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Friday, July 30, 2004

Democratic National Convention, Day 4

It's the final day of this dog and pony show, and the Top Dog (or pony) will speak at 9, Chicago time. It's also Guns & Ammo night, with Wesley Clark opening prime time at 7, Max Cleland introducing Kerry, and a host of his Vietnam crewmates filling out the bill. Finally, it's Family Night, with the Heinz and Kerry Kids putting in an appearance.

On the advice of some friends, I've switched stations once again, to C-Span. They offer true gavel to gavel coverage (those of a certain age will recall the days when the networks advertised their reporting of the Conventions in this way) without the intrusion of commentators. (I've been using this word all week, but in my heart I feel it's not a real word. It's a 70s word that has gained acceptance through usage (as English words do), but I have a sense it replaced a perfectly useful word. Commentor? Is that a word? Oh, for an OED. I'm reminded of my students who use the word "comfortableness," until I inform them the word they probably want is comfort.) I'll switch back to MSNBC at 8:30 (or rather, my cable box will, since I'll be out at that time), because I'm interested in hearing some jibber-jabber about the speech.

C-Span offers a very different view of the show. Apparently, "Higher and Higher" is the theme song for the entire Convention, not just Edwards' appearance last night, as I hear snatches of it throughout. Well, not the song so much as the backup singers going "Do do do do, do do do do ..." I'm hard pressed to describe my relation with Kerry and Edwards, or their relationship with me, or even their relationship with each other, as Your Love. But the lyric applies to my current political mood and hopes: "Once, I was down hearted / Disappointment was my closest friend / But then you came and he soon departed / And he never showed his face again." In addition to the snatches of the Do-Do girls, there are regular announcements by a disembodied female voice. You may have heard her introduce speakers who are too low on the food chain to be introduced by a human being. But she occasionally makes other announcements, such as "Delegates, please take your seats. We must clear the aisles before we can continue." It's like being on the Democratic National Convention Ride at Universal Studios. At any moment, I expect her to tell the delegates to keep their heads and arms inside the Fleet Center at all times.

Another thing you notice, watching the show in its entirety, is just how boring it all is, at least once you get out of prime time. Everyone has their say and no one has more than 6 or 7 minutes. No one is truly incompetent - most of these folks are elected officials, so they have plenty of public speaking experience - but after a while, everyone starts sounding like the teacher on the Peanuts cartoons. Especially this year, when unity is the theme, there's not even the occasional whack job to start ranting about his or her personal gripe. It's almost a relief when the head of the AFL-CIO shows up with his trio of the nobly unemployed, playing what could be a scene out of SCTV. The guy is not quite Jiminy Glick, but he's awfully close. He's accompanied by a machinist from Iowa who now works in a grocery store, which may explain why he shows up in a pullover shirt with the sleeves rolled up instead of a suit or at least a sports coat. I think the name of the woman with him is Mariacella Garcia, but since Jiminy stumbles over it every time he pronounces it, it's hard to tell. The third stooge is Steven White, who is, of course, black.

Thus, it's a relief when the pre-show finally ends and the main program gets underway at 7. Tonight's featured guests include the Two Joes, Biden and Lieberman, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, and in our salute to the military, Wesley Clark and Madeline Albright. Not together, unfortunately. No one gets more than 5 or 10 minutes to speak (except Albright, who's scheduled into a 30 minute block I hope she's not expected to fill), so I'm not expecting much. As we transition out of the pre-show, "We Are Family" plays over the sound system, with all the requisite white funk on the part of the delegates. Having seen The Birdcage, it's hard for me to hear this song without looking for Gene Hackman in drag. Then Mavis Staples, who is described as "one of America's best loved musical artists," opens the evening with "America the Beautiful." This is appropriate, since up until March of 1931, when "The Star-Spangled Banner" got the nod, many Americans considered this song the official national anthem. Staples opens with some verse I've never heard - not "spacious skies" nor "patriot dream." In keeping with the martial theme, she starts with, "O beautiful for heroes proved / In liberating strife." Is this the liberation of Iraq we're referring to here, and if so, isn't that dangerous ground? In any case, the song has at least six verses (Can you sing them all?), so I suppose they could start with a different verse every night of the Convention if they wanted to.

Biden gets the audience worked up with a speech that seems largely cribbed from Bill Maher's book, When You Ride Alone You Ride With Bin Laden. In particular, he focuses on the opportunities lost after 9/11, when the American people and much of the international community would have done anything to help. Clark salutes the military, going so far as to announce, "We love our men and women in uniform!" which, true as it may be, plays less well from a 60 year old retired general than he might expect. But he gets big props for announcing that "Anyone who tells you that one political party has a monopoly on the best defense of our nation is committing a fraud on the American people." I've never understood how a "shoot first, ask question later" attitude necessarily makes you strong on defense. Its major proponents seem to be Clancy Wiggum and the Queen of Hearts. Nor do I understand what makes George W. Bush, who has presided over two failed military campaigns, such a genius on defense. Clark seems to be with me as he quotes the FDR line, "Repetition does not transform a lie into the truth." This being national security night, Clark puts Kerry up with what he calls the "pantheon of great wartime Democrats:" Woodrow Wilson (World War I); Roosevelt and Truman (II); and Kennedy (the Cuban Missile Crisis). By the time he gets to his closing - "America, hear this soldier" - the crowd is going nuts.

Joe Lieberman puts an end to that. This is the guy who made Al Gore look dynamic. When he hauls out Edwards' line, "Hope is on the way," too much of the crowd has dozed off to realize they're supposed to join in. Playing "Shout" on his exit wakes them up a bit, but the swirling designs on the jumbotrons threaten to hypnotize them back into stupor. This seems to be the version of the song used for the laundry presoak, which brings on more of the white funk.

