In 2008, I was asked by the British magazine Prospect to file daily dispatches from the Democratic convention in Denver for their website. These dispatches must have been read by, oh, at the very least, six or seven people.
But in the midst of this year’s crazy political season, it occurred to me that a glance backward at my account, written in real time, day-by-day, as the convention was proceeding, might be of passing interest.
Denver dispatches – Erik Tarloff
August 25, 2008
My wife and I arrived in Denver for the Democratic convention this evening. The airport was swarming, and security downtown extraordinarily tight. Cops everywhere. On bicycles, on foot, in cars. With dogs, on horses. Our driver told us the city had entirely sealed off several blocks of downtown this afternoon because two unclaimed packages were found on the street. Their contents, no surprise, proved to be innocuous.
We’re staying in the same hotel Barack Obama will be using, and the security here is especially stringent. Indeed, we were even prevented from going to our room when we first arrived. Special credentials are required to use the elevators while the convention is in session, and the office handing out those credentials was closed when we got here. No one seemed able to locate anyone who might be able to rectify the situation. This is how Democrats manage conventions.
Eventually, once we established the impossible Catch-22 of being unable to show our credentials because the people who provide the credentials had disappeared off the face of the earth, someone else in authority arranged for us to ascend the elevator in uncredentialed glory. This was a minor inconvenience, a delay of a mere 20 minutes or so, but it augurs ill for the more serious business tomorrow of trying to secure my press passes. I’ve now been to four political conventions in my life, and the press-pass-securing part of the process has never gone smoothly. Of course, they’ve all been Democratic conventions. Republicans, whatever their other flaws, are better at getting trains to run on time. At conventions, anyway; they haven’t exactly been managing the government of the United States with breathtaking efficiency lately, or handling natural disasters.
Such gossip we’ve been able to pick up so far has largely concerned itself with the role Hillary Clinton will play at the convention. Rightly or wrongly, it’s generally assumed she will try to sabotage the Obama candidacy. But it’s further assumed she must accomplish this with a certain deftness, leaving no fingerprints, or else she will risk being blamed should he lose. Democrats are not in the mood to lose this election; they arguably are bringing more passion to this year than any other election cycle in my lifetime. If Hillary is blamed for the loss, the party will not overlook it, and will not forgive it. I don’t know if this analysis has any merit, but if Obama loses, I expect she will be blamed regardless. She has certainly allowed herself, and her people—and yes, I’m talking about the Big Dog as well as some of her more rabid, cult-like supporters—to behave in a maliciously mischievous fashion.
But I also suspect the gossip has the details wrong. I don’t believe she will do anything especially crass. Yes, she will have her name placed in nomination, already an indulgence that threatens to disrupt the proceedings. But my guess—and it’s only a guess, based on absolutely no evidence—is that she will take the podium before the roll-call vote and move that the nomination be made unanimous, by acclamation. There will be some booing, no doubt, from some of her hardcore supporters (the so-called PUMAs, Party Unity My Ass!), and there may even be scattershot protest demonstrations, but the motion will certainly pass. And the crisis itself will have passed. This whole quadrille was probably negotiated several weeks ago.
But I’m taking a risk here. If I’m wrong, readers will be aware of my mistake virtually in real time, and it will persist on the internet in perpetuity. That’s the risk a blogger takes.
Erik Tarloff is a novelist and writer, and a former occasional speechwriter to Bill Clinton. Along with James Crabtree, he will be blogging for First Drafts from the Democratic convention in Denver this week
Denver dispatches – Erik Tarloff
August 26, 2008
At every political convention I’ve covered, I‘ve begun by promising myself not to write about the miserable hassles involved in securing press credentials. I’ve never managed to keep my promise. Sooner or later, my good intentions have given way to sustained whining. In print. This time, though, in deference to Prospect, I’m determined to come as close to a British-style stiff upper lip as is within my power, contenting myself with a simple…Don’t get me started.
This morning, my wife and I went to the convention hall early. She had a rehearsal session scheduled for a little colloquy in which she will be participating this evening with Sherrod Brown, a rising-star freshman senator from Ohio, along with a small number of economic, healthcare, and education experts. The main purpose of the little colloquy was for the participants to say, in a variety of ways, that Obama is good and McCain is bad, and the session director kept reminding them that this was their remit. Occasionally, if one or the other of them said Obama is good but neglected to add that McCain also happens to be bad, the director was quick to point out their little lapse. They all quickly got into the groove.
