullhorns, holding signs with messages like “Barack is an Obama-nation” and, of course, their extra-large, extra-graphic photos of aborted fetuses that, I must say, looked a little like Tandoori chicken.
Nothing brings out the crazies quite like a convention. Make it a national presidential convention and, for four days every four years, every Tom, Dick and Harriet with access to cardboard and a Sharpie will descend on the host city to make their grievances known.
And, with some 20,000 journalists ambling about, it suddenly becomes the country's largest soapbox. Everyone has a cause. Everybody loves a protest.
Strolling down the 16th Street pedestrian mall on any given afternoon of the convention, one might have seen belly dancers, PETA hippies, men dressed as Catholic priests (with naked male blowup dolls straddling their shoulders), a group wearing matching “We the People” T-shirts reciting the U.S. Constitution on the sidewalk, people handing out free Atkins Diet granola bars (that taste like peanut butter sheetrock) and people telling you to repent or perish, to legalize marijuana, to let Ralph Nader debate, to save the environment, to curb overpopulation, to accept Jesus and to impeach Bush.
And that was just the block between Larimer and Market Street.
Walking 100 feet between the Sheraton and Quizno's, I was approached by a voter-registration drive, Greenpeace activists, a man holding a sign that said “Jesus Saves” and a group of protesters wearing black hoods and Guantanamo Bay jumpsuits holding “No Torture” signs. And then there were the anarchists. Sweet, sweet anarchists.
They of the black bandannas, homemade drums and uncannily ironic ability to organize.
But the protests were mostly all bark and no bite. It didn't hurt that you could throw (or not throw) a rock and it'd hit three cops, two T-shirt vendors and an anti-abortion activist before it landed. There were police on foot. On horseback. On bicycles. In patrol cars. Riding on the running boards of slow-moving SUVs and peering down from the omnipresent helicopters whirling overhead.
I stepped away from my camera bag for 30 seconds to take a picture of Hillary Clinton exiting the Brown Palace Hotel and then turned around to find three Secret Service agents had surrounded my bag. If I'd waited a few moments longer, I'm fairly certain it would have already been exploded in a controlled demolition.
But even with the heavy police presence, nothing ever came close to the riots that marked the 2000 DNC in Los Angeles. An hour or so before Bill Clinton spoke on the third night of the convention, I received a text message from my friend with the terse missive “Massive march possibly violent” followed by a “Its getting crazy you should get over here.”
I arrived to find several hundred people—most of them teenagers and 20-somethings—milling outside one of the security barricades surrounding the Pepsi Center (the outer perimeter, not to be confused with the inner outer perimeter, the outer inner perimeter or the inner inner perimeter).
The assembled protestors, ostensibly led by a group from Iraq Veterans Against the War, appeared to be domesticated, or at least housebroken. Still, a sizable contingent of riot police lingered nearby to monitor the situation. Then a loud, crackling voice boomed from a bullhorn somewhere beyond the crowd.
“This is the Denver Police Department,” the authoritative voice began.
Ooooh, this is gonna be good.
“We have bottled water and restroom facilities for anybody who needs them. We will also bring over a PA so that everyone who wants to speak will have a chance to do so.”
To get inside any of the perimeters, you needed at least one of five different color-coded credentials. A Perimeter pass got you as far as the Pepsi Center doors, an Arena pass got you inside the building but not into the seats, a Hall pass got you into the upper deck of seats, a Floor pass got you into the delegate seating area and a coveted Podium pass got you all the way to Graceland. I had a Hall pass, which sounded like it'd just grant me 15-minute access to leave Algebra II long enough to use the bathroom but was, in fact, slightly more useful.
For the most part, what you saw on television is what you got from inside the Pepsi Center—except without the thrill of intermittent TV commercials. Every other elected Democratic official from the past 50 years seemed to take the stage at least once during the proceedings. And the energy of the crowd—particularly the delegates—ebbed and flowed according to who was speaking and, frankly, who was watching on television.
“A lot of it is staged, and it's a performance all around, but it's still a very exciting time to be here,” says Eric Bender, a 50-year-old California delegate (who works “in commercial real estate and telecommunications”) from Oak Park. “There's maybe not as much spontaneity as I'd like, but it's still like being in the middle of a moment in history.”
