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Thursday, Aug. 5, 2004 01:45 pm

The big show

In Boston last week, there were two elephants, people in cages, and at least one favorite son

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Cover photograph by Anne Farrar/Dallas Morning News/KRT

As I prepare to leave my hometown of Urbana for the Democratic National Convention, I notice that many, many people in our fair town seem to want George W. Bush out of office. A couple of streets are awash in yellow-and-black signs stating, "Regime Change Begins at Home." And as far as I can tell, the most popular bumper sticker in town is a circle with a slash running through this text: "Let's not elect him this time, either." Popular sentiment being what it is, you would expect someone to present an alternative, but thus far I've counted a total of two John Kerry bumper stickers and no lawn signs. In part this is because the Kerry campaign treats its bumper stickers like rare commodities. "I sent them $100," says friend of mine, a Vietnam veteran, "and told them to send me a bumper sticker in exchange, and that was weeks ago." But I can't help but feel that the empty space also has to do with the fact that people don't like this guy enough to put his name on their property. It's not just about gardens. The town's lawns are enthusiastic about one Democrat. His name is Barack Obama.

In Boston, the sentiments are surprisingly similar to those in the Midwest. A cabdriver says that he's heard from so many people who are unenthusiastic about Kerry that he wonders how the Massachusetts senator is getting the nomination. In fact, up until the convention is over -- when, on the Back Bay Express, emerging into an empty subway staircase with good acoustics, the crowd spontaneously bursts into a refrain of "Kerry, Kerry, Kerry" -- the only word less spoken by the conventioneers than "Kerry" is the word "Iraq" by anyone onstage. Well, everyone has something to avoid, and at the beginning of the convention the two really big elephants in the room aren't Republicans but a profound ambivalence about the "presumed nominee" and the fact that we are still involved in an occupation about which no one wanted to talk. By the end of the convention, the first elephant has been shot down and hung triumphantly above the mantel. The second massive animal has been left to roam the United States.

When I check into the Hilton Back Bay (official hotel for Illinois and Vermont delegates) on the Saturday before the convention, the mood is akin to that of a high-school reunion. It's early evening, and everyone seems to be arriving at the same time. I take a seat in the lobby and watch as the cameras film U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin's arrival and Barack Obama's arrival, then make a U-turn toward a small gray-haired man who turns out to be Democratic Party chairman Terry McAuliffe. The cameras come back to catch former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean shaking hands with Durbin; then they drop Dean, who is helping a bellboy with an unwieldy rack of luggage, and turn all of their attention to Obama. This scene foreshadows the rest of the convention: If you see an inordinate number of camerapeople and reporters following a person you can't see because he is in the center of a bunch of camerapeople, chances are good it's either Obama or filmmaker Michael Moore. A convention blogger writes that Moore looks like Pigpen in Peanuts, traveling with a dust cloud of reporters behind him. Given how unkempt Moore is, it's a good description, but because you can't actually see him, I think he's more like the Christmas tree the Peanuts gang surrounds to decorate on It's a Charlie Brown Christmas.

On Sunday I pick up my credentials and go to lunch with some people I've met from the Concord Coalition, a fiscal-responsibility group. They have a large clock, with which to tick off the deficit, that they carry around from city to city. The coalition is a bipartisan group, one explains, "which means that no one really trusts us." One of the two men works for a Republican, the other for a Democrat. I tell them it's the word "bipartisan" that people don't trust, offering the analogy that if a man says he's bisexual, he's gay, and if someone says he's bipartisan, he's usually a Democrat. The man who works for the Republican laughs heartily. That evening I decide to attend a tribute to former U.S. Sen. George McGovern, D-S.D., which turns out to be quite a hot ticket, with quite a long line, so I stay outside with a producer from NBC Extra who is trying to catch "celebrities" as they come out and who seems surprised that there's such a turnout for McGovern. "He's the original Howard Dean," I inform him, and it's true that many young people are waiting in the long line. The producer and I talk about the fact that talk-show host Jerry Springer, as an Ohio delegate, is filming a documentary about himself as an Ohio delegate. "I know," says the producer, "that this is supposed to be the inclusive party, but you've got to draw the line somewhere, and I think we can all agree that Jerry Springer is that line."