But I don’t mention this rehearsal because it was anything to write home about. The thing itself was frankly a yawn (please don’t tell Laura I said so). What I mostly managed to take away from it is: Obama good, McCain bad.
But something interesting happened before the rehearsal began. Laura and I were sitting in the green room, waiting for the other participants to arrive (a sign of how tight the security is here at the hall: The session ended up being delayed more than half an hour because Senator Brown and his wife were being frisked and examined by the police outside the hall; I suppose you just can’t ever tell which member of the US Senate is actually a crazed terrorist in Solon’s clothing), minding our own business, when a rather handsome black woman of a certain age with two very attractive little girls entered the green room. “I don’t know what I’m doing here,” the woman said with a little laugh. “I just follow orders and go where I’m told.” And then she introduced herself: “Hi, I’m Marian Robinson.” The name rang a small bell, but it was the face that clinched it: she looked absolutely identical to her daughter, Michelle Obama. This was the potential future First Mother-in-Law, shepherding her two grandchildren around the Denver convention center. For the record, I saw no sign of any special protection around these three precious entities; they were ushered in by some sort of minder, a pleasant young woman who, believe me, was packing no heat, and they then sat and chatted with us, good-naturedly and unaffectedly. Mrs. Robinson herself was as gracious and unprepossessing as can be—we laughed about the absurd arbitrariness of convention rules and directives—and the kids were adorable and well behaved throughout.
It’s no doubt naive to judge a candidate by the deportment of his family; we’re electing a president, after all, not some sort of Daddy-in-Chief. But there is, I believe, an atavistic instinct in all of us that responds to a person’s relatives and close friends as an expression of something vital about him or her. And by that standard, I felt something had been added to Barack Obama’s luster today. (We were later told that at the beginning of the campaign, the girls had been promised a pet puppy when the whole thing is over, win or lose, as a reward for putting up with the rigors of a prolonged election season. Hard to begrudge them, and quite amazing that the girls’ parents didn’t give in and buy them the damned dog halfway through the primaries. My wife and I were pansies when it came to things like that.)
Most of the political gossip I’ve been able to glean today continues to concern the putative hostility between not only the Obama and Clinton camps, but the Obamas and the Clintons themselves. As they say in action movie advertisements, This time it’s personal. And there’s so much smoke in this regard, there are probably some flames as well. I heard through the grapevine that a compromise was being negotiated almost identical to the one I proposed in yesterday’s post, but I subsequently heard that it might be unraveling, that Hillary is starting to claim her supporters are out of her control, and that if they want to make some sort of spontaneous demonstration on the convention floor, she won’t be able to stop them. I’m a little skeptical about this story; anything of this sort would be terribly self-defeating for her. But the media are doing everything to keep the rumor alive. About a half hour of television coverage this afternoon was devoted to a group of women who had supported Hillary but who are now switching to McCain, and this afternoon, while I was walking to an event in downtown Denver, I saw a march—admittedly something of a ragtag affair—with people chanting loudly, carrying signs saying “Hillary Democrats for McCain!” It’s hard for me to grasp the cogency of their grievance beyond the incontestable fact that no one likes to lose.
One more piece of related gossip: Bill Clinton has been asked to speak on Wednesday night, a night devoted to foreign affairs and security issues. Advised by the convention organizers to fit his remarks to that theme, he is said to have refused outright, saying, “I’ll talk about anything I damn well please!” He was told in response—and if the story is true, I’m sure he hasn’t been balked in this manner very often over the last 16 years—“Look, this is Barack’s convention and that’s the way he wants it.” According to my informant, this conflict has yet to be resolved.
Still, I asked a friend today, someone with connections in the McCain camp, whether he thought they were feeling optimistic or pessimistic. He responded that it was his impression they were proud to have kept their heads above water when, a few months earlier, the whole enterprise seemed doomed, but that most of them don’t really expect to win. And, most interestingly, that their candidate doesn’t seem to mind that much.