Nancy Pelosi follows with what is basically a by-the-book speech outlining Democratic beliefs without making any specific proposals. She stakes one party against the other, with the recurring line, "Democrats have it right." But her crisp, measured delivery, combined with stilted gestures, makes her more like a grade school teacher speaking at assembly than a dynamic leader. She gets one thing right, though, when she reminds the crowd, "Our work will not be complete unless we elect a Democratic Congress." Granted, as House Minority Leader, she has personal reasons for desiring a Democratic House of Representatives. But I'm glad someone has brought up what has been my rallying cry for months: in many ways, the Congressional battles are more important than the Presidential election.

Her speech is followed by the vamp from "Mr. Big Stuff," which is somewhat disconcerting. Then Willie Nelson performs - is he Mr. Big Stuff? - which is even more so. Finally Madeline Albright comes out to the chorus of "To Be Real," and I give up trying to make sense of the song selections.

It's hard to believe it's only an hour into the show. I find myself missing the blather of Chris Matthews. Albright's speech strikes many of the same notes we've already heard, and I'm thinking someone should have gotten these drafts together and parceled out various parts of Kerry's story to various speakers. By the time Maddie gets to her childhood in Czechoslovakia, I'm reaching for the remote.

Next there's a series of average Americans - teachers, farmers, homemakers - explaining, in 50 words or less, why they're voting for Kerry. To quote Repo Man, "ordinary fucking people; I hate 'em." By the time Carole King shows up (singing "You've Got a Friend," surprise, surprise), I'm already on fast forward. This is the problem with taping the event. If I was home, I'd be channel hopping by now, seeing what the pundits had to say. As it is, I'm stuck with the clean-shaven sounds of Hooray for Everything.

Speaking of clean-shaven, Andre Heinz finally shows up. He looks a bit like Bert Convy, and I'm grateful when he doesn't address the Alabama delegation as the Banana Section. Family Night takes off as Chris Heinz puts in a cameo, Alex and Vanessa Kerry come out, and everybody hugs. Then they all go, except for Vanessa, the blonde Kerry daughter. Guess what? She likes her dad! She really, really likes him! He's warm and loving, not stiff and aloof! And he loves America! Stop the presses! Once she's warmed our cockles sufficiently, she brings back her sister, Alex(andra), the dark, brooding Kerry daughter. At 8:30, the tape shifts over to MSNBC, but Alex is still on screen. Chris Matthews is just here for the chicks. Alex's main function, outside of telling another inspirational story about her dad (He's good! And wise!), is to introduce the John Kerry infomercial.

These short films are now required viewing at every political convention. This one is narrated by Morgan Freeman, which makes it serious but reassuring. There's not much here you don't already know if you've been paying attention, which means for many Americans it will be a revelation. What I learn is that even as a kid, Kerry was funny looking. In one clip, he looks like Andrea Martin, which is unfortunate for both of them. His parents are both normal looking folks, as is his brother, so I'm not sure why he looks like one of those carved apples soaked in vinegar and then pressed in a vice. Kerry plays well on film. It's nice to see him out of the suit and kicking back for a change. He comes across as comfortable, relaxed and ... geez, just an ordinary guy. Which for him is a very big deal. Much of the film focuses on his service in Vietnam, 'cause it's Guns & Ammo night, you know. Then, after a brief pause, out come his war buddies, along with Jim Rassmann, the guy whose life he saved during the war. Rassmann speaks for the whole "band of brothers," but his main purpose is to bring out Max Cleland. Who proceeds to hit it out of the ballpark.

Cleland has his own ax to grind, since the Bush-led Republican party defeated his re-election bid for the Senate in 2002 by running ads which featured shots of Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein, and painted him as un-American. Cleland, who lost one arm and both legs in Vietnam and ran the Veterans Administration during the 70s, was understandably perturbed. This is his chance to exact some payback. And he seizes the moment. He starts with the tale of his own struggle back from the war that left him crippled. He tells of recognizing John Kerry as a brother even before he met him. He paints Kerry's vision of the country, building with each line, so that by the time he reaches, "That is the America John Kerry volunteered to fight for. That is the America John Kerry will lead," the crown is ready to carry Kerry, Cleland, and the dozen vets on stage out into the streets on their shoulders.

By the time Kerry actually enters the hall, he could have his way with any of the women and half the men.

Kerry opens by saluting the crowd and saying, "I'm John Kerry and I'm reporting for duty." They eat it up. I do not. I get it, and by now I'm sick of it. If a Republican candidate began a speech in this way, I would cringe and feel a little afraid. I'm not about to cut Kerry slack just because he's a Democrat. I know it's Guns & Ammo night, but I want fewer guns and more ammo. More meat and less potatoes. The beef up till now has been that Americans don't know who John Kerry is. I know who he is; now I want to hear what he has to say for himself.

As it turns out, it's quite a bit.

The first thing that strikes me about the speech is how unfairly John Kerry has been treated by the press. He's been painted as a Brahmin: intellectual, aloof, cold. He is none of those. He's very smart, and some people find that threatening. I'm pretty smart, and this guy comes across as a lot smarter than I am. He addresses those who mock him for being "nuanced," saying "I know there are those who criticize me for seeing complexities - and I do - because some issues just aren't all that simple." He's not as folksy as an airline pilot. He's not an orator in the style of Bill Clinton or Ronald Reagan or even John Edwards. But he's clear and straightforward and - to the point - understands what he's saying. One analyst compared him to a college professor. As someone who's studied under some excellent professors, I'd say that's not far from the truth. I doubt that many people who hadn't already been told he was standoffish would find him standoffish.