Before I arrive at the security lines at the FleetCenter, where the convention is being held, I notice the protester cage -- literally a cage -- at safe distance. When I try to go over to it the first night to see what is being protested (seems like Iraq, but I don't have my glasses on), I am told in no uncertain terms to move back immediately. On the second night, people have protested against the protest cage and we're allowed to go over and look at the protesters and the protesters. It's not easy to look at people in a cage, and these protesters are fanatics who hold signs saying such things as "Fags = Death" and "God wanted 9/11." I don't know whether there's a revolving schedule for groups of protesters, or whether certain groups can't stand to be in the cage with other groups, but after that display, the protests against the protest cage diminish considerably

After the security lines, going into the FleetCenter, I notice a few people making the sign of the cross. Maybe it's because the management of the New York Times told the reporters to feel free to bring their gas masks, or because all the bomb-sniffing dogs, or just because our government has been pretty successful in warning of an "imminent attack." Each time there's a noise, people jump and get a wide-eyed look on their faces. It's a level of anxiety I can't completely describe until it is replicated when on TV I see producer Larry David (Seinfeld, Curb Your Enthusiasm) sitting with U.S. Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., in a skybox. It's the feeling of waiting for something unpleasant to transpire. (Thank God John Cusack's in there with them.) It's exactly how I feel about the miles and miles of security forces surrounding the perimeter of the FleetCenter.

Every state delegation has a slightly different character, and, of course, Illinois is one of my favorites. It also gets good marks from some of the Michigan delegates, who say, "I prefer it over here." I am partial to the New Mexico delegation, which hands out "Bill Richardson salsa." I attend two Illinois-delegate breakfasts, although, unfortunately, I don't make Monday's, at which Cusack makes an appearance. On Tuesday, I am given a crash course on strained relations in Illinois, but on the breakfast panel, everyone (Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan is absent) seems to be in good humor. When Illinois Senate President Emil Jones says, "We have enough state senators here to continue the budget meeting, Governor," everyone laughs. Anyone who says that the convention is unimportant, notes former ambassador and senatorCarol Moseley Braun, should look at all the foreign press here. The delegates are cautioned to be in their seats tonight. Says Jones: "Tonight we send before this nation a son of Illinois, and we have to be there to support our homeboy Barack Obama."

I'd been hearing about Obama from friends in Chicago for months. "He's like Adlai Stevenson," one of them confides. "He makes you believe in politics again." When I repeat this to one of the delegates, she says, "He's better than Adlai. Adlai was aloof. Barack can touch people." During his speech, he does indeed. Although there are Kennedy references throughout the convention, it is Obama who most embodies in presence and in oratory the question "Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country." I'm not completely sure why this is; he seems mostly like a decent guy who has lived his life the right way. It's something intangible that glows out onto other people's faces when he's speaking. I watch him on a television outside the floor. As Obama speaks, everyone in the crowded outside hall gets quiet; an older white man almost breaks into tears and a young Japanese man next to him pumps his fists into the sky. The only other politician who approaches Obama's degree of presence (outside of Bill Clinton, of course) is vice presidential nominee John Edwards, whose smile is not ubiquitous but is fantastic. When it suddenly appears, it is like a surprising punctuation mark, and it changes the language of what he is saying. Quick on the thumbs-up draw, Edwards has read the Democratic "cautious optimism" -- a phrase repeated over and over again here -- as an oxymoron and has decided to dive headfirst into optimism. For those without Vietnam-combat experience, it's a courage they can aspire to, and it seems they love Edwards for offering it to them.

There's not much actual poetry in the speeches. U.S. Sen. Joe Biden, from Delaware, references a Yeats line, "A terribly beauty has been born." And former U.S. Sen. Jean Carnahan, of Missouri, quotes Carl Sandburg, "We are Americans. Nothing like us ever was." Kerry's own quotation of Langston Hughes' "Let America Be America Again" before the convention has gotten him in trouble with right-wing radio because Hughes (like Sandburg) had socialistic sensibilities, which Rush Limbaugh has turned into "Hughes was a communist, Kerry is a communist." In the dearth of poetic reference, metaphor abounds -- the same metaphor: There's a ship. There's water. There's a captain of the ship. We're all in the same boat. Get it? It's so overt, I think they haven't used Walt Whitman's "O Captain! My Captain!" because it would be overkill, but really, when I look at the poem again, I see that it's because the captain ends up dead on the deck after winning the battle. It is Clinton, of course, who masters the metaphor, early on, with the subtheme of plying rough waters on the way to a more perfect union, and ends with the lines "Let us choose as a captain of our ship a brave good man who knows how to steer a vessel through troubled waters to the calm seas and clear skies of our more perfect union."