Denver dispatches – Erik Tarfloff
August 27, 2008
Hillary speaks tonight, Bill tomorrow. There’s a fair amount of grumbling among Obama’s supporters about this arrangement, viewed as an ill-advised capitulation to an excessive Clinton demand (shamelessness has long been part of their modus operandi, and why not? It has served them well over the years). What’s the point of giving them two nights rather than one? some worried Democrats are demanding. Why create a patina of party unity, inspired by the noble old figure of Ted Kennedy, and then build up Obama’s personal bona fides courtesy of his elegant wife, all on the first night, and then step all over the message over the course of the following two? Why hadn’t the convention organizers, wondered one journalist friend of mine who finds the situation almost laughably inappropriate, given the two Clintons a portion of the first night, saluted them for their past contributions and for a race well run, and then said, “Hasta la vista, have a safe flight home,” thereby allowing the remainder of the convention to get on with the business of launching Barack Obama’s fall campaign? Instead, we not only get two days of potential psychodrama, but also two different, creative, instructive demonstrations of consummate passive-aggression.
My wife and I ran into Congressman George Miller, (D-CA), today, while we were scurrying around town trying to score a variety of credentials (yes, absolutely including my press credentials, and I won’t say any more about that except that I have to go through this nonsense every morning; the convention press office is not providing week-long documentation to journalists, and I even saw Tina Brown in the queue ahead of me this morning, forced to go through the same rigmarole as the rest of us ordinary ink-stained mortals). George is a wonderfully affable man with a solar-powered smile, a big bushy moustache and a great belly-shaking laugh. In fact, were it not for his California tan and his California-casual style sense, you might actually mistake him for Santa Claus. A Santa Claus who has spent the days since Christmas at the gym; George is a burly scrapper of a man, but I don’t want to give the false impression he’s portly. Our conversation rapidly turned to the twinned Clinton speeches, tonight’s and Wednesday’s. “So, what do you think?” he asked us. “Blood on the floor?” I said, “Oh, that’s a given, George. The only question is which of them will draw the greater quantity: The guy struggling with his anger issues, or the woman who will profess full support while deftly wielding a surgeon’s scalpel?” He rolled his eyes at this and said, “Oh God!” Which I took to be confirmation.
The question is not whether Hillary will praise Obama tonight. Of course she will. Nor even whether she will damn him with faint praise. Of course she won’t. She’s a professional, and she knows what her formal obligations are. The real question is whether she will be signaling to her more extreme supporters, with a variety of winks and nods and eloquent lacunae, that she’d quite enjoy seeing them make a little trouble.
If she follows that course, the ground is definitely fertile. While I’ve witnessed one or two other puny demonstrations since arriving here, mostly on behalf of one Jesus Christ, who, as far as I can tell, is sitting out this election (but who apparently heartily dislikes homosexuals; one of his supporters had a sign that said, “Gay Rights — If it’s morally wrong, it can’t be politically correct”), but beyond those few crazies who attend every convention of both major parties, the only street protests I’ve witnessed personally were three fair-sized Clintonites-for-McCain demonstrations. And these people, men and women, seemed as angrily, passionately aggrieved as their actual arguments were incoherent. If they are led to believe Hillary is in any way encouraging their efforts, their numbers will multiply and their indignation can only grow. And it’s almost impossible to say what the senator and the former president have in mind; they have been playing a double-game for months now, and just yesterday one of their closest minions, the miserable lickspittle Lanny Davis, was on TV saying he could consider voting for McCain on the basis of experience. This on the very same day the McCain campaign ran an ad quoting Hillary Clinton to the same effect. It’s hard for me to imagine Lanny Davis making such a statement without encouragement from his liege and lady, and downright impossible for me to imagine him making it if expressly instructed not to do so.
But my reaction to the speech itself will have to wait till tomorrow (or, just possibly, as a very late addendum to this posting, if I’m feeling especially vehement). Laura and I go from the primetime convention session itself — which includes Hillary’s speech, of course, as its highlight — directly to a reception for Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, after which we have a tentative date for a very late dinner with some friends who will also be attending the Pelosi event. If I’m still sober at the end of such an evening, or even compos mentis, then I’ve obviously done something seriously wrong.
Denver dispatches – Erik Tarloff
August 27, 2008
Okay, here’s the part where I eat crow. Hillary gave the best speech I’ve ever seen her give, and her support for Obama seemed unequivocal. She sounded all the notes she needed to sound, and she had total command of the audience. Whether this will have any effect on her most rabid supporters I do not know, but if they remain intransigent, no one can say this speech gave them any encouragement.
