The Real Deal at the Convention

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Think of me as an innocent abroad, the least-practiced journalist to visit the Democratic Convention in Boston this week. What follows are my instant impressions for all of you who just couldn’t make the trip yourselves. (Forgive the speed and any errors — I left my editor, copyeditor, and staff at home). Tom

The Story of No-Story
A Day at the Kerry Convention
By Tom Engelhardt

On Tuesday, I slipped my cell phone into my holster, my Mother Jones credentials into my backpack, and headed for the Fleet Center, prepared to be the fifteen-thousand-and-first journalist at the 2004 Democratic Convention. All news articles on the Convention claim that 15,000 media people are in attendance, three times the number of delegates (and alternates), except a New York Times piece by David Carr headlined, “Whose Convention Is It? Reporters Outnumber Delegates 6 to 1.” His math may be faulty but, in the feel of the event, he — or his headline writer — was distinctly on the mark. Just step inside the cavernous, two-floor media center — where you could catch Jim Lehrer rushing down an aisle, only to stop for a quick instamatic moment with a young media admirer — and you could review the great imperial papers and news empires of the nation. Each was separated from the others by the flimsiest of dividers, each with its own space, tables, glowing computers, flashing TV screens, bustling reporters, and stacks of complimentary newspapers. The weight of the media Presence here was nothing short of palpable, not to say overwhelming (as were the Republican prices on the minimalist food being sold).

The Boston Globe reported — what else was there to report on, after all? — that nearly 100 people from the Times had arrived to cover the event (practically six times the delegates right there); and I knew firsthand that three more, one borrowed from Harper’s Magazine, had stumbled in from Mother Jones, and of course, one from for a media-convention so story-desperate that the Arrival of the Designated Blogger had by Tuesday been dubbed a Major News Event.

It was indeed a media moment, but assuredly a strange one: 15,001 people convened for a Democratic nominating party (and all the associated late night partying), whose essential plot line had already been announced as no-story-whatsoever — “unity” couldn’t be duller, after all — and for which the major TV networks had pared down actual coverage (only a skimpy three hours over four nights), implying that American interest in what might otherwise seem like the election of a lifetime was minimal indeed, even if not so minimal as to obviate a television presence that seemed on the scale of a small city.

Approaching Dreamland

So you left the “T,” climbed aboveground, and walked the extra few blocks from Haymarket Station to the Fleet Center — the stop there was closed, perhaps due to the fact that someone had seen too many movies about terrorist-commandeered runaway subways — actually a vast hockey arena normally home to the Boston Bruins. There, at its distant outskirts marked by a major police presence, you handed over your color-coded pass — I had green, also marked “hall” (as in a high-school hall pass) — and a young woman from DNC security ran it through a hand-held scanner. (Another young DNC volunteer and ID checker would later assure me that people were trying to sneak in on color xeroxes of the passes — perhaps the Convention’s first urban legend.) You then imitated your pass by going through an airport-style, full-body version of the same, and finally you were in, somewhere at the Outer Limits of a Great Non-Event. Despite the police on horseback, soldiers in camo outfits, and helicopters hovering over parts of Boston, it was a remarkably quick and disappointingly unobtrusive process.

There would be much “security” to go, but mainly, it seemed, meant to enforce a complex, color-coded class system which took you, depending on your status, from the outer fringes of the place, escalator by escalator, to the floor of the convention, the sky boxes, and various nose-bleed galleries so high up that, had it not been for the vast Cinerama-style screen which dominated much of one side of the arena, you might as well have been watching so many ants.

Once inside, commented Linda Perkins, the young second assistant director of Tanner on Tanner, a Robert Altman mockumentary being filmed there, you were in a “bubble world.” “We came here,” she said, half-laughing at the silliness of it all, “in the morning when it was only media.” The convention speeches kick off at four, but sizeable numbers of delegates only begin to flow in after seven. “It was like being in a casino. You don’t know if it’s day or night, and suddenly you notice you’re starving.”

