Convention Notes 2004: Democratic Convention

Day 1

This is possibly the smartest Democratic convention I've seen. Of course, I haven't seen that many. The convention hall was, as usual, unbelievably ugly. Democrats are very much into dark lighting and dark decor. Still, it was a huge improvement on the 2000 convention's glum interior.

I watched PBS. The convention coverage is managed by the ever gentlemanly Lehrer. His principle commentators were Mark Shields and David Brooks. I miss Paul Gigot, but David Brooks is an acceptable substitute. They both have that uneffusive desire for context, a sense of humor and a neat overlay of self-deprecation, although Gigot was more self-deprecating that Brooks, which is another way of saying that he cared less.

A big deal was made by everyone about how well-behaved the Democrats were. In other words, unlike 2000, they weren't boycotting each other and fighting on the floor, although the rumor is that Ralph Nader's floor pass was "lost." Bush was at least twice commended for being a "uniter" as in "he's united the Democrats."

The first major speaker in Prime Time (Brooks made a few wry comments about the Bush-bashers BEFORE Prime Time) was Gore, and good heavens, the man has gained a personality. It was like watching Keanu Reeves act well. It wasn't much of a personality. He was jokey, good sportsmanship guy, but still, it was remarkable, and, I hate to admit this, probably the best talk of the evening. (Clinton's was good, but in a very different way.)

Then the nine women senators came out and one of them gave a speech. I was rather puzzled. It seemed such a token, feminist gesture (and oddly enough, the commentators more or less agreed with me) until I realized that Hillary Clinton was one of the senators. The Democrats pulled out all their big guns last night, bang, bang, bang.

Then Carter spoke. Carter is a big gun in principle, and I think he's sweet, but it's hard to take the man seriously. He got up and quipped (from his acceptance speech back in 1976), "My name is Jimmy Carter, and I'm NOT running for President" which puzzled the floor since no one knew whether they should clap or not.

Jimmy Carter was the Court-appointed Bush basher, which should have been annoying except that it is very hard to get annoyed with Jimmy Carter. Half-way through his speech, he started to remind me of the clergyman from Princess Bride--"Mawige is what bwings us together today. A Dweam within a dweam"--and then I couldn't get the image out of my mind.  So I went back to reading my book (A History of the American People by P. Johnson) only surfacing now and again. The gist of Jimmy Carter's speech seemed to be that everybody in the world hates us, and it is all Bush's fault.

After Jimmy Carter, there was a tribute to 9/11. Glenn Close, possibly the best speaker of the evening and also the best dressed, started it off. It was a nice idea. The problem with Democrats doing a 9/11 tribute is, unless you have Billy Joel singing, it's very hard not to keep thinking, "Yeah, but the Republicans are the only ones who want to keep the war against terrorism going. You people don't care" which may not be fair, but is the thought that keeps occurring. Especially since, as Brooks pointed out, no one discussed the 9/11 report.

Hillary Clinton introduced her husband and my mind wandered since her speech was platitudes piled on platitudes and, unlike Glenn Close, she isn't a terribly good speaker.

At which point Bill Clinton came out and gave the wiliest speech of the evening. "It didn't reach poetic standards," Brooks said, but boy, was it a smart speech. Unlike Carter, Clinton comes across as someone who pays attention to politics and world affairs and moreover, understands them. He gave what Brooks described as the Vice-President's prosecution speech. His speech was aimed at undecideds and Republicans who are dissatisfied with the so-called "far right" Republicans in Washington. He showered kudos on John Kerry. He slammed Bush's presidency on the tax cut for the rich (more on this later). He effectively used both his own position as a rich man and the fact that he didn't fight in Vietnam as leverage. The man is smart.

No one mentioned gay marriage.

I think the idea is that if Kerry can be built up to fever pitch, all he will have to do on Thursday is ride the enthusiasm. The fact that Kerry is Mr. Human Sloth is a problem about which many people are aware. EVERYONE talked about what a swell guy Kerry is, although Gore seemed to be the only one who meant it. Kerry is a big pro-environmentalist, which, contrary to wishful thinking, will not necessarily endear him to Republicans.

