Friday, August 29, 2008

The Bridge that Led to the Stadium

I'm the NeuroticDemocrat. I picked this nom de guerre not just to be funny, but because it felt like an accurate description of my mental state this election. I'll wake up on a Sunday morning and read Frank Rich and feel vindicated, and calm about Obama's prospects -- almost as if the whole electorate had read Frank Rich -- and then I'll catch a glimpse of a daily poll on a ticker, indicating the race tightening, and my stomach will tighten. I might check my inbox and find some new ridiculous Obama smear, and feel even worse. Then, at night, I might watch Jon Stewart, Tivoed from Friday, and the universe would fall back in place again.

If you've been reading the blog you know -- this week has been no different. And Thursday -- Day Four of the Democratic National Convention -- might well be exhibit A.

We arrived at Mile High Stadium early, around 2:10 local time, and, after waiting about an hour to get through security, we found great club level seats, section 300, with a straight-on view of the stage.

I'd made the mistake of glancing at the New York Times before leaving my hotel, and watching a few minutes of CNN, so I knew that Republicans had already picked up on a description in a Reuters article, and were mocking the stage as “Obamopolis.” I'd heard Amy Holmes have a good guffaw over the fact that, after all the Democrats crying foul about the Obama celebrity ads, Brittany Spears' set designer had in fact help design the stage. I knew, from the lead Times article, that the Obama folks -- even at that late hour -- were still working furiously to get things right: reducing the echo, making Obama seem part of the crowd, instead of high above it.

I'd been worried about the stadium venue for some time. When it was first announced, I wondered: What if it rains. After the GOP (smartly, to be sure), skewered Obama's celebrity, I thought: aren't we playing right into their hands?

Sitting in section 300, I did what the NeuroticDemocrat does best. I worried. I worried for half a day because so many seats, in the sections across from us, were not filled. Why weren't they filled? Were there still people in line outside? I peered across the fifty-yard line not though my own lens, but through Amy Holmes'. I saw the ticker running across the bottom of the CNN screen: Obama fails to fill stadium.

And then there were the columns. They did look pretty gaudy. I think the Obama folks were going for White House -- not the Acropolis -- but still, didn't that, too, play into our opponents’ hands? And the sound -- it was terrible. At one point, someone was speaking, and we couldn't hear a thing. I imaged speaker after speaking, inaudible. The night seemed to be coming on too quickly. I kept checking my watch, and looking across the field. Where are all the people? Let them in.

You wouldn't have known it, looking at me. Maybe because even as I worried, I was thinking about something else. I was thinking about what it was like, being in Denver this week, amidst Democrats of all colors, all ethnicities, all sexual-orientations, from all over the country. I imagine that Denver -- most cities, for that matter -- has never before seen such a rich tableau. And I was thinking about all the people who have come to the stage in support of Obama-Biden, and the many, many folks I'd met, all here for a common purpose, sharing a common goal.

In this regard, today was the week in microcosm.

On my way into the city, I met Nasir, my cab driver, who came to America 14 years ago from Djibouti. He told me about how his friends had phoned him Monday, from East Africa, when they heard a rumor that someone had tried to assassinate Obama (three men had been arrested, though police say they never posed a serious threat). They had heard the news even before Nasir, who was busily driving his cab around Denver. "They are following so close with this election," he said. "A lot of people in the world want change in America, too. They have that same hope."

In the Starbucks, inside the Hyatt Regency, the barista asked a customer what her shirt said.

"Yes We Can Bitches," she said.

The barista laughed. "I like it."

Waiting for the bus to take us to the stadium, a volunteer beseeched us: "People -- please -- hold on to your credentials with your life. People are walking up and tearing them off the lanyards."

A group of delegates from Colorado walked up, and, since there was no real line, stood near the front. Someone asked them to move to the back. "That's fine, we're Democrats," said one woman, with twin donkey images etched on the lenses of her sunglasses. "It's okay. Though I'll never go to the back of the bus. I fought too many years to get to the front."

She raised both hands and slapped another woman ten. "No way, no how, no McCain," the other woman said. It was Hillary Clinton's line. In Denver, all week, it was our mantra.

On the bus, to the stadium, the woman I sat next to told me about the text she had received the night before, from her friend, about Bill Clinton, which said simply: "I like him again."

I was thinking about all these people, sitting in that stadium, as it slowly, slowly began to fill. Rodees setting up for Cheryl Crowe had their friends snap pictures of themselves on stage. One of the end zone sections worked to strike up a wave. On the floor, beach balls bounced from one delegation to the next. And then, up on the giant jumbotron, the Obama campaign posted a message, asking people to text in their comments. Before too long, there was a new kind of ticker scrolling across the bottom of the screens -- message after message from people in the stadium, sometimes just a name and a city.