Denver dispatches – Erik Tarloff
August 28, 2008
Before I begin in earnest, I do want to point out that my prediction in my first post in this series, about Hillary Clinton’s strategy for the Wednesday night roll call (interrupting the vote to move the nomination be declared unanimous by acclamation), proved to be 100% accurate. Forgive the self-advertisement, but having so spectacularly failed to anticipate the quality of her Tuesday night speech, I’m aware my bona fides need a little burnishing, and if I don’t do the burnishing, who will?
Up through yesterday afternoon, the general consensus was that this convention was mediocre or worse. The Clintons, it was widely believed, and as I’ve reported in these blogs, were angry and disconsolate, Hillary’s supporters were stubbornly recalcitrant when it came to shifting their loyalties, the PUMAs were threatening trouble on the convention floor and off, and Obama’s candidacy was failing to connect with the American public. Even Hillary’s terrific performance on Tuesday night was adduced as evidence of the convention’s inadequacy, although the logic of that position wasn’t clear to me; some commentators actually said the speech was “too good,” that she had set the bar for Obama too high, that she had primarily once again shifted everyone’s attention to herself. Maureen Dowd even wrote in The New York Times that the mood of the convention was dominated by raw hatred.
What a difference a day makes.
Something dramatic happened Wednesday night; the Democratic stars were in some kind of alignment. The major speeches — from Kerry, Biden, and most especially Bill Clinton — were first-rate. The case against Bush and McCain, which many observers felt had been lacking on earlier nights, was made forcefully and, it seemed to me, irrefutably. The specific case for Barack Obama, which some complained Hillary Clinton had failed to make in her otherwise excellent presentation, was offered with every appearance of sincerity and even high passion by her husband (although one friend of mine mentioned afterward that Clinton had taken a very deep drink of water after the first ringing endorsement in the speech, as if washing down some especially unpalatable medicine). His reputation may have been on the line, and he may have therefore felt obliged to demonstrate his best form, but nevertheless, it must have taken awesome strength of will to subdue an unruly, obstinate, instinctual drive to subvert his chosen message. (A variety of people I know who are friends of the Clintons are so unanimous in describing him as emotionally unreconciled to the Obama candidacy — much more so than his wife — that I don’t regard this as a matter for doubt.) The cliché in American politics and sports when someone comes through in a make-or-break situation like this is, “He did what he had to do.” But last night he did much more than that; he did it forcefully, eloquently, and persuasively. He was Bill Clinton at his best, and at his best Bill Clinton is the most skillful politician of his generation.
My wife and I watched the speech on television in a small office just offstage. After the speech concluded and the applause finally died down (and the house band started playing “Addicted to Love,” a waggishly mischievous choice that could not have been accidental), there was a flurry of activity in the corridor just outside where we were sitting, and then a posse of Secret Service flew by, and then the man himself appeared, flushed and sweating from his recent exertions. As he approached, he glanced into the room in which we were sitting, noticed us, came in, greeted us, gave my wife a kiss, shook my hand, and then asked, “Was it okay?” A very human moment. We assured him it had been magnificent. I don’t know what effort it required of him, and there’s no guessing what internal resistance he’d had to overcome, but he gave it everything he has.
Biden too was excellent. The homely specifics he offered, the anxious domestic scenes he evoked, provided a visceral apologia for practical liberalism, and unmasked the economic policies of the Republicans as the mean, pinched, small-minded things they are. Even his famous angry loquacity seemed to work for him, felt like a genuine expression of overflowing feeling. And his personal story is surely one of the most dramatic and poignant in American politics. When he lit into McCain, it didn’t feel like a rote partisan exercise. It seemed an expression of deep personal outrage.
The mood in the hall last night was something palpable. As the evening proceeded, and as each dramatic moment built on what had preceded it, there was a discernible sense that the convention was coalescing in ways that had seemed improbable a couple of days before. The roars of excitement were genuine and spontaneous—and deafening!—and the urgent, quickening notion that something historic was taking place before our eyes was undeniable. Soon after Laura and I left the hall, we ran into Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro (D, CT), a friend, and she gave me her trademark lopsided smile and said, “We’re going to win! We’re really going to win!”