I turned off the TV at 11:00 with several thoughts in mind.

1. The Democrat party is committed to single-handedly destroying small business. Kerry's economic plan, as discussed in a NewsHour interview, is to increase the minimum wage, force health care on everyone and tax the rich more (which will, presumably pay for all this). It's a nightmare of an idea. I understand the necessity of earning a living, I do it every day, but I also, having worked for small businesses, understand how crippling health care costs, taxes and benefits to full-time employees can be. A small-business, to survive, will hire temps, part-timers, only family or cut employees. Welcome to reality.

2. Democrats think that the money people earn is the government's money. This business of "the rich tax cut" is so stupid, it makes me want to spit. But I won't because it will get my screen dirty.

The assumption is that the "money was ours (i.e. the government's) but we gave you a cut so we gave it back to you--FOR FREE."

And this is what we fought a Revolutionary War for. The money ISN'T the government's. It belongs to the people who earned it. The whole point of taxation with representation is that the people decide what to do with their money, and if, as he claims, Bill Clinton was really as upset as all that at stealing the "government's money," why didn't HE start some "more security at Airports" Club?


3. Gore is a martyr. Oh, I missed that memo. (To his credit, he played that card but kept to the good sportsmanship persona.)

4. Our allies hate us.

Since I always thought our allies hated us, this sudden concern for the good opinion of France kind of surprised me. Europe hated us in the 1980s and they didn't seem overly fond of us in the 1990s and they still hate us now. And how exactly are we supposed to get our allies to love us, if we aren't willing to (a) send them jobs; or b) use them as our bankers?

5. This last was not intended, but it was my reaction anyway. It occurred to me that Bush was pushed out of his depth with 9/11 but then any politician would have been. The Bush presidency did change its approach after 9/11, but which presidency couldn't have reacted in the same way? Bush is accused of lying to the Congress about WMDs. He was desperate to get the Congress to act. He behaved, in other words, like a War President. Not good behavior for a peace-time President, but my overall impression, as the night proceeded, was to feel a deep sadness for a man who was given a too weighty task to perform. He decided to (finally) solve the problem of the last thirty plus years by fixing the Middle East and is getting precious little support or thanks. Not that Bush is a martyr himself, but I wasn't filled with rage against the Bush presidency, just an overwhelming sense of sorrow. What a stinky job. Why does anyone want it?  

Day 2

Tonight, I decided to vote Democrat. Oh, no, not for John Kerry. For a guy named Barack Obama who gave one of the absolutely best political speeches I have heard in a very, very long time. From anybody since Reagan frankly. It was great. It was truly awesome. He's a Senate candidate in Illinois and all the pundits in the boxes were thrown off their seats.

The point of conventions, like the point of commercials and the point of, well, most things, like, you know, life, is what's between the lines. HOW something is being sold is far more interesting than what is being sold. That's where the true story lies. That's why I love television. That's why I get giddy over commercials. That's why James Earl Jones is my hero. That's why David Brooks and Mark Shields love what they do. It doesn't matter that all these people praising Kerry to the skies could be better employed mowing their lawns (the same could be said of Republicans in two weeks); it doesn't matter that two years from now when Kerry's presidency is going down the toilet every single one of the convention speakers will separate himself from Kerry and hold up his or her hands in shock; what matters is HOW they are selling Kerry. That tells you more about people than anything ever possibly can. I don't watch conventions to learn how to vote. I don't, in all truth, really care that much about who is the next president. I watch conventions to learn how people think. Throw that out, you throw out the joy of life itself.

The Democrats are trying to do what Reagan did in 1980, reach beyond the party lines, reform their party into the image of--okay, remember, their convention is in Boston, wait for it--a revolutionary majority throwing out a dictatorship. Seriously. It hardly matters that that is probably the farthest thing from an objective view of the matter. What matters is that the party heads believe that (1) it is necessary to recreate the Democratic party in this mold; (2) it will speak to a large majority of Americans. They believe THIS will work. Why do they believe this? Call it window dressing by all means, but remember, that the guys who want power and money and prestige think this is the way to go. THAT is interesting.