A day and night at the Convention has the self-enclosed feel of a dream, filled with familiar faces, known to you previously only from screen life, and never to be seen again in person. A whole country could fall off the map of the Middle East and the gathered journalists, pols, delegates, enthusiasts, hangers-on, media figures, Hollywood stars, and god knows who else would probably never know. You wander the enormous halls — imagine any sports arena you’ve ever been in — and amid the growing crowds (up to perhaps 25,000 people by night’s end) — you’re suddenly almost run down by a phalanx of besuited Japanese led by a man frantically waving a green folder and heading at triple speed who knows where; while, moments later, floating serenely in the other direction like a working class Buddha goes Michael Moore, looking exactly like Michael Moore, surrounded by bright lights, cameras, onlookers shouting “I love you, Michael!” and a small crowd of media whomevers yelling out questions — all in motion, a bubble within a bubble within a bubble.

My first sight on reaching one of the Convention’s many media stations was an unlocked mesh-wire room filled with vast piles of upside-down “We love Teresa!” posters, white-lettered with blue-trim against a red background, along with boxes of “pro-Kerry, pro-Edwards, pro-choice” ones, and ominous black garbage bags lining wall shelves undoubtedly filled with other variations on the evening to come. These were the Convention equivalent of movie trailers, previews of coming events. Those Teresa’s that began my day would end it as well, by then in the hands of every delegate in sight and hundreds of other supporters stretching high into the rafters of the seven-floor structure. All were being waved enthusiastically as Senator Kerry’s wife — practically the only media story (“Shove it!”) of this supposedly story-less week — gave the final whispery but surprisingly eloquent speech of the second night to no Network TV attention whatsoever. (It turns out, as that night’s “whip” for the Colorado delegation told me, in this convention lacking controversy, conflict, or contest, her job was largely to hand out the right printed poster at the right moment to the right delegates. Democracy in action.)

The hockey arena itself had been quickly, if superficially transformed. The giant Bruins bear statue now wore a Kerry-Edwards shirt, and at the concession stands scattered throughout the building, instead of Bruins (or Celtics) memorabilia, you could buy a John Kerry “presidential deck” of cards, a “Democratic Convention” yoyo or shot glass, or a popular Paul-Revere-with-flag “The Democrats Are Coming!” t-shirt, not to speak of a Kerry-Edwards “we can do it” shoulder tote bag. The concessions were expected, a salesman behind one counter told me, to do $400,000 in business over the four days and nothing, he assured me, was more popular than the various political pins, stickers, and buttons displayed.

And it was true. Later in the night when the delegates hit the floor, along with the silly hats (donkeys on baseball caps and the like), no surface of the clothed body of, it seemed, any delegate went unpinned. The exuberant pin-cushioned fashion statement caught something of the enthusiasm of these Democrat-to-the-gills — no one had bothered to tell them that there was no story here and they knew better.

At one point, I sat down next to Charlene Tanner, a self-professed “Deaniac” and, “after Iowa,” she said just a touch sadly, an Edwards delegate from Harris County, Texas. She was rubbing one foot (a sign of convention wear and tear), but her enthusiasm seemed untarnished. Even though the suburb she lives in usually votes, she admitted, 90% Republican (“it breaks our heart every time we lose”), she was dotted with buttons and stickers (“pro-faith, pro-family, pro-choice”) and assured me with a laugh that she had dropped an easy $200 or more on buttons alone. Though the latest Scripps-Howard Texas poll (58% Bush -29% Kerry) was expectably terrible and Texas had, she admitted, become a “Bush regime” (as you might say, for instance, a Stalinist regime), she still swore, “We think if we would really get all the Democrats out to vote, we really believe we could win.” Then she added, catching another reality of the moment, “To tell you the truth, I wouldn’t have run as a Kerry delegate but I call myself a yellow-dog Democrat. I’ll vote for the last thing standing on the ballot before I’d vote for a Republican. It’s a term we use a lot in Texas.” And as I was getting up to leave, she added a tad wistfully, “I should have worn my yellow-dog button.”