This audience in all his, of course, and they're with him every step of the way. The speech is long, and he cuts off applause when he must, to keep it moving. And move it does. Although it is close to an hour long, it doesn't seem much longer than Edwards' speech, which was half that. I'm not going to go into details about the content. By now, you've read it or seen it, and if you haven't, you should.

I will say this: it knocked me out. Of course, I wanted to like it, especially after spending all week with these guys. And as it started, with the biography, with Vietnam, with the early challenges and triumphs, it seemed like the same old thing. But slowly, steadily, and almost without warning, I was drawn in. Not by the language, which was effective but not stunning, and not by the delivery, which was strong but not moving. But by the sense that this guy was serious. Not just a serious guy, which he is, but someone who meant what he said. It's easy to call it "integrity" - which it certainly is - and leave it at that. But for me it was more. My heart began to rise. I liked Clinton for what he believed, but never trusted him to carry out those beliefs, especially if it meant people wouldn't like him. [I don't know why he cared, since people obviously didn't like him anyway.] But, for all the complaints about his "waffling," I began to believe that this guy would really do what he said.

And this is what I saw in the hall as well. The night before, John Edwards told us hope was on the way. In these delegates, I saw hope. Not just hope of winning back the White House, but hope of things getting better. For all their claims to the contrary, one of the things which separates me from the Republicans - possibly the main thing - is their cynicism. That's a word they constantly throw at Democrats, which always strikes me as odd, and quite frankly delusional. When I see cynicism in Democrats, it's because their hearts have been broken so often by those across the aisle. Tonight, I saw hope in the faces in Boston, and felt it in my own heart. By the end of the speech, I wanted to hug somebody.

I know. Take two martinis and call me in the morning.

Now this could all be a pile of bullshit. But I don't think so. And even if Kerry is elected, he's likely to be able to carry off very little of what he proposes. But the notion of a president who believes in personal responsibility, and doesn't consider himself exempt, who believes in science, who truly believes in unifying the nation and the parties, that's worth a little hope.

I've seen several stories that dim what hope I have. The first is the news that very few people even saw this, or any speech of the Convention. The major networks only covered the last hour each night, which is why the big speeches were squeezed into that time slot. But ratings dropped dramatically, typically 50%, from the 8 o'clock hour to the 9 o'clock. Cable channels didn't do much better. In Chicago, even when Barack Obama spoke, ratings remained level. In the Tribune, John Kass writes of being in a neighborhood bar in Boston which was showing the rain delay of a Red Sox game. When he why they weren't watching the Convention, the bartender told him, "Honey, nobody cares about politics." Some favorite son. He imagines the story will be the same in New York next month.

As it turns out, there may be little Kerry - or Bush - can do to change his fortunes. Right now, 39 of the 50 states have been called, with only 11 states truly considered in play. The Kerry campaign recently pulled ads from a few states, after it became apparent there was little they could do to sway those voters. We may be in for a repeat of the 2000 election, with Kerry winning the popular vote but losing in the Electoral College.

On top of everything, the Miss America pageant has decided to discontinue the talent competition from their event.

That's it for now. Now it's off to New York at the end of August. The Republican National Convention starts on the same day that classes begin, so I'm not guaranteeing anything. But I'll do my best.

Thursday, July 29, 2004

Democratic National Convention, Day 3

It's Day 3 of the Convention, and nothing is happening.

That's not completely true. Somewhere out there, according to what I hear on the wrap ups, Dennis Kucinich gave a stirring speech. I take this on blind faith, because I saw nothing of it on the televised coverage. Tonight John Edwards speaks in prime time, and until then it's nothing but blather.

I've pretty much settled on MSNBC as my primary source for Convention coverage. The first night I went with CNN, figuring they'd be the least biased. They also seemed to have the best sound, oddly enough. Even now, speakers who sound muffled on MSNBC come across loud and clear on CNN. But you're also stuck with Larry King. Apparently, Larry's show is regularly scheduled for 9 pm Eastern Time, and he's not about to give it up just for some freakin' convention. So every night at 8, Chicago time, Wolf Blitzer goes away and Larry King takes over. MSNBC features Chris Matthews for their entire coverage, in some live, extended Hardball format. That I should prefer Chris Matthews over anyone (other than Bill "Satan" O'Reilly) gives you an idea of how much I cannot abide Larry King.

Matthews has actually been fairly well behaved the past few nights. Unlike the fux at FOX, he has enough of an open mind that he can respond positively to the likes of Barack Obama and Teresa Heinz Kerry, who I think he has a crush on. Tonight he interviewed the Democratic governor of Virginia, and let him have his say, even when 1) he wasn't answering Matthews' questions, and 2) he was repeating himself. Matthews has actually gotten fairly comfortable with people not answering his questions, perhaps because no one ever does. Tonight, his prime question is, "Is Edwards capable of being president, or was he chosen just to enhance the ticket?" The correct answer, according to Matthews, is B, he was chosen just to enhance the ticket, and everyone knows it (since he repeats it endlessly), so everyone just humors him. Part of Matthews' dislike for Edwards (though he does praise his speech) stems from the fact that he also has a crush on Dick Cheney. Tonight in particular, he mentions Cheney's name so many times that I become Dracula's daughter and scream, "Will you stop talking about that Dick!!!"