So, the second day of the convention they put up a youngster (he is 42 but hasn't even gone National yet) to give what is possibly one of the most thrilling and yes, non-partisan oriented speeches since Martin Luther King cried out that "all God's children will join in the old Negro spiritual: Free at Last. Free at Last. Thank God Almighty, we are Free at Last." 

The evening started out dull. I had the TV on, but it was Ted Kennedy speaking. I didn't know that. I thought it was just some Tip O'Neil-looking politician blathering on about America and I turned the sound way down. At eight o'clock, the Democratic Convention was looking pretty pointless.

Until Obama spoke. Huzzah! This is a guy who has, in Illinois, crossed lines. He has charisma. He comes across, more of less, a conservative Democrat. He has a fascinating background. He speaks to a large body of moderate Americas. He is smart. He is smart enough to temper his clap-inducing rabble remarks with objectivity. He is passionate without being a conspiracist . He doesn't reek of partisanship (and I hate partisanship; partisanship is stupid. It is paranoid, narrow and self-interested. I think you can have strong opinions without the deadening kind of partisanship that demands some kind of absolute my-side-right-or-wrong allegiance.)

After Obama, Ronald Reagan, Jr. spoke about stem cell research. His speech was "non-political" (other than, let's see, the fact that he showed up at the Democratic convention). He didn't mention Kerry's name, although the pundits did.

I had mixed feelings about his speech. On the one hand, it was the best explanation of embryonic tissue research I've ever heard.

On the other hand, I hated his argument. His argument was the old, "Are we going to sacrifice our children's future because of some petty moralists?"

I'm not arguing that stem cell research is the same as killing fetuses. I have zero opinions in this regard. But I hate the argument. You can excuse anything based on that argument. "It doesn't matter as long as it is good for our children." Nazism. Concentration camps. Anything.

Lastly, Chris Heinz--who is cute but not a terribly good speaker--introduced his mother Theresa Heinz-Kerry, who is a much better speaker.

Theresa Heinz-Kerry is Kerry's wife, natch, and an interesting women with an interesting history and interesting accent. She started out solid, but, as David Brooks put it, went "wonky." I think the problem was that she isn't a woman who goes on and on about her wonderful husband. But that is more or less the potential first-lady-to-be's job at the convention. For a woman who (1) has no political pretensions and (2) is more likely to give a discourse on an outside topic than a personal one, her job wasn't easy, and the result was anti-climatic. "She didn't give us anything personal about Kerry to latch onto," Brooks pointed out.

In fact, none of the Heinz-Kerry clan seemed to be overwhelmingly devoted to Kerry's wonderfulness, and this may be the problem with Kerry's campaign. An enormous amount of energy is going into this convention. In another two days, instead of riding that energy, Kerry may deflate it. It's the old Stephen King explanation of the problem with horror. The "ahhhh" in the closet has to live up the preceding tension. If Kerry had showed up tonight, he could have ridden it, but two days from now? Ouch.

Day 3

I was on the phone when the TV went beserk. It was shrieking at the cats. So I went into the living room and realized it was Al Sharpton.

According to the pundits, he was suppose to speak for 6 minutes and went off script for 20. David Brooks said several times that when the speakers went off script, they were far more interesting (and far more to the left) and much more impassioned. Kerry's "caution," he says, is suffusing the convention. Translation: David Brooks is bored.

Anyway, there was Sharpton screaming at the TV, and off script or not, it was super annoying. What do people see in this guy? It sounded like this: "AHHHHHHHWHHHAHHHYAHHLFAAAHSAAA." It was like watching Richard Burton perform Shakespeare: same volume and inflection for EVERY SINGLE WORD.

Yesterday was boring night, although the floor was more packed. The one thing that happened of any interest was that PBS interviewed Dean, which made me appreciate the guy's charisma. I don't agree with his platform, but he is an articulate, well-spoken creature of fairly definite views. The pundits, in the way of pundits, continue to refer to the convention as "Howard Dean's convention; Kerry's campaign," and they pointed out that the Howard Dean signs, unlike the other for-camera signs, were homemade.