Inside the bubble of the bubble

Then again, the moment you left the delegates, the true sport of the convention seemed to be the fabulously bubble-inside-a-bubble-inside-a-bubble self-referential world in which the media existed, in which the media, in fact, was the world and the story-of-no-story all rolled into one. A stop on “radio row” (and not the only one in the arena either), a cul-de-sac off the McDonald’s/Dunkin’ Donuts concessions, found various talk-show hosts at small tables shouting their wares on the air. There was Sean Hannity in person, raging at Teamsters’ President James P. Hoffa three inches away across a table (“You ought to thank God that George Bush loves the workers enough to give them their money back!”); and raising his voice to say again and again in radio-disgust, “Here’s the last question” to Hoffa, who wasn’t taking no for an answer. A single-step away in the aisle Juan Williams of NPR was doing a quick stand-up interview with Jesse Jackson (“I see Bush seeing us through a keyhole and Kerry seeing us through a door”). Jackson no sooner stepped off stage well, not quite off stage but undoubtedly to be importuned by some other media type ten steps down the hallway than a booker for conservative talk-show host Jason Lewis at CBS-affiliate WBT in Charlotte, rushed up to arrange a Juan Williams interview with his host, and hot on his heels was a Dan Rather assistant checking a booking on the same show, and so it went, and went, and went like so many characters pouring in and out of doors, windows, and closets in a Feydeau farce.

Talent bookers, in fact, seemed a dime a dozen. (Maybe that was how the Times got those multiples of six. Perhaps the 15,000 media people didn’t include the talent bookers.) Later that night, collapsing into a empty Newsweek chair at a press section near the convention floor, I found myself next to tired but ebullient “talent booker/talent producer” Tara Martino, just as Representative Mike Honda on the vast triple-screen that overwhelmed the hall (and in person in miniature at a podium below it) was saying, “John Kerry has spent a lifetime fighting for the American dream.” Martino, young and lively, works for the cable network E!, and when asked what the convention was like for her, said, “Here, it’s just a big grab-who-you-get kind of thing.” Actually, she said something far more vivid and salty — the sort of thing that gets you filtered off some e-mail systems — but then, reasonably enough, thought twice about letting me quote it.

With almost delegate-level enthusiasm she began listing the small triumphs of her two days: “We got Ben Afleck, Russell Simmons, Cynthia Nixon, Billy Baldwin. When it comes to the media, we’re just on the big ones: Katie [Couric], Dan Rather, George Stephanopolous, Chris Matthews, Wolf Blitzer, Jerry Springer, Larry King, Jon Stewart, Michael Moore.” She hesitated. “He was good. There was a big mass around him, but we got about six questions in!”

Her list seemed a respectable mantra or anthem for the evening as we sat in that vast hall surrounded by the serried, celestial ranks of skyboxes sweeping above us with their vast media logos dominating the hall: CBS News (where you could catch a distant glimpse of the likes of Dan Rather at work), NBC News, CNN (“America Votes 2004”), the NewsHour/PBS, and so on — none bigger or, incongruously enough given the event, more dominant-looking than the Fox logos which were scattered on sky boxes everywhere: Fox News (“You Decide 2004”), Fox News (“America’s Newsroom”), Fox News (“We Report, You Decide”) and Fox 25 News.

Visually, there was no question what world mattered most, what world ruled this hall. You could feel the screen in its every incarnation bearing down on you always. No matter where you were, you were basically watching — could hardly take your eyes off — one screen or another; not just the giant triple-image screen behind the podium that dwarfed everything, but those on the stage (where everything seemed to rise and fall like the special effects from a Phantom of the Opera set). I counted at least twenty screens of varying sizes up there, like some vast family of replicating things, flashing endless coordinated messages and images, while in the hall and all the nooks and crannies elsewhere, ubiquitous TV and computer screens flickered. At perhaps the most dramatic moment of the night, when Barack Obama, the young Senate candidate from Illinois, gave his riveting keynote address, I was wandering the convention floor (being endlessly hustled nowhere in particular by guards who wanted to keep the aisles clear). Just then I passed the centrally situated CNN platform with guards — a small world unto itself — where Larry King, David Gergen and others were sitting intently watching the speech, their backs to Obama — on a small TV screen.

The story of a story still unfolding

And yet, if for the media the story was the media — and if somehow the media story seemed, even to them, like little more than space filler for real news that wasn’t happening, the delegates — at least the ones I talked with — saw it differently. They may not have been contentious, and you couldn’t quite say they were confident, but they were certainly energized, genuinely excited, and they had signed onto a major political deal, a deal to which they, with the possible exception of a few Kucinich delegates, had willingly, even in the end eagerly, acquiesced.

