” . . . if we set our compass true, we will reach our destination – not merely victory for our party, but renewal for our nation.”
– Sen. Edward Kennedy
For reasons probably better left unexplored, I have been a political junkie for, well, decades. My personal political views are probably a little to the left of Kark Marx, but I usually vote the Democratic ticket, which is a tad to the left of center, rather than for GOP candidates, who are usually within hugging distance just to the right of center.
And though I’ve covered a lot of races for local, state and federal offices as an “objective” reporter, I’d never been to a national political convention until last month, when the core of the Free Pressstaff descended on Denver to watch, as they say, history being made.
The charismatic Barack Obama was about to be nominated as the Democratic candidate for president of the United States, welcome proof that racial barriers to high office in this country have been, if not demolished, lowered considerably. It promised to be one of those events about which you later would want to say, “I was there.”
And, thanks to automobile, electrically powered light rail, natural-gas powered shuttles, muscle-powered feet and, ultimately, wife-powered wheelchair, I was there, rubbing elbows with the rich and famous along with a whole bunch of very ordinary people who make our representative government work as well as it does, which isn’t very, but gets us by. (Democracy is the worst form of government except for all the rest…)
My redoubtable spouse Gail and I touched down on the 16th Street mall the day before the convention to pick up our credentials and immediately encountered a glut of people — delegates, demonstrators, vendors, musicians, police — lots of cops, on foot, bicycle, horse, motorcycle and SUV, a few carrying automatic rifles loaded with what I hoped were rubber bullets. Gail likened it to the planet Gideon, a place in the original Star Trek series so crowded that no one could sit down.
It was all pretty exciting to a country rube like me who defines a crowd as more than a dozen, and hadn’t been in Denver much since before there was a mall and a Pepsi Center, where the convention was held, or an Invesco Field, where Obama would deliver his acceptance speech before 80,000.
So we struggled through the mass of flesh, me with the aid of a cane that took some weight off my aching back, and picked up our press passes at a hotel that I knew as the Hilton, now a Sheraton. We were even presented with a black canvas tote bag loaded with mostly useless goodies, although it did contain a bottle of water called “Joint Juice,” which hinted it would be a balm to my throbbing spine and leg. Can’t hurt, I thought as I chugged it down.
Mission accomplished, as they say, we headed back to the light-rail stop, spotting our first celebrity along the way. There was former Tennesee Congressman Harold Ford, who lost a close Senate race two years ago and is now a political commentator on MSNBC. He was shaking hands and posing for pictures on the mall, no doubt plotting his next bid for public office. I briefly considered greeting him, but I really had nothing to say. (Except maybe, moderation in all things, Harold, including moderation.) We headed back to Colorado Springs, where we were staying with Gail’s sister, Rhonda.
Monday, Day One:
On the train back up to Denver, I talked with a delegate, a Hillary supporter from Arkansas. She wanted a roll-call vote, she said, but would support the party ticket, even though she was deeply disappointed Clinton hadn’t been chosen as Barack’s running mate.
I would meet a few others with similar feelings during the week, and I tend to agree that Hillary might have been a stronger choice. (But then you have the Bill problem—- just what do you do with a vice-presidential spouse who is bouncing off the walls at Blair House? Quick, Mr. Former President, more trouble in Bosnia!)
We departed the mall shuttle at Union Station. We were, we believed, within a few blocks of our goal.
One puzzling thing was that there were no signs saying, “Pepsi Center this way,” or “DNC over here,” so we had to rely on the kindness of strangers, who had a range of opinions on how best to get there. By the time we espied the sole unmarked entrance to the magic kingdom, my leg was about to give out, so I slumped onto a bench while Gail went in search of alternate transportation.
After about an hour, she returned with a wheelchair and pushed me the final mile or so to the perimeter security gate, where we were whisked through because of my disability, which was real enough but made me feel like a fraud. I kept wanting to say, “I really can walk — just not at the moment!”
Folks at the Pepsi Center were very accommodating, escorting us to a section on an upper level where I was parked at a railing with a commanding view of the stage and floor. This evening in prime time the headliner was would-be First Lady Michelle Obama, but first came a string of less prominent speakers, addressing an audience that wasn’t listening while creating video clips to be used in campaign ads.
Finally came Sen. Ted Kennedy, preceded by a Ken Burns mini-documentary tribute to the ultimate Irish redneck, the unchallenged king of liberal lions in the U.S. Senate. Fighting brain cancer and suffering from kidney stones, Kennedy still managed to deliver his remarks in his trademark indignant bellow as he called for universal heath care, which he has championed for several decades.
“ . . . this is the cause of my life,” he thundered. “New hope that we will break the old gridlock and guarantee that every American — north, east, south, west, young, old — will have decent-quality health care as a fundamental right, not a privilege.” His speech must have touched the hearts of all but the crustiest conservatives.