If the central metaphor of foreign policy is ocean and shore, the domestic symbol is the kitchen table, evoked by both Obama and Edwards. It's a place where, apparently, people pay bills. Where, in the speeches, mostly women pay bills, although that's not exactly an activity you can image Teresa Heinz Kerry participating in. About halfway through the convention I become aware that there is musical commentary behind the speakers: They play "Revolution" for Dean, "Power to the People" for Kucinich, and "Georgia" for Jimmy Carter, and after Teresa Heinz Kerry speaks they play "Shout." A woman from Cuba says Teresa is so sophisticated that she doesn't know whether Americans will be able to "get her."

Before the convention, there is a lot of talk that the speeches are going to be carefully controlled and that speechwriters are working backstage, ready to cut out anything offensive. Al Sharpton is the only one who significantly deviates from the prepared text. He offers the excuse that he is responding to Bush's question of whether African-Americans wouldn't be better off aligning with both political parties. Sharpton gets one of the largest ovations of the convention when he says, "We didn't get the 40 acres. We didn't get the mule, so we're going to ride this donkey as far as it will go."

I see the game plan differently. I don't think it was cowardice to avoid raging against Bush. I think there's a brilliant plan to these speeches. In John Sayles' movie Matewan, a union-busting corporation is about to take over the town and mines, and, although the promises these people make at first look good, it becomes clear to a few that a sinister plan is at work. The preacher boy in the film (one of the few who sees the upcoming danger) needs to warn the congregation and to warn them in a way that doesn't alert the corporate guys of the warning. He encodes his warning via biblical passages. Though he doesn't use biblical phrases, Carter is the old preacher boy at this convention. His speech is one of the most subversive speeches I've ever heard, and not all of the message lay under the surface.

Covert speech may be a risky business. Stevenson famously replied when someone shouted out that he had every thinking person's vote, "But I need a majority." Whoever put the speeches together trusted their audience to get it, to know the context, to know that when Edwards says, "I've heard a lot about of discussion lately about where and when it's appropriate to talk about race, and my answer is 'Everywhere'" that the audience understands the reference to Bill Cosby's recent controversy over talking race in front of a public (read "white") audience; and that when U.S. Rep. Mike Honda of California speaks of the Japanese concentration camps, identifies himself as a survivor of a Japanese internment camp, and says, "Kerry understands the dark lessons of our nation's history," it doesn't take much to relate it to Arab-Americans' beingheld unlawfully. And this particular audience does get it. When Clinton says, "Wisdom and strength are not opposing values," the floor goes wild. They know about whom he's talking.

It's Kerry who first gets to speak the name that should not be spoken, that of George W. Bush. Kerry enters to Bruce Springsteen's "Surrender." One of Kerry's boatmates (the guy from Kankakee) is standing behind him during the speech and one of the other journalists notes that the swift boat number (44) on their blue shirts is the presidential number Kerry aspires to.

It's his speech that gets to be the most direct (although, again, what about Iraq?). He glows while he is giving it, and not all of that is perspiration. I, along with many, many other people, get locked out of the FleetCenter well before Kerry's final speech, and I end up watching it with several other journalists in a media-pavilion tent. It is Kerry's daughters with whom all of the men watching with me are fascinated, and though I cringe during the story of the candidate resuscitating the hamster, I have to admit it's a story that does stay with you, though what effect stem-cell research will have on hamster mortality is not discussed. Stem-cell research is one issue on which everyone, including Kerry, is willing to take a stand.

After the speech, U2's "It's a Beautiful Day" plays, and it seems appropriate in its pessimistic optimism.

The signs they hand out for Kerry's speech -- "Help is on the way" -- are brilliantly subversive and indicative of the entire convention. It's an optimistic slogan that takes as its base the common knowledge of a desperate situation, and I almost hope to see the signs on lawns when I get home. What are there, though, as I come back from the farmers' market, on lawns, next to the Obama signs, are blue-and-red Kerry-Edwards signs.

Also from Gale Walden