Inside the bubble of bubbles up on stage in this Kerry convention, there was a world being presented that was hardly more recognizable than the one George Bush would offer up at the end of August in barricaded New York City. Iraq was in absentia; Bush himself a distant presence, his name barely invoked on the podium — it was the Kerry strategy not to do so — and in the bubble that was left after much of the contentious world we know out there had been sucked away, speaker after speaker mouthed the official convention yak about candidate Kerry: War hero par excellence (but not war protestor par anything — though there were a few protest shots from the early 70s in a basement exhibit on Kerry’s life); a man who outdid any boy scout in “honesty,” “trustworthiness,” and “wisdom”; any warrior in “strength” (or any version of the same you could find in a thesaurus) and, yes, believe it, Virginia, any visionary in “vision” (though the vision was still to be laid out for America). If you had dropped in for the week from the Red Planet rather than a red state, you would never have known that Abu Ghraib had happened, or we were torturing out in the imperium, or that a ragtag Iraqi insurgency was driving George Bush before it to the November polls.

But the delegates knew it well. They were simply convinced — call it conviction, determination, self-hypnotism, hypocrisy, but there it was — that the biggest story on our planet was defeating the “Bush regime,” after which most whom I talked to were either sure that the war would somehow miraculously end or were simply unwilling to face the question (or what it might do to a Kerry presidency). That was later, this is now. And don’t think this isn’t a story. Whatever its outcome, however you assess it, it was huge.

There was Beuenia M. Brown, former councilperson and Kerry delegate from New Rochelle, New York (and perhaps the most elegant looking person in sight), who had been with the Senator from the get-go. (“From the beginning I knew he would be a winner,” she said, adding, “John Kerry’s platform is my platform. I believe in every issue of his.”) Like many, using the martial language that’s now the Democratic Party’s coin of the realm, she spoke of a man who had been “in the trenches” — and yet she didn’t mind telling me that she still felt “morally, the war in Iraq is unjust. Americans have every right to defend our country, but not to take resources away from American citizens for an unjust war.” (Jillian Brevorka, a 25 year-old in sales from North Carolina and first-time Edwards delegate, similarly swore fealty to the ticket, while adding without a blink, “I didn’t think we should have gone into the war to begin with.”)

Brown finished with a flourish: “Let me tell you, heaven help us if Bush is given an opportunity to appoint Supreme Court justices. It’s frightening to think Kerry could lose” (At which point she knocked my pen aside and apologized, exclaiming, “Sorry, I get so excited”)

Non-Kerry delegates seemed to have settled up with Kerry as well. They too knew what the story was and it had everything to do with George Bush. In the early evening, Tony Pegel, a Clark delegate from Tennessee, shook my hand and promptly announced, “I’m a political junkie.” The rest of the delegation, he explained, pointing to the empty chairs around him, was at a meal but he wasn’t going to miss a second of the speechifying. The next thing he announced — and it caught something powerful about this convention — was, “I’m a vet. Army reserves, ’81-’87.” And indeed he was wearing a floppy khaki hat with a “Veterans for Kerry” logo on it. (“Most people I know,” he said of Iraq, “saw this coming and got out,” but his wife’s brother, a Marine, is there and making the best of things.) He launched into his rap fast, “You can’t go to these vets meetings [at the convention] and not be inspired I had a stronger stand on the war [than Kerry], but we’re pragmatists. Kerry’s a huge step. Bush says he was pro-war, but he didn’t serve. We’re hemorrhaging right now. Blood, money, everything.”