When I tune in, at 7 pm CDT (as all times will be from here on out) - which for me is prime time - some black man is ranting in the distance. And no, it's not Al Sharpton. And it doesn't sound like Jesse Jackson, though I hear he spoke today. I assume it's a black man, but it could be a white woman with a deep voice and a Baptist preacher style. Ron Reagan told us last night that the inclination is to shout, since the hall is so loud you can't hear yourself think. The Dems have put together an instructional video of Dos and Don'ts, and are priming the speakers before they go on. Apparently whoever's on stage now missed the lesson. In addition to speaking conversationally, since the directional mic will pick up your voice no matter what, the tutors encourage you not to hold too long for laughter or applause, because the din never completely dies down. They apparently have a clip of Jack Kemp delivering an address during which minutes seem to pass while he stares out at the audience. This tip may be why some speakers seem to be rushing through applause, but I'm happy they're keeping up the pace.

The first speaker I get to see, about 20 minutes in, is Al Sharpton, who doesn't need any instruction. He's here to rally the troops, and rally he does. Apparently Al was given 6 minutes to speak, and took 20, which causes some consternation among the pundits but not among the Party, which has scheduled 30 minutes of flab time into the evening, for just such an event. I feel two things. One, when has Al Sharpton ever spoken for 6 minutes? For him, that's a breakfast order. And two, you invite Al Sharpton, you take what you get.

Over the course of the primary season and some 20 debates on the trail, Al has toned down his appearance. He now looks like Toni Morrison in male drag. But he's brought the old fashioned hootin' and hollerin' and the crowd loves it. It takes a fiery black preacher to get fat white grandmas rolling their fists in the air and whooping it up.

And I'm right there with them. I know as well as anyone that Al is at least 60% clown, but he's a hell of a speaker and a great entertainer and you can't help but get swept away. He injects some serious Bush-bashing into a party that has for the most part been civil, and we're happy to cut loose. He opens by saying he's going to answer Bush's questions to the Urban League last week, so you know there's trouble ahead. It's hard to summarize Sharpton, because he's all over the place, but here are a few sound bites.

On Iraq: "When it became clear that there were no weapons, they changed the premise for the war. ... If I told you tonight, 'Let's leave the Fleet Center, we're in danger,' and when you get outside you ask me, 'Reverend Al, what is the danger?' and I say, 'It don't matter, we just needed some fresh air,' I have misled you and we were misled."

On impending openings on the Supreme Court: "I suggest to you tonight that if George Bush had selected the Court in '54, Clarence Thomas would never have gotten to law school."

On English as an official language: "No one gave them an English test before they sent them to Iraq to fight for America."

On electoral rights for DC citizens: "It, to me, is a glaring contradiction that we would fight, and rightfully so, to get the right to vote for the people in the capital of Iraq, in Baghdad, but still don't give the federal right to vote for the people in the capital of the United States in Washington, DC."

Such is Al's power that each point, disconnected as it is, gets a bigger and bigger response. Then finally, in his closing, Al gets to Bush's suggestion that the Democratic Party takes black voters for granted, and that they'd be better off with the Republicans. Sharpton falls back on the 40 acres and a mule trope, but spins it this way: "We never got the 40 acres. We didn't get the mule. So we decided we'd ride this donkey as far as it would take us." The crowd is on their feet, cheering for nearly a full minute (53 seconds by my watch) before he can continue. He follows up on the relationship of African Americans and the Democratic Party until he culminates with, "In all respect, Mr. President, read my lips: Our vote is not for sale."

This is too much for Chris Matthews, who starts talking over Sharpton's speech, telling us that this is a guy who started his career with a lie, and then goes into the Tawana Brawley story. I can't argue his point, and wouldn't care to if I could. I'm not that big a Sharpton fan. It's Matthews, just 20 minutes earlier, who was going on about what a great speaker Sharpton is and how entertaining he is and joking - joking! - about which came first, Al or Bonfire of the Vanities (which he credits to Thomas Wolfe). So it seems a bit disingenuous, at best, for him now to be shocked by his rhetoric. Also, I want to remind him that as a commentator, his job is to respond to the speakers rather than interrupt them.

Instead, I switch to CNN.

Al's pretty much done as it is. The concern of the pundits - in addition to whether or not John and Elizabeth Edwards will make it into their prime time slot (short answer: easily) is whether the speech is "on message." They remind us, for the hundredth time, that this convention is all about staying positive, and that no one's supposed to attack Bush or the Republican Party, except maybe Jimmy Carter. They imagine how the organizers of the Convention are responding, and I think, Is there really anyone who was surprised by this? Sure, all the failed candidates got a chance to speak, but Carol Moseley Braun was at 4 in the afternoon and Dick Gephardt's working the panels. Jesse Jackson spoke today, but he didn't end up in prime time. As far as I can tell, the only ones who spoke in the evening were Sharpton and Howard Dean (and supposedly Dennis Kucinich, out there, somewhere). The Dems had the sense to schedule him at 7, knowing the networks weren't picking up the feed until 9, so the only ones who saw him were those who know better.

At the same time, I notice a story scrolling by at the bottom of the screen. As you may have read, computer crashes in Florida have deleted electronic voting records for Miami-Dade County. The records in question were detailed data from the 2002 gubernatorial primary, which may seem insignificant. Indeed, a spokesperson for the Secretary of State maintains that "There's a very distinct difference between votes being lost and data that they are required to retain for 22 months being lost." This is a compelling argument for anyone who's never used a computer. In my experience, it's far easier to lose new data in a crash than old data. Further troubling is that the data was lost more than 8 months ago, and is just being reported now. Suddenly, Sharpton's concerns about disenfranchisement in Florida seem less remote.

Meanwhile, nothing happens for another 90 minutes.