Now, I suppose a prediction like this from a professional politician, an office-holder, can be dismissed as mandatory boiler-plate optimism. But later, over dinner, a friend of mine whose saturnine temperament leads him to interpret virtually any event in the most negative light possible—this is the man who accurately and precisely predicted, at the height of partisan enthusiasm during the 2004 Democratic convention, what the Republicans would do to John Kerry and what the final outcome would be—said to me, “I honestly don’t see how Obama can lose.”
Well, I do. I don’t want to leave the impression I’m unreservedly endorsing his point of view. There are plenty of ways, and plenty of reasons, McCain can emerge victorious, and I’ll try to indicate some of these in my next post. But that caveat noted, it’s still true that if I were a betting man, right now I’d put my money on Obama. And I’m not sure I would have said that yesterday.
One final note: There was a major development yesterday in the story of that PUMA group I’ve previously mentioned, the assortment of Hillary-lovers who now support John McCain and who have received so much attention in the press lately. Blogger Amanda at the site Pandagon has, unlike all the so-called professional journalists covering the story, done some actual reporting: It appears the co-founder of this PUMA group, a woman named Darragh Murphy, was a donor to McCain in 2000 and has never given a penny to Hillary’s campaign. She’s a fraud! A mole! Let’s see if the press shows any inclination to follow up on this. It ought to be a big story, but I’m not holding my breath.
Denver dispatches – Erik Tarloff
August 29, 2008
This will be my final post, and it will, of necessity, be short, since I have to leave for the airport soon.
My wife and I watched Obama’s acceptance speech in Al Gore’s sky box. The atmosphere, like the atmosphere in the other sky boxes Laura and I visited last night, was festive and congenial. Nevertheless, one had to wonder what Gore was thinking and feeling. His own speech had, I thought, been excellent — it was one of the most serious and principled of the convention — and the love that welled up in that mammoth crowd (said to be 84,000 strong) when he made his entrance, and the approval that greeted his every salient point, must have been gratifying to him. But bitter-sweet as well. History has been capricious with and sometimes downright nasty to Al Gore. Nevertheless, although the Democratic Party can be tough on its also-rans, subjecting them to scorn and recrimination, Al Gore, after a season in Purgatory, has seen his reputation redeemed. He seemed to be a better speaker, too, partly, no doubt, because he was forced to go faster than usual by the short amount of time he had been allotted. As my friend Chris Caldwell observed about a similar circumstance in 2004, Gore “had to speak at the speed of his intelligence.” Which meant stepping on applause lines time after time, but also avoiding the syrupy sanctimoniousness that sometimes mars his standard oratorical style.
Obama’s speech was a triumph. It wasn’t as eloquent or as elevated as the one he delivered in Boston four years ago, the one that thrust him onto the world’s stage. This one had a different purpose, setting out to say three simple things: 1) I’m like you, I’ve had the same problems you’ve had, I know what you’re going through; 2) Despite my elegant appearance and demeanor, I’m one tough son of a bitch, and if John McCain doesn’t know that yet, he will before this campaign is over; and 3) I may be untraditional, but a president can look like me, and I can look and feel just like a president. And he conveyed all three things magnificently. I don’t imagine there’s much happiness in Republican circles this morning. Whatever displays of bravado they’ve been managing for the benefit of the press and their own supporters, they know there’s only one way for them to beat this guy, and win or lose, it won’t be pretty.
Because at this stage, there’s only one genuinely unresolved issue in the campaign. And that issue is race. The country despises Bush, both the man and his policies. Over the last two years, polling results consistently confirm this. The Democrats enjoy a large majority in terms of public support. Obama’s gifts are manifest, his youth and energy compelling, his rise phenomenal. Meanwhile, John McCain has run a campaign that has bordered on the incompetent, has policy prescriptions that veer toward the incoherent, and seems to have aged visibly and alarmingly in the eight years since his gallant first campaign for the presidency. If Obama were a white man — a white southern governor, say — this contest would already be over. So the only question remaining is whether Americans are ready to make what Norman Mailer would have called an existential choice, to risk an outcome without precedent that will redefine the country and the world. I don’t know the answer. But I do know that if we wake up on 5 November to learn that John McCain is the president-elect, the depression that follows will be abiding; something noble and courageous and large-spirited in the United States will be gone, hopelessly lost for a generation.
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