Michelle Obama’s primary mission was to let people see that she and Barack were just folks, raised in middle- class families with the same common concerns and values as us average Joes and Jills, and she got the job done. But perhaps their younger daughter Sasha made the point most succinctly when, at the end of Michelle’s speech, Barack appeared via video from Kansas City, Mo., where he was watching the convention with (tada!) an average family. “Hi, daddy,” she said, waving at the screen. Another heart-melting moment.
On the elevator down to the lobby, a man who looked like E. J. Dionne, a Washington Post columnist, hopped on just before the doors closed. “Hi — E. J. Dionne,” he said, shaking hands with me. I told him I enjoyed his writing, again getting the foolish urge to explain I wasn’t really handicapped. He was shorter than I had thought.
Tuesday, Day Two
The logistics of getting into the Pepsi Center did not change, although some seemingly whimsical strands of crime scene tape and a “Detour” sign sealed off one block along our route and added to the length of the hike. Again I made it as far as a bench across the bridge from the perimeter, after stopping off at the two-story alternative media tent outside to catch the remarks of Arianna Huffington, whose accent was so thick she could have used a translator. After her talk, a man approached us as we waited for the room to empty, stuck out his hand and enthusiastically introduced himself to me, saying, “Congressman!”
I introduced myself, which seemed to cause the guy some consternation.
“I thought you were Jim . . . the congressman from Washington state,” he explained, obviously embarrassed.
“McDermott?” I asked, to which he nodded vigorously.
“My friends said you were him.”
“No,” I joked, “but he is a good-looking guy.” (In fact, McDermott has very white hair and is not what I would call a babe magnet.)
Anyway, I plopped onto my bench — I was beginning to develop proprietary feelings toward it — and Gail was able to acquire a wheelchair, so off we went, this time opting to sit in the press gallery behind the podium and facing the packed house.
This was was Hillary’s night to shine, and she did not disappoint, delivering a great speech that moved some of her devoted delegates to tears.
In the most unqualified terms, she called Obama “my candidate” and told her supporters that if they believed in the issues she’d campaigned on, they wouldn’t dream of voting for Sen. John McCain over Obama, whose positions pretty much mirror her own.
Wednesday, Day Three
Passions on the mall were running high. As we rode the shuttle down to Union Station, a man asked an obviously Hispanic woman what the Spanish words on her T-shirt meant. “Bush is an ass—-,” she said, which prompted him to turn away and mutter something about illegal immigrants.
This led to a spirited exchange that drew in some other riders. There were remarks of, “I’m here legally!” and, “Did you come over on the Mayflower?” It ended up with someone threatening to kick someone off the bus.
Perhaps the tortured walks were doing me good (or maybe it was the Joint Juice!), because this time I made closer it to the Pepsi Center with only the aid of my cane (which I fondly refer to as my McCane) until, once we were inside the security perimeter, we snagged a golf cart that dropped us off near the doors. Inside, I was wheeled to the press section, but wasn’t allowed to keep the chair.
After some more warm-up speeches came the irrepressible Bill Clinton, a true party hero and the only Democrat to serve two terms since FDR (who was elected FOUR times!).
And Bill delivered just like Hillary, giving a full-throated endorsement to the man who defeated his wife, unlike his tepid support in previous comments. (In one interview when asked if Obama were qualified to be president, Clinton snapped that the Constitution sets the qualifications — born in the USA and at least 35 years old.)
But this time he left no doubt.
“Everything I learned in my eight years as president — and in the work I’ve done since, in America and across the globe — has convinced me that Barack Obama is the man for this job,” he said.
Biden then delivered a half-hour speech that excoriated Republican leadership while linking McCain to President Bush, particularly on foreign affairs.
“As we gather here tonight, our country is less secure and more isolated than at any time in recent history,” Biden said. “The Bush-McCain foreign policy has dug us into a very deep hole with very few friends to help dig us out.”
Thursday, Day Four
This was dedicated to the roll-out of Obama himself, with the party moving to Invesco Field so more people could participate. Apparently some members of the “Christian” right had been praying for rain, but the weather stayed clear. Perhaps God had better things to do.
I decided to stay in the Springs and watch it on TV. The aching back just wouldn’t work for the grand finale. Still, along with about 40 million viewers, I had a ringside seat to another one of Obama’s bellringers, a clarion call for change that was, in fact, far more inspirational than anything ever uttered by the current president.
“America, we cannot turn back — not with so much work to be done,” he said. “”Not with so many children to educate and so many veterans to care for. Not with an economy to fix and cities to rebuild and farms to save. Not with so many families to protect and so many lives to mend.
“We cannot walk alone. At this moment, in this election, we must pledge to march into the future.”
Sounded good to me, but was somebody praying for a hurricane?