What is it in us that wants to believe? Is it the brain or the heart? Is it a desire to be right, the exigency of logic or a desire to be swept away, the rapture of release? I asked myself about belief as I wandered the floor of the California Democratic Convention last weekend and decided at last that it was neither the brain nor the heart that yearns. It is something more visceral than those. It is the loins. It is our most carnal aspect that aches to break free from resignation and give itself willingly in the trusting expectation of completion. The desire to believe is less a want than it is a craving, felt like hunger, carried like pain and guarded like lust. It is an urge, a compulsion of the flesh. We don't just want to believe, we need it. We long to be fulfilled by true belief in something, anything, and nowhere is that longing more manifest than at a political convention.
Long since resigned to disillusionment, this cynic found himself on Friday afternoon in a hall of true believers, and I, too, longed to believe. I recalled Lao Tzu's acerbic line:'If rape is imminent, relax and enjoy it.'So I gave myself to the convention and felt used, violated, but none the worse for it.
The first thing to report about the Democrats is that they aren't perfect. They lack attention to detail. In fact, they're sloppy. My colleague pointed out a typo in a conspicuous bit of signage, and although in its own right a misspelling doesn't matter, I had to wonder if the Republicans would have let it go. Probably not. The second thing to report about the Demo-crats is that they're passionate. And here's the thing about that: Passion and San Diego don't mix. Ours is a town complicit in contrived tranquility, content in its own comfort, relaxed in its abstention from significance. There were demonstrators along Harbor Drive holding signs-tens of people. It was pitiful.
But inside the hall, passion clung to life, and the motley assortment of Democrats, young and old, black and white, man and woman that swelled the place wore their true belief right out in the open. They caucused and bickered and murmured in the hallways consumed by their desire to be sated. It was more than a pep rally, although it certainly was that. It was an orgy of true believers indulging their belief.
Friday wore on. I did what I do. I found a bar.
Judge not lest ye be judged. I had to find a bar. I spent well over an hour bouncing between the meetings of the Resolutions Committee and the Rules Committee, and the only thing I took away was the resolution to never again follow a fucking rule. If you ever need to look up the definition of'arcane blather,'just look under'committee.'I'm told there were three speakers at 6:30 that evening, including former Sen. Mike Gravel. They might have been good, I don't know. But I know they weren't as good as the Scotch I got from my bartender, Heidi, in the lobby of the Marriott. Why can't true believers learn? It's called lobbying because it happens in a lobby. Anyhow, so much for Friday.
Saturday morning began with a buzz. Friday's passion spilled over, and the energy of belief still permeated the cavernous place, bathing Democrats in the warmth of hope. Hillary was coming. Now, I'm a caustic and insensitive prick, y'all, but I've got to tell you, I'm a sucker for oratory. I sidled up stage-side and turned off my brain so I could listen to Hillary Clinton's heart. One has to listen closely to hear that heart-she doesn't let it tick too loudly.
Hillary told us a story of womanhood. She told us about the splendor of life and the agony of loss, and she nearly had me, she really did. Tears came, and I didn't wipe them away. I listened. I hung on each hoarse word and wanted more. Then she got to Iraq. She said it is time to'end the war and bring our troops home....'She lost me. Yes, Hillary, I thought, and then what? She never gave us a then-what. She never spoke of the carnage and incalculable evil we would leave behind or of what we might do in the world with the abandoned abomination of our own scorn. Then what, Hillary? Then what? It was about 11 in the morning. I figured Hillary was just a tease.
The press room offered some pretty good eats by convention-center standards-two types of pasta that went well with a Scotch-starved belly and helped to pass time while I kept longing for that true belief that would actually fill me. Damn it, Hillary! Why couldn't you tell me then-what? I grabbed a cup of coffee and meandered back down to the main floor in time to hear Nancy Pelosi say some utterly uninspiring things. The third thing to report about Democrats is, boy-howdy, can they berate the obvious! When I die and suffer eternally for all my transgressions, I will be forced to listen to Nancy Pelosi speak to a hall of Democrats.
I still didn't believe. I wanted to. I craved it, and there was nothing in the main hall to fill me up, so I went back to the press room, where at least there was pasta and coffee. Barack Obama showed up and suddenly I knew how the orgy would climax. Every tense muscle in the building reached out for the man and every raw nerve tingled. It was as if God stopped by to repair creation, and I couldn't bring myself to go to the main hall and share him with a crowd of revelers. I stayed in the press room and watched him on television.
Friends, I would not presume to tell you anything about politics, but I will tell you about beauty, and Barack Obama is a beautiful person. As a reporter observed earlier in the day, if Hillary Clinton is the Democratic Party's brain, Barack Obama is its heart, and what a magnificent heart it is. When it beats it moves the soul and fills the emptiness of longing. The words don't matter. The sound alone transfixes the listener. It really isn't speech. It's music. It's a rhapsody, perhaps a fanfare. As my colleague put it, it is the cadence of seduction. When Obama said,'It's time to move past the slow decay of indifference,'he had me. I believed. I don't know that I believed in him completely, but I believed in his heart. I'm telling you, this man is special. He's beautiful.
It was mid-afternoon. There were another 24 hours of convention left, and nobody cared. That moment, the crescendo of Barack Obama sealed the deal for everyone. I couldn't bring myself to go to a bar after that, so I did the other thing that I do; I sneaked into somewhere I wasn't supposed to be. There is a back exit from the main hall of the convention center that leads someplace where beautiful people get taken away to be beautiful elsewhere. I brandished my press pass like a shield and slipped past the men who were no doubt intended to keep people like me away from people like Barack Obama.
I saw him from 10 yards away. He isn't as tall as he seems. I expected him to loom enormously but he didn't. He's just a man. And as he passed the spot I'd sneaked into, I paced alongside him and decided I needed to know what a man like that really feels. I asked him,'Senator Obama, can you tell me what you hate?'He slowed his gait nearly imperceptibly and turned his head to the right, looking over his shoulder so he could see me full in the eyes and answered.'What do I hate? I hate cruelty. I don't know why people are cruel.”
On the whole, I'm not any better for having gone to the California Democratic Convention. Not in any substantial way. I'm not transformed or really even informed. I don't know how I'll vote in 2008, and I don't think it will matter. But one thing about me is better, at least slightly, and for that I owe Barack Obama-I'm willing to believe.