10/05/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Democrats in Denver: Surprises and Shadows

Last week's Democratic National Convention in Denver was a triumph of choreography, security and management. The risky final day, outdoors at Invesco Field at Mile High Stadium (worst corporate rename in history) provided beautiful presentation and stirring performances, but little suspense. Nor was drama provided by any of the major players. In fact everyone that 'mattered' suddenly caught a bad case of teamwork. Ted Kennedy may have helped to bring them into line, with his heroic turn on opening night. Michelle Obama was both utterly polished, and down to earth, and her fashion sense has gone from 'interesting' to elegant in a blessedly short time. Then the Clinton's delivered unqualified support, with apparent conviction, while keeping their personality disorders to themselves. Even Al Gore gave a crisp and engaging speech, the likes of which we never saw when he was running for president. Ditto John Kerry, who threw some gorgeous haymakers at Bush and Cheney. Joe Biden showed his signature, vocabulary chomping panache. The musical acts were appropriate and timely. The weather was perfect, the technology worked flawlessly, and the much-discussed set for the final night turned out to be... just a set. Even Hillary's inconsolable supporters seem to have found some comfort. Or maybe they were herded to the "free-speech zone" by the hundreds and hundreds of armor clad riot police. The "free-speech zone..." Orwell anyone? But, more about that later.

The only inside-the-bubble participants who seemed truly disappointed were the ones for whom the whole show was designed: the professional gum-flappers of the News Business. Some of them got so agitated that they started picking fights with each other... which is so damn ridiculous that I have to type it again. TV's so-called "journalists," Keith Olbermann, Chris Matthews, and some complete wack-job named Scarborough -- macho purveyors, we're told, of "red-meat" cable news -- became openly hostile, toward each other and toward their guests, while on the air! This was no off-air hot mic incident -- these guys just went pre-school on each other on live TV. Is it even worth asking who the f*** these people think they are? Their vanity and inch-deepness would be funny, but the trouble is they matter, and unlike real journalists, they are intoxicated by their own importance in this process. I'm pretty sure Ted Turner did not intend for his revolutionary 24 hour news channel idea to become a career tool for smartypants "insiders" and preening egomaniacs. But that is what has happened, and it's awful.

Meanwhile, the live and unfiltered Democratic Convention in Denver featured the kind of surprises -- and shadows -- that the news business is simply incapable of handling. So, before it all goes blurry and fictional in the retelling, allow me to recapitulate my personal list of astonishments from Denver.

Security: Contrast the genuine feeling of hope and progressive idealism, especially from the younger Obama delegates and supporters, with the massive police presence on every corner of every downtown street during every minute of every day. At first I thought, "Well, this is Colorado, a bright Red State with a huge military presence. To them even the wimpiest Moby playin' vegan with a 'Buck Fush' button, could be up to no good." There I went making knee-jerk, left coast, fly-over assumptions. In fact, politically, Colorado is a very evenly divided state. (Jon Stewart on Wednesday night's Daily Show; "Can I just say, there is no middle ground in Colorado. You are either a Rapture-awaiting Promise Keeper, or you drive a car that runs on Gorp!") Result? The Governor of Colorado, and the Mayor of Denver, are, surprise, Progressive Environmentalist Democrats.

Mayor Hickenlooper (seriously, his name's Hickenlooper) looks and sounds like an NPR listening, Museum joining, Agape guest sermonizing, bicycle commuter if there ever was one. Why would he, and Governor Bill Ritter -- one of the more avidly pro-environment chief executives in the West -- authorize such a massive and intimidating show of force? Maybe -- I heard myself thinking -- maybe all these armed cops in flak jackets with four foot-long batons, tear gas launchers, riot helmets and dozens of plastic handcuffs have become a necessity in these dark times. And lo and behold, on Tuesday a story came on TV about four grungy white guys arrested with rifles, cash and a supply of methamphetamine. They confessed, rather quickly, to a "plot" to shoot at Senator Obama during his acceptance speech. Their barely syllabic motivation? He's black. This strangely untethered story lasted only long enough for a quartet of hollow-eyed mugshots to appear on the news, followed by consistent statements from law enforcement that there had been "no credible threat" of an assassination attempt. That I believe. Four tweekers with guns couldn't climb onto the roof of a car, let alone a "high vantage point" at the (poorly renamed) stadium. It sounded less like a plot than a binge.

I'm glad they were caught, but one is left to wonder; have these plucky red state liberals been so cowed by Cheney-ish paranoia that they are scared not to see enemies lurking in every peace march? And then I put myself in their hiking boots and I asked, with so much at stake, if I were in a position of authority, and I had the means to do it, might I, too, deploy what seemed like at least one cop for every protester? These days, think I might.

The only time I saw protesters outnumber cops was a dramatic but peaceful march, led by Veterans Against the War, which happened immediately following an afternoon Rage Against the Machine concert. It was at least ten blocks long, with thousands of marchers. The Vets moved with military bearing and the protesters hurried after them through downtown Denver, like an infantry maneuver. It was stirring and impressive. I was tempted to join them, but had to get to a fundraiser for the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial. His ghost certainly hovered over Denver last week.