FINALLY, Cate Edwards introduced her mother (she's a better speaker than Chris Heinz). Mrs. Edwards, who is not as good a speaker as Mrs. Kerry but far more approachable, did what Mrs. Kerry didn't and gave her husband a glowing testimonial. At which point, Edwards came out and, with the drawl that seems part and parcel of a politician's voice these days, gave the speech Gore wanted to give in 2000 and couldn't.

That is, Edwards gave a populist speech, the whole "two different Americas" thing. It was much better than Gore's speech for several reasons.

For one thing, it wasn't steeped in paranoia. That is, the approach wasn't, "Two Americas and one is trying to drag you down," the approach was, "Two Americas and heck, why shouldn't we all be rich." Secondly, Edwards has *slightly* more knowledge of the "common man" than Gore. Third, Edwards has charisma. Not as much as everyone has been toting, but having more charisma than Gore did in 2000 is like saying, "He had more charisma than cardboard," not difficult to do.

He went after out-sourcing (EVERYONE has gone after out-sourcing; Democrats don't strike me as particular credible or even vaguely smart about economics) and informed the world that "3 million children should have some place to go after school" because, presumably, they can't go home. Oh, wait, that's right, their parents are working. Hello, daycare nation.

Everything is going to get paid for by taxing the rich but ONLY 2%. 98% of Bush's tax cuts are going to stay in place. So 2% of those tax cuts are going to be rolled back in order to tax the richest people in America who will pay for EVERYTHING. There's a word for this. I think it is something like: economic dictatorship. Do we want a privileged aristocracy that pays for everything? Does anyone not see a problem with this? Other than the stupid economics, don't they realize that money=power? And he who pays the piper, calls the tune--loudly?

In my History of the American People, the author continually refers to the fact that Washington believed that most people act in terms of self-interest (in fact, according to my American Law Cases book, this was such a fundamentally accepted truth that John Adams used the following to defend the British soldiers in the Boston "Massacre"--if two men are standing on a plank in the water, and the plank will only hold one, one will push the other off AND he is justified in doing so). It would be so much easier if politicians, and voters, would acknowledge this basic human reaction, instead of coming up with silly economic schemes and then being shocked SHOCKED! when, instead of equating money=compassion, the average human being acts on the principles of self-interest.

After silly economics, Edwards gave a speech about war and aggression that sounded  like he'd run across a couple of states and ten days and joined the Republican convention. It was downright aggressive and despite the papering of the floor for the camera with pro-Edwards folks, I wondered how the rank and file felt about it. The floor is reputedly much more leftist than the Democratic leaders are playing the convention. I foresee disillusion in future months. Disillusioning leftists is like teasing crybabies in a school play yard. A tad too easy for the nasty minded.

And that was all. Not as interesting as last night or as fun as Monday. But the veneer of civilized moderation is beginning to wear thin. Makes me wonder how Kerry will fare tomorrow tonight.

Day 4

Tonight, I watched the Republican Convention.

In 2000, the Democrats accused Bush of trying to hone in on their territory with Compassionate Conservatism. That is nothing compared to what the Democrats did last night.

David Brooks described the convention as militaristic. That is an understatement.

It started with Lieberman who, to do him justice, is a true Hawk. He came out and denounced Communism, Nazism and Islamic Terrorists. He praised the Homeland Security Act which, by the way, Democrats had been criticizing all week. He praised the  Afghanistan War and the Iraq War. (Why is this guy a Democrat?)

The floor didn't know how to react. Interestingly enough, the camera stayed on Lieberman the whole time. With most speakers, the camera does that whole reaction-shot thing. Maybe PBS was being nice; I don't think the reaction-shot thing would have looked good for the Democrats. The clapping was tepid and the floor was noisy. This is NOT what they want to hear. And although the floor may accept it as necessary to win the presidency, enduring the actual speech itself is a different big ball of waxy intentions.

This call to arms continued with Kerry, although damped down, but first Andre Heinz, who looks and sounds a little like Ross Gellar from Friends, introduced his stepsisters Vanessa Kerry and Alexandra Kerry.