Then, just after 9, Cate Edwards appears. Cate is the oldest daughter of John and Elizabeth, and she's cute as a bug, but she kind of sounds like she's from The O.C., so there's only so much I can take of her. Cate is there to introduce Liz who will introduce John. They're like Russian nesting dolls. After the speech, the Edwards' two smallest children are brought out, so you can complete the set.

Cate describes her mom as both as lawyer and a PTA member, and when Elizabeth comes out, she is the soccer mom incarnate. She wears cool blue, in contrast to Teresa's fiery red, and their difference in dress reflects their difference in style. Elizabeth is cute and round and cheery, and she would never tell you to shove it. As she describes her husband, she makes him sound like a hell of a Rotarian.

Finally John appears, as the sound system blares "(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher." The entire evening has been scored by hits from 20 to 30 years ago (or in this case, nearly 40), in an attempt to recapture Bill Clinton's love affair with Fleetwood Mac. The Edwards camp favors the Jackie Wilson version over the Bette Midler remake, which isn't surprising for such nice clean people. The happy couple embraces - no Gorrifying smooch - and it's good that Elizabeth is so diminutive, because she makes John look less like a hobbit. Officially, he's 6 feet tall, but that must involve 2 inch lifts. He's also 51 years old, but looks at least 20 years younger. Either the devil has his name on a piece of parchment or there's a painting in his attic that looks like, well, John Kerry.

Edwards opens by remarking what a great job Teresa did last night. It's always good to suck up to the boss's wife. He also says, "Now, you know why Elizabeth is so amazing." Umm, 'cause she likes you? Liz had about 2 minutes and didn't reveal much more than that. After mentioning the rest of his sprawling brood, he offers a heartfelt tribute to his parents, who are present, and I think, "This will play in Peoria."

When Edwards discusses Kerry, he immediately and wisely places him in the role of Commander in Chief. These guys know that national security is where they've got to beef up their numbers, so while he's happy to let others talk happy talk, Edwards opens with the big guns. Then he grabs the values card, saying, "Where I come from, you don't judge someone's values based on how they use that word in a political ad. You judge their values based upon what they've spent their life doing. So when a man volunteers to serve his country, and puts his life on the line for others - that's a man who represents real American values." He follows that with an attack on attack ads, accusing the Republicans of "doing all they can to take this campaign for the highest office in the land down the lowest possible road." I hear this Edwards character is a lawyer. Almost immediately he issues what we in the marketing game refer to as "a call to action:" "This is where you come in. ... you can reject the tired, old, hateful, negative, politics of the past. And instead you can embrace the politics of hope, the politics of what's possible because this is America, where everything is possible."

This will play in Peoria.

By 9:30, Edwards has launched into his "Two Americas" stump speech. All of the reporters and most of the faithful have heard it before, but tonight Edwards is talking to the people at home. He is the first speaker since Clinton on Monday night to specifically speak beyond the hall, directly to the electorate. The speech is fairly simple: there are two Americas, one for those with money and another for those who work and struggle and can't get ahead. But as he spins it through its various iterations - health care, education, economy - you can see he's buffed it to a high gloss finish. And for a change, someone gives specifics. He talks dollars, and you think, at least for the moment, "Hey. Maybe he's serious."

[One thing he talks about is offering tax breaks for American companies that keep jobs at home and close those for companies that outsource. And I'm thinking, if we stopped offering any tax breaks to companies with more than, say, 100 employees and closed the sort of loopholes that allowed companies to incorporate in the Cayman Islands, we'd pay down the deficit in a year and a half.]

There's one topic that makes Edwards an old style Democrat in this New Democrat era: he addresses poverty. For him, it's a moral issue: allowing poverty to exist in the richest country in the world is morally wrong. And after years of hearing that premarital sex is wrong, that men sleeping together is wrong, that getting an abortion is wrong, hearing a politician state that allowing poverty is wrong is heartening. It's 1964.

As Edwards heads into the stretch, he launches into a series of short statements that ends with what he expects will be the rallying cry of this campaign: Hope is on the way. As he continues, the audience chants with him, holding up their "Hope Is On the Way" placards, just as they all shook their blue "Elizabeth" signs earlier and their red "Teresa" sign yesterday, and their long "Edwards" signs all along, and I'm thinking, "Whoever has the sign franchise for this event is making out like a bandit."

But I'm also thinking, this will play in Peoria.

Now it's up to Kerry to see if he can top Edwards. It's lucky for him that the bar has been set so low. Everyone expects him to be a stiff, so if he pulls it off at all, it's a triumph. But after Obama and Clinton and now Edwards, he really needs to knock it out of the park. Kerry goes up at 9 tonight, Chicago time, following veteran soldier and senator Max Cleland and a cadre of Kerry's fellows from the war. If it's anything like last night, it will be preceded by plenty of nothing, so I can't encourage you to tune in early.

Wednesday, July 28, 2004

Democratic National Convention, Day 2

Tonight started off as the sophomore slump of the Convention. Prime time opened with Ted Kennedy, the most Republican looking of the Dems. Ted has taken on the appearance of a bloated plutocrat, and could easily play an oily political boss in a Frank Capra epic. His growing years and girth, combined with his Irish-American heritage, brings to mind Jimmy Cagney's turn as the crooked police chief in Ragtime.

When Ted speaks, though, there's no doubt where his allegiances lie. He revels in welcoming the delegates to a town he calls the cradle of liberty, and makes pointed comments comparing George Bush II with King George III. He draws a line from John Adams to John Kennedy to John Kerry, and conjures Paul Revere and the Boston Tea Party. He paraphrases FDR and evokes the marches in Selma and Birmingham in a speech that, save for references to the Berlin Wall and Tiananmen Square, could easily have been delivered 30 years ago.