And the California delegation had a prime seat. Not for the official proceedings, per se (the state was relegated to the side due to its large contingent of some 500 delegates), but throughout the convention, particularly at the morning delegate breakfasts, a revolving line of A-list dignitaries (ranging from John Kerry to San Francisco Mayor/heartthrob Gavin Newsom) spoke to the Golden State crowd.
“One of the perks of being the biggest delegation,” Durfee chuckles.
But some of the most poignant moments, naturally, were reserved for the convention floor. And for all the pedestrian postulations that hammered away on familiar themes (exemplified by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's slightly inane “McCain is wrong; Obama is right” mantra) there were electrifying performances from the likes of Ted Kennedy, Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer, vice presidential nominee Joe Biden and the gracious, eloquent humble pie convincingly eaten by the Clintons. Even the official nominating “roll call”—traditionally one of the goofiest parliamentary procedures of any presidential convention—turned into a tearjerker.
“I have been around politics a long time and I've heard a lot of speeches,” Durfee says. “I've been doing this for more than 20 years and if I was overwhelmed by those speeches, I can only imagine what it's like for a lot of the Obama activists who've really only been involved in this process for a year or two.”
But even when a political speech resonates, it's still a political speech, and our natural self-defense mechanism is to push back with skepticism. The morning after Michelle Obama's rousing address on opening night, I sat on my friend's couch chasing Tylenol with Gatorade and watching the assessment from the morning television news shows.
“Our analysts are unanimous in their praise for Michelle Obama's speech,” one moderator said. “But was she telling the truth? After the break, we'll bring in a body-language expert to find out.”
There hasn't been a political speech—or event—in recent memory that's been scrutinized as much as the convention's closing night. There are obvious reasons: opening the doors to the general public and moving the convention to Invesco Field at Mile High, home of the Denver Broncos, where some 80,000 people would be in attendance with millions more watching on television. And then there was that little fact about Barack Obama becoming the first African-American to accept a major political party's nomination.
“This is a momentous time in history,” Cirian Villavicencio, a 28-year-old political science professor (and alternate California delegate) from Sacramento, told me that morning. “The fact that Barack Obama will accept the nomination 45 years to the day that MLK gave his ‘I Have a Dream' speech makes it even more amazing, and I think it will have the same resonance in history.”
No pressure, Barack.
Me, I was still feeling the lingering effects of violent illness. But I knew that if I didn't make it to any other event the entire week, I would make it to Invesco Field if it meant rolling into the stadium on a gurney. After shrewdly navigating through the long lines outside the stadium (I'll admit it: I cut in), I spent the intervening hours sitting behind the CNN platform watching Jesse Jackson, Martin Luther King III, Al Sharpton, John Legend and Tom Brokaw amble past. There was Anderson Cooper, trailed by omnipresent fawning women, making the rounds, and CNN analyst Donna Brazile forcing Wolf Blitzer to dance with her as “Let the Sunshine In” blasted from the speakers in between commercial breaks.
There were a lot of memorable moments—speeches by Gov. Richardson, U.S. Rep John Lewis from Georgia and Al Gore and musical performances by Sheryl Crow, Stevie Wonder and even (gulp) Michael McDonald—but it was all window dressing. As the evening wore on, the momentum began to build until it stopped cold when a short biographical video chronicling the ascension of Barack Obama began playing on the large projection screens.
It's hard to appreciate the awesome power of utter silence until you've sat in a stadium filled with 80,000 people whose attention is so riveted that you can hear someone clear their throat two sections away in the cavernous quiet. That's when Obama took the stage amid a towering wall of camera flashes and a blur of fluttering American flags and cardboard signs that read, simply, “Change.”
You heard the speech. If you didn't, I won't do it any justice here. But it wasn't until the end that I finally succumbed to the gravity of the moment and the buoyancy of his words, no matter how manufactured they might have been.
“I stand here tonight because all across America something is stirring,” Obama said, his words hanging in the thin air. “What the naysayers don't understand is that this election has never been about me. It's been about you.”
Call me a sucker, call me a sap, but I believed him.
I stood up as the speech ended amid the thump-thump-pop of fireworks exploding in the dark sky above Invesco Field. My head was pounding faintly, my body ached with exhaustion and my stomach muscles winced with pain.
I'd never felt better.
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