Their job was to make their dad human and it was hokeyness to end all hokeyness. Hokeyness squared. Alexandra did a better job than Vanessa, partly because she has better delivery and partly because her material was less sappy. She gave the hamster story, if you've heard it. The end result was that, okay, Kerry appears to be a good dad. On the other hand, there was nothing so forthright and down to earth as Jenna Bush's description of her father as the "kind-who-likes-to-joke-around-until-he-scares-my boyfriends-to-death." 

At the moment, it hardly seemed to matter. I will tell you when it started to matter.

So, John Kerry FINALLY came out and did the whole pushing through the floor thing. He looked much more presidential than he has. Someone has gotten him to gawk less, and he doesn't look so dopey. He spoke for nearly forty-five minutes (gag, please, I hope George Bush doesn't) and he started out strong. This is the party of optimism. The party for the environment. The party that will protect America.

He covered the whole waffling thing by stating that things are complicated, nothing is simple, etc. etc. He's a thinker, he is. He's a strong man who acts but he thinks too. And so on and so forth. And I was buying it. I wasn't running out with a John Kerry sign and throwing pamphlets around, but he was selling himself and very effectively too.

And then he made a mistake. For me, at least. He said, "And I will adopt ALL the recommendations of the 9/11 Report."

Oh, yeah? So what happened to, "Things are complicated?" That didn't sound very "things are complicated" to me; that sounded like someone who will say anything to win.

As the speech proceeded, this became more and more clear. Other than stupid economics (Kerry is NOT going to tax small business, but is going to tax people who make over $200,000—what exactly is Kerry's definition of small business?), Kerry focused almost exclusively on selling himself as a new and higher-minded commander in chief, co-opting, as David Brooks pointed out, the neo-conservative argument that Iraq failed (which it hasn't [yet--and I'd rather it didn't]) because we didn't have enough troops (at the same time arguing that Bush shouldn't have called up the reservists because they are reservists, which is one of the oddest arguments I've ever heard.) My reaction, as the evening proceeded, was "smoke and mirrors." Even the hamster story.

In fact, the more I think about it, the more I am struck by how the Democratic Convention (not just Kerry's speech) could be summed up this way: "Everything Bush did is exactly what we would do. Yeah. And we wouldn't kowtow to the U.N. either. Yeah. And we hate terrorism too. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. But WE would have been nice about it" (i.e. France would still like us).

But Kerry's speech was also very smart. As Brooks pointed out, it has placed the Bush campaign in the difficult position of having to prove a negative, that is to prove that Kerry is not as Republican as he sold himself. Kerry has claimed the high road, belittling Bush's "small-minded" attacks, which translates to, "Don't ask me about my senate record," and claiming that divisive partisanship is all coming from the Bush campaign (which, as anyone who has seen my office could tell you, is horse feathers.)

Bush will have to be very, very smart and very, very canny. Which he is, so the Republican reaction to all this should be interesting. His biggest weakness is that Bush has a tendency to give a "What, are you stupid or something?" reaction when people ask him obvious questions. This is different from Gore pomposity. Bush isn't pompous; he's weary. Before invading Iraq when reporters kept asking the same questions over and over, this was his reaction: "They're terrorists. Isn't it obvious? They're terrorists. Why don't you get that?" He doesn't bother to explain himself because he doesn't get why he should have to. What, are people stupid or something? Terrorists are bad. Kill terrorists.

He will, unfortunately, need to refrain from this kind of reaction over the next 100 days. Kerry & crowd have down a masterful job as displaying themselves as the moderate middle and Republicans as the extremists. This is not something that I buy, but it interests me that they think it is necessary. I prophecy that eventually, there will be one Demo-Republic party and the leftists will break off and form a new opposition party, called the Naderites or the Wackos or something.

In fact, the one major weakness of the Democratic convention and Kerry's speech is that they did the Republicans' job for them. They presented the War in Iraq and the reaction to the terrorists as a fait accompli and as a good thing. They played the military card. There is a huge irony here because it is entirely possible that many Americans will go, "Oh, well, I guess we have to do it, might as well let Bush finish the job." Kerry might have guaranteed Bush the presidency.

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