But for all his fiery rhetoric, there are few sparks in his delivery. Ted is 72 years old, and could easily pass for 80. His oratory skills have weakened, and his voice croaks and cracks like that of a highschooler in his first play. He stumbles frequently: when he speaks of George Bush dividing the nation, he says that he sets "City against surba ... surban ... suburrrrr." God bless the old coot, he rails against Enron and Haliburton and says Dick Cheney should be "retired to an undisclosed location." He quotes John Adams' prayer that "none but the honest and wise" ever live in the White House, with the implication that the current resident is neither. But he is little more than the shambling wreck of his former self. Commentators refer to him as a Lion in Winter, but there's more winter than lion in evidence.

Old home week continues with Howard Dean's appearance. Dean's remarkably brief speech is little more than a compilation of his greatest hits. He opens by saying, "I was hoping for a reception like this. I was just hoping that it would be on Thursday night," as if he is unaware that Al Gore made almost the exact same joke 25 hours previously. He then goes on to recycle his time-honed maxims: "we ... represent the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party," "we can take our country back," "never again will we be ashamed to call ourselves Democrats."

I appreciate all that Dean has done for the Democratic Party. He is credited with demonstrating how to use the Internet to build a grassroots movement, but for me, his real strength was telling Democrats it was okay to be pissed off, and encouraging them to go on the offensive. The Democratic Party has become such a middle child, trying so hard to make everyone else happy. For me, Howard Dean is a descendant of that other Howard, Beale, who encouraged us all to say, "I'm as mad as hell and I'm not going to take this any more!" The Dean Scream, for which he was chided, was little more than the natural extension of his rallying cry. That said, his appearance at the Convention serves as a reminder of what a bullet we dodged when his ship finally sank. For all his past vigor, Dean comes across as the governor of a small New England state. He is an avuncular firebrand. There will be little press response to his remarks.

Then Barack Obama shows up and blows the roof off the joint.

Obama is being hailed as a rising star in the Democratic Party, despite the fact that he is, at present, merely a state senator. That is likely to change in November, as he is currently running unopposed for the US Senate. The Party's confidence in him is demonstrated by placing him in the plum keynote spot. His speech serves both to support that confidence, and to further narrow the field of Republicans who are likely to run against him.

Whoever serves on Obama's writing staff deserves a huge raise after this address. It is structurally brilliant. It serves to introduce him to the American public, the vast majority of whom - including, most likely, many of those at the Convention - have never heard of him. It highlights his particular experience of the American Dream: the son of a Kenyan student, himself the son of domestic servant; his mother a child of the heartland, his grandfather a veteran of World War II who signed up the day after Pearl Harbor. He tells us his parents gave him an African name, "believing that in a tolerant America your name is no barrier to success." He omits his Harvard education, understanding that in today's America, brains are perceived as a drawback.

Obama addresses his remarks to all Americans, "Democrats, Republicans, Independents," and this inclusion serves as the keystone of his address. He mocks the notion of red states and blue states, he holds the belief that we are all our brothers' and sisters' keepers, he takes to task the pundits and spin masters and ad peddlers. He uses repetition and parallel construction, creating a presentation that offers as much in sound as sense. He ties his fortunes in with Kerry and Edwards in a politics of hope, climaxing with a call for "the audacity of hope." After the rambling rhetoric of Kennedy and Dean, this is a speech.

Still, a speech is only as good as the speaker, and Obama brings the goods. Clips of the speech will be shown on the news, but as with Clinton's address the night before, the speech works best in totality. Obama holds the audience in his grasp, capturing them with a style which is compelling without the "speechifyin'" of a Jesse Jackson or Al Sharpton. He is confident without being aggressive, portraying himself as "a skinny kid with a funny name." When he speaks of people he's met in his travels, it comes off not as a tired political trope, but as a tale from the heart. When he calls to "eradicate the slander that says a black youth with a book is acting white," both blacks and whites rise in applause. In fact, his greatest flaw as a speaker right now is that he has difficulty judging when to hold for applause. As he learns to ride an audience's mood, to surf the swells of their response, his effectiveness will continue to grow.

Ron Reagan speaks next, in support of stem cell research. I become nostalgic for August of 2001, when this topic was supposed to be the defining issue of the Bush presidency. Reagan acquits himself well enough that his presence comes across as more than mere stunt casting, a Reagan opposing a Bush. He has the cantor of a higher pitched John Wayne, however, and all I can focus on is that he has the worst hair and teeth in show business. He manages to reduce Chris Matthews to gushing, though, so the appearance is worth my while.

Then comes Teresa Heinz Kerry. THK has been portrayed as something of a loose cannon, especially after she told a reporter to shove it earlier this week. I, of course, am all in favor of political pundits being told to shove it, so this is not a problem for me. Still, there is some concern about her presence at the convention. The audience is warmed up by a video playing out her now well-known saga: raised under a dictatorship in Mozambique, protesting apartheid in Johannesburg, meeting and marrying Jack "Ketchup King" Heinz, his early death in a helicopter accident, her second marriage to John Kerry. She is introduced by her son, Chris Heinz, who is young and funny and good-looking, which puts the audience more at ease. Then out comes this little lady in a bright red suit, who hugs her son, praises her children, and then says, "I hope it will come as no surprise to anyone that I have something to say."

Trepidation gone.

For my money, Heinz Kerry is the star of the show. She does not have the rhetorical chops of Barack Obama, but she speaks from the heart, and says what she thinks. In particular, she speaks on behalf of women. "My right to speak my mind," she tells us, "to have a voice, to be what some have called 'opinionated,' is a right I deeply and profoundly cherish. My only hope is that, one day soon, women - who have all earned the right to their opinions - instead of being labeled opinionated, will be called smart or well-informed, just as men are."