Pegel tells me he’s an “unemployed environmental engineer,” devoting full-time to politics at the moment. His wife is a nurse; they have health benefits and live frugally “without cell phones” and canning their own vegetables. But what he really wants to tell me about has to do with Michael Moore’s film, Fahrenheit 9/11. “The only good thing George Bush has done,” he assures me, “is motivate Democrats! I set up a booth in front of Moore’s movie. At first it only opened in one independent theater, but Republicans can’t stay away from money, so the next week it opened in our town. And young people were seeing the movie and coming out saying, I’m going to register to vote. So I just set up a booth right there in front of the movie, so they wouldn’t have to go anywhere. Three weeks, I signed up 600 new voters! I have two sisters who almost always vote Republican, who I don’t think are going to vote for Bush this time. Right now, Tennessee’s even according to the Zogby poll I saw just before I left, and Bush won by ten points last time around!”

This caught something of the spirit of the people I met. Not story-less, but “motivated.” Denise Holton, a first time Kerry delegate from Florida and a “facility assignment specialist for Bell South,” was wearing an indescribable, but fabulously glittery headband with dual peaks of tassels and stars and a “pro-Kerry, pro-Edwards, pro-choice” pin. She told me, “In our county, Duval, we lost 27,000 votes last time. This time we’ve got 35, 40 people just from our union working the polls to keep an eye on them, because we’re not going to let them steal it again.” She added, “Once we get this one [George Bush] out, we’re going to work on our governor, baby Bush.”

It’s true that in media terms, this was the world of no-world and the story of no-story, as everyone wrote all week. But there actually was a story here, a tale that might be called “What George Wrought,” and walking the Convention floor, the halls, and galleries, watching the whole of one non-day, a day not even fit, not an hour of it, for network TV news, you couldn’t help but feel that something electric and possibly new was in that room. A quiet but distinctly front-room deal (whatever went on behind the scenes) had been consummated and was on display in Boston, a deal made in the consciences of many Democrats. It was a deal Kerry mandated, but the delegates (and the Party’s voters way back in Iowa) made it so. And that’s an ongoing story, one still being told, still in fact being made up. What it means — whether it was a brilliant stratagem, a deeper change of consciousness, a pragmatic ploy, a considered and agreed upon cover-up of all sorts of realities, the end of a right-wing moment in our country or its continuation, or some combination of all of the above still remains unknown. But for better or worse (or perhaps for better and worse), it’s the story of this convention, of this year, and maybe even of our lives.

Meanwhile, on stage, while Dick Gephardt made clear in a dozer of a speech why Kerry was no dope to skip him for vice president, there were some genuine electric moments. Certainly, Teresa Heinz Kerry’s final speech of the night had drama. (She, for instance, may be one of the few people on stage over these four days to mention “global climate change” (“With John Kerry as president, global climate change and other threats to the health of our planet will begin to be reversed”) or oil (“[My husband] believes that alternative fuels will guarantee that not only will no American boy or girl go to war because of our dependency on foreign oil”). And Ron Reagan’s snappy speech in favor of stem cell research, or simply his presence, was an attention getter. (Imagine, thanks to the networks, how relatively few Americans will have seen a Reagan on the “wrong” stage.) He ended with a rousing, if transparent, call to “cast a vote for embryonic stem cell research” on November 2.

But the speech that rocked the house — and for good reason — was Barack Obama’s. While it offered the usual praise of Kerry, it was remarkable in its own right. Certainly, it was the only speech of the day, possibly of the convention, which even mentioned the Pentagon (“Go into the collar counties around Chicago, and people will tell you they don’t want their tax money wasted, by a welfare agency or by the Pentagon.”), or Arab Americans (“If there’s an Arab American family being rounded up without benefit of an attorney or due process, that threatens my civil liberties.”), or the American toll in Iraq by number (“I thought of the 900 men and women — sons and daughters, husbands and wives, friends and neighbors, who won’t be returning to their own hometowns. I thought of the families I’ve met who were struggling to get by without a loved one’s full income, or whose loved ones had returned with a limb missing or nerves shattered, but who still lacked long-term health benefits because they were Reservists.”), but read it for yourself. He was a knock-out. Call me starry-eyed, or simply punchy as a day inside the Fleet Center ended, but there’s always something about genuine enthusiasts that just does get to you. I thought to myself when Obama was finished and the place was truly rocking, maybe, just maybe, I listened to a speech by a future president of the United States.

Copyright C2004 Tom Engelhardt

[Special thanks to Mother Jones on-line for getting me credentialed to the convention and for sharing in the publication of this piece.]