Barack Hussein Obama: It's very hard for me to have a bad time while hanging out with large groups of African Americans. It doesn't matter what state they're from, black people know how to have fun, and in Denver there was plenty of fun to be had. But the continuous surprise was how different it felt. As Al Sharpton put it at a major gathering of black ministers and politicians on Thursday morning, "Barack is not going to be Our President. He's going to be The President." This almost unbearably sweet possibility was, and is, like a constant throb of adrenalin, especially among the black conventioneers in Denver last week. One wanted to relax, get tipsy, act ordinary, but it was impossible. And it is because of this extraordinary candidate.

I went downstairs on Wednesday afternoon because the TV in our hotel room had just shown Barack coming off his plane at a nearby airfield. The lobby was jammed. Burly cops blocked the revolving doors. Outside the street was filled with crowds, TV crews and more cops. A column of motorcycles roared through. The candidate was about to arrive! Turns out, the cops and motorcycles was a head-fake. He didn't come past us because they snuck him in through the kitchen. But to say the excitement in that lobby was palpable would be a laughable understatement.

I have been around a lot of famous people in my life, including rock stars. The anticipation in that lobby was different from anything I've witnessed. Obama is not a rock star. His charisma is much more interactive than mere celebrity. He is a walking paradigm shift, a startlingly transformational figure, made even more so by the way he seems to recognize his own opaqueness. As he often says, "This election is not about me." Of course it is, but he gets away with making such an impossibly self-effacing statement because of the game-changing way he is able to wear this moment in our history. It's actually disorienting how well it fits him. Barack Obama has made his different-ness an advantage with more grace -- and impact -- than any politician since Jack and Bobby Kennedy. He is the opposite of a radical, but he is aware of the radical shift his presence on the world stage signifies. So we peer at him, as if trying to discern which part, head? Hands? Eyes? Voice? Skin? Which part of him contains all that meaning? And, surprise, the answer is his color, but not his race! I don't want to startle anybody, but Barack Obama is as white as he is black. If anyone rejects him based on race, then more fool they. What I discovered at the convention is that when the black people I talked to look at Obama, they see a black man, but they don't see a black candidate. It's not that he isn't "black enough." The numbers don't lie: African American support for Obama covers all ages and incomes; it is passionate and unequivocal. But what the black political insiders I hung out with at the convention were discussing was their continued amazement at how good he is with the rest of the population. Unlike anyone before him, there isn't a demographic Obama can't draw meaningful amounts of support from, including Conservative Evangelicals, especially younger ones, if he can just get them in a room. Sadly, this may not be enough to put him in the White House -- the Republicans, after all, have fear on their side -- but it is an astonishing thing to behold. And it takes getting used to.

On Wednesday night, after Joe Biden's wonderfully syntax-averse speech, Barack made his "surprise" visit and walked, unannounced, onto the stage in the Pepsi Center. (Pepsi Center. Another branding debacle. What is it, a ring of soda machines, like Stonehenge?) Anyway, he suddenly appeared after speeches by Clinton and Biden, with their snowy hair, power ties, and Caucasian timbre. And when he did, I confess that I gasped, because I suddenly realized, "Oh, my God, that's right!! This is the candidate! Not those old familiar white guys. This lithe young black man is our candidate!" In that moment he looked younger and blacker to me than ever before. And I couldn't suppress the thought, "he shouldn't have come here tonight. It's too jarring." But already he had the mic. in his hand, congratulating, joking, waving, like it was the most natural thing in the world for him to be the one that this whole convention was about. And so it was, and the woozy, vertiginous anxiety gave way to hope.

At least for the moment, because having witnessed the Republican Convention for the last three nights, I feel the worry returning. Crude, cynical politics is still very effective in this country. I mean Rudy Giuliani and Sarah Palin openly mocked the idea of community service! To thunderous applause! What? Are they gonna piss on Good Will Industries next? What about hospice volunteers, or pro bono legal aid attorneys? Who needs do-gooders anyway! Sheesh. I know that Democrats have their own forms of truth-bending attack politics, and shame on them, too (unless they have to use it, and they do, so it better be good). But call me naïve, because it still just blows my mind that this stuff works. And if that makes me a liberal elite, fine. I am liberal, and as for elite: don't you want the elite carpet cleaners to come when you've created a really messy crime scene? Don't you want elite airline pilots, surgeons, law enforcement units, divorce lawyers? Don't we want to be this elite country that most people kind of dig, or at least envy, and want to visit and maybe even live here? Isn't that better than being a hypocritical bully state that tortures people and is selling itself, piece by piece, to the Chinese?

After Denver I was hopeful, and I still am, but the brighter the light, the darker the shadows, and there are going to be plenty more strange, fearful mirages emerging from the shadows between now and November 4th. I'm keeping an eye out. At least it won't be dull.

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