Heinz Kerry has certainly earned that right. In admitting that apartheid grew in South Africa despite the efforts of its opponents, she still proclaims the value of taking a stand, even if it fails. When she speaks of her concerns - the role of America in the world, civil liberties, the environment - she does so as someone who has devoted millions of dollars and thousands of hours to these causes. She speaks with pride of her husband and family. She does not pull her punches, saying, for example, that the Vietnam Memorial "testif[ies] to the awful toll exacted by leaders who mistake stubbornness for strength." Her words are pointed, even when her tone, at times, is light.

For me, her speech is weakest when it focuses on her husband, the candidate. Heinz Kerry has strong views. We can assume she shares many of them with her husband. Even when they do not agree, we can assume that he is man enough to accept their differences. She is speaking in support of John Kerry, of course, and so we must expect her to put forth his agenda. But for me, she makes her point best when she speaks of our need for "a leader willing to draw again on the mystic chords of our national memory and remind us of all that we, as a people, everyday leaders, can do," and then undercuts it with, "I think I've found just the guy."

The question put forth by the pundits is how THK will play in Peoria. There is a feeling among many that she it too highly spiced for the breadbasket of the nation. She speaks five languages, she speaks with an accent, she speaks her mind. There is a sense that a nation raised on mayonnaise with not be able to digest Dijon mustard. For truly, she is no more highly spiced than that. Chris Matthews compares her to coffee: when you first drink it, you find it bitter, but later you discover you can't live without it. I want to shake the pundits, to tell them that as long as you say she is strange, Middle America will find her strange. In truth, though, many of us have had a Teresa Heinz Kerry in our life. She is the sharp tongued aunt who tells you what you need to hear, even when your parents won't. She's the hard teacher you love because for once, someone won't let you get away with slacking off. She's the waitress at the diner who doesn't pull her punches, whether you're the mailman, mayor or King of Egypt.

She will be painted as an elitist when in fact she simply refuses to apologize for being smart. And it's about time.

Tonight, the Convention continues with John Edwards accepting the Vice Presidential nomination at 9 pm CDT. Also on hand will be failed candidate Dennis Kucinich and Convention Chairman, Governor Bill Richardson.

Thursday, July 08, 2004

Me and the RNC

I received a fundraising letter from the Republican National Committee yesterday - or more properly, from Mike Retzer, the Treasurer of the RNC - asking why the have yet to receive my membership renewal for this year.

To my knowledge, I have never contributed to the RNC. The closest I've gotten is paying for cable from RCN. But for the past few years, I've been receiving emails, and lately snail mail, from the reds. This latest letter begins, "I don't want to believe you've abandoned the Republican Party, but I have to ask ... Have you given up?"

I felt it was only fair to reply. So instead of a contribution, I sent this letter.

Dear Mike,

Thanks for your letter. But I'm sorry to inform you that I have given up on the Republican Party.

For years, I put up with the Party's views on abortion, even though I felt the issue was beneath us, and that it contradicted our belief in individual responsibility. I disagreed with the War on Drugs, but let it pass, even though it was so obviously a waste of tax dollars, because I supported the Party's approach to crime in general. Time and again, when our leaders proposed measures I found pointless, I stayed the course, with a belief that the underlying rationale was sensible.

I no longer find that to be the case.

I cannot support this Administration. As difficult as this is to admit, I find President Bush to be even more morally vacuous than Bill Clinton. His attempts to mislead us with half truths, obfuscation, and all-out lies are heartbreaking. The passing of Ronald Reagan served to remind me what it was like to have a strong leader with heartfelt beliefs who spoke his mind without fear. In his shadow, the current Administration appear no greater than a gang of thugs.

In your letter, you write of "President's Bush's agenda of cutting taxes, strengthening homeland and national defense, and improving education." These issues are all important to me. But we cannot defend ourselves and cut taxes at the same time. I am willing to make sacrifices in time of war, as I believe are most Americans. Tempting us with lower taxes at a time when every dollar counts is shameful. Our educational system is in a shambles. As a university educator, I am confronted daily with students who are ill equipped for higher education. But the writing and reasoning skills they need will not be improved by the type of testing this Administration supports. Basic skill building - the hard work you and I did in school 30 or 40 years ago - is what is missing from the classroom today. Not more standardized testing.

Noticeably absent from your letter is any mention of homosexual marriage, which is a "hot topic" right now. The Party's focus on this issue, like that of abortion, is embarrassing to me. Do we truly have nothing more pressing to consider than whether or not homosexuals can marry? I understand the President's need to pander to the lowest common denominator of his base, but I find it repellent.

I have not made any final decisions about how I intend to vote in November. While I am not a supporter of Mr. Kerry, I do find that he has a gravitas sorely missing in our candidate. When November comes, I may simply not vote. The prospect saddens me.

I don't expect you to see this letter. I imagine some volunteer, seeing it contains no contribution, will throw it away. But if we lose power this Autumn, it will be because of people like me, who mourn the loss of true Republican ideals, and are too disillusioned to vote.

Thank you,

John Bliss
Chicago, IL

Friday, July 02, 2004

Happy Independence Weekend!

Do you realize that Independence Day is the only American holiday that's celebrated on its actual calendar date? You may have Monday off, if you work for a particularly progressive company, but Sunday is the actual holiday. Christmas is always December 25, and New Year's Day is always January 1, but those aren't particularly American, now are they? And Halloween isn't a holiday. (For Halloween, substitute Valentine's Day, St. Patrick's Day, Flag Day, et al.) But MLK Day (Civil/Human Rights Day in New Hampshire and Utah), President's Day (now that they jammed Washington and Lincoln together. We used to have TWO holidays, people!), Memorial Day, Labor Day, Columbus Day - all Mondays. Thanksgiving is the holdout, but it's on its own schedule. Even Administrative Assistants' Day (once Sexetaries' Day) is the Wednesday before the last Saturday in April, rather than a specific date. You can't celebrate the 4th of July on any day but July 4th.

Other than that, Independence Day is a holiday that you know everything about. You probably know that not everyone signed the Declaration of Independence on July 4. In fact, no one did, but that's the day the final version of the document was adopted by the Second Continental Congress. (The resolution that led to the writing of the Declaration did not pass until July 2, although Jefferson and company were appointed to compose it on June 10.) By the following year, the 4th was being celebrated, and in 1783, the year the Revolution ended, it was made an official holiday. It has always been celebrated the way it is today, as John Adams predicted it would be, "as the great anniversary festival ... it ought to be celebrated by pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires and illuminations from one end of this continent to the other."

It's hard to be patriotic these days. It's not hard to love the country, but it's hard to raise the flag, as that puts you in league with people of such questionable nature. Patriotism has been co-opted by the "Love It or Leave It" crowd, and criticizing the officials who temporarily hold power is likely to get you branded a traitor. These small minded people forget that the most patriotic duty a citizen can undertake is to challenge the government. They forget what Jefferson wrote, that "Governments are instituted among Men" to secure their rights, "deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed." In these increasingly bureaucratic times, it is easy to lose sight that power does, indeed, lie with the people. Communication is supposed to be a two way proposition, not just from the Government to us, but from us to the Government. To accept the will of the Government blindly is contrary to Jefferson's cause. Furthermore, "whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it." It is the genius of the Constitution to assure that, despite the efforts of gerrymandering Texans, elected positions are indeed temporary, and the People have the right (if they exercise it) to alter or abolish the Government regularly.

True Treason is assuming that those who disagree with you love the country less than you do.

For those of you uncomfortable with Independence Day - perhaps for reasons I've outlined above, perhaps for reasons of your own - let me suggest an alternative.

We all have things from which we would like to be independent (a bad habit, a bad family, a bad president) or from which we have recently become independent (a bad job, a bad car, a bad spouse). Use this opportunity to celebrate dissolving those bands, political or other, which have connected you with another person, place or thing, and oppressed you in whatever way. Assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle you. Celebrate your own independence, or make plans to become more independent. Recognize and cherish your Life, your Fortune, and your sacred Honor.

That ain't half bad.

Thursday, July 01, 2004

Current Events

The trial of Saddam Hussein began today. Is it just me, or does The Butcher of Baghdad sound like a member of the WWE? Or at least the NFL. Hussein referred to the proceedings as "theater," a charge which is hard to dismiss considering that a formal indictment has yet to be compiled. A list of broad charges was read at his arraignment, including the usual gassing of Kurds and assassination of political opponents. Also on the list is the invasion of Kuwait. Considering the evidence that the US used to back its invasion of Iraq, this last charge is touchy territory.

Saddam's big mistake is not hiring Johnny Cochran as his attorney. I can hear it now: "If the tyrant is a potentate, you must exonerate." On the other hand, the lawyer his family did hire for him was not allowed into the courtroom, so I suppose it doesn't make any difference. Scott McClellan, George Bush's mouthpiece (when Dick Cheney is out of the room), said "Saddam Hussein is going to face justice he denied the Iraqi people." Apparently that justice doesn't involve legal representation.

The head of the Iraqi Special Tribunal is Salem Chalabi. If that name sounds familiar, it's because he's the nephew of suspected spy Ahmad Chalabi. This is the guy who urged the administration into Iraq (as if they needed the push) with intelligence on weapons of mass destruction, including the infamous "mobile labs," and in return, was placed on the Governing Council once Saddam fell.

Ah, Iraq! The more things change ...

In local news, last weekend was the Gay Pride Parade, and as promised, Mayor Daley ... did NOT show up. Bassid. Neither did senatorial candidate Barack Obama, who was said to be in Springfield. With Jack Ryan dropping out of the race, I suppose he felt his presence was no longer compulsory. Also noticeably absent were the Log Cabin Republicans, the gay Republicans who generally appear. This year, their stance seems more oxymoronic than usual. Their absence is one more indication that the Federal Marriage Amendment may do more harm than good to the administration's chances this fall. The Log Cabins are not the President's base, but their lack of support may have some effect in swing states. Which is not stopping Senate Republicans from pushing for a vote on the amendment this month, in order to put John Kerry on the spot just prior to the Democratic National Convention.

It's nice that George Bush is a uniter, so that his cronies can be dividers.

Gay Marriage was a central issue in the Dyke March & Rally last weekend. When I set out to Clark and Foster to see it, I assumed I had gotten the date wrong, since traffic was still moving on both streets at the time the March was supposed to be starting. When I got to the corner, though, I saw several squad cars, and a group of lesbians (a "babble" of lesbians? a "tackle" of lesbians?) gathering in the schoolyard down the street. Finally, the cops stopped traffic in one lane of Foster, and the grrrlz set out into the street. A friend and I joined them for a block or so, showing our support. 20 minutes later, it was all over. Like so many things. I made the mistake of wearing a T-shirt from the Star Trek Experience in Vegas, not realizing that Trekkers and Dykes overlapped to such an extent. "What's your favorite series?" came the call. Ashamed to admit it was Deep Space Nine, which is essentially Star Trek Hotel, I followed their lead and resorted to "Captain Janeway, wooo!"