Raina South Bronx Dream Realized ...
Carole Duncanville, Texas ...
Erica and Klint Tulsa Oklahoma ...
I believe in our country ...
Alison Fargo, ND ...

Bill Richardson brought it. Then Gore. Then Susan Eisenhower, who told America that Obama has the "energy, and more importantly the temperament," to be president. Then came the military generals, and Joe Biden.

And then Roy Gross, a Teamster from Michigan, took the stage -- and the NeuroticDemocrat thought: uh oh, here we go with the ordinary people, the oldest political cliche in the book. Only, these people were anything but ordinary. They were fiery and feisty and brave, unafraid to speak truth to power. And they seemed to be speaking, at least partly, off the cuff.

Monica Early of Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio said that she had received an email with all kinds of claims about Barack Obama. When she took it upon herself to check out its claims, she found them false. "I am grateful for that email that tried to scare me," she said. "It brought me here, an ordinary citizen inspired by a leader who told me I can make a difference."

They took the stage, one after another, and told it like they saw it. "Hello, I'm Pam, from Pittsboro, North Carolina," said Pamela Cash-Roper. She told us her story, about how she and her husband had lost health insurance, and then said that she'd been a lifelong Republican -- voted for Nixon, Reagan, Bush and Bush. "But I can't afford four more years.”

When Barney Smith of Marion, Indiana stood up and said: "We need a president who puts Barney Smith before Smith Barney," 75,000 people began chanting -- Bar-ney, Bar-ney, Bar-ney -- as if we'd known the guy all our lives.

Your gonna be the greatest prez ever!!! I'm so proud of you. Ciera ...
Obama-Biden 08 YES WE CAN Dayton, Ohio ...
Rebecca, Silver Spring, Md ...
Native American in S. Arizona supports Obama ...

"This is better than a ballgame," said the man a few seats away from me, his dreadlocks tied up in a neat ponytail.

Durbin came on. Then the movie. Obama spoke about how his Mom used to get him up at 4:30 in the morning for his lessons. "If I grumbled, she’d say: 'This is no picnic for me either, buster.' "

The movie ended and Obama came out. You know what he said and how he said it. If you're like me, you thought his words were eloquent, substantive, and transformative. We cheered him. Drowned him out. Time and again, we started cheering before he finished a sentence, and he kept talking, and we kept cheering, even though were couldn't exactly be sure what he'd said. What struck me, though, was less the raucous cheering than the quiet that always followed. 75,000 people, and we hung on his every word. At one point, we heard voices from the skybox above us, and the person was shushed into silence. I put my notebook down, and stopped taking notes.

After the speech, hundreds of us gathered at a DNC party, at the club level of the stadium. Then, thoroughly spent, I left the stadium, found a bus to take me back into town.

On the bus, it was more of the same. Delegates of all stripes, from all over America.

"I'm from Alabama," said one. "Birmingham."

"Huntsville," said another, reaching out his hand.

A delegate from Texas spoke up. Asked a question about a Birmingham politician.

"That was Selma," a woman said.

"Selma, Birmingham, same difference," the Texas delegate said, to laughter.

"I'm from Selma -- historic Selma," the woman said, a new fire in her eyes. "It was Selma -- that bridge -- that got us into this stadium."

I had a vague sense of the bridge she was talking about, but I wasn't totally sure. So when I got back to my hotel room, I looked it up. It was the Edmund Pettus Bridge, named for Edmund Winston Pettus, a confederate brigadier general. The bridge was the site of Bloody Sunday, March 7, 1965, when armed police officers attacked peaceful civil rights demonstrators.

Just a few hours post convention, and already, I'd taken a few steps across a bridge of my own.

I started writing this blog, in part to help me synthesize all that went on around me this week. And in part, to give friends, family, and colleagues who couldn’t be here a unique perspective on the goings on.

Indeed, something happens when you’re here. Something I’m not sure you get, watching on TV at home. You get the community. You get Nasir and Raina. Carole and Rebecca. Pam Cash-Roper and Barney Smith. Sitting through speech after speech after speech for four days running, you get bored, and then you get something else that’s much bigger. You get that you’re not alone. You knew it before, of course. But being here, you come to know it and feel it in a different way. My sense is, knowing this, feeling it, will make it a little bit easier to shoulder through the dips in the polls; to weather the GOP onslaught that’s coming at us next week; to be a bit more steadfast.

In the meantime, I’ve decided to keep this blog going. So keep checking in every now and then. That will help, too.

A few weeks before the Ohio primary, I was invited to attend a small meeting between Barack Obama and Jewish leaders in northeast Ohio. After the meeting, I sent out an email blast, strongly defending Obama’s stance on Israel. It went viral. Mostly, people who responded to me were thankful that I’d shared my views. For months after, however, I also got scathing emails – usually unsigned – accusing me of crimes against my family, my people. That’s partly why I decided, when starting this blog, to post as NeuroticDemocrat instead of using my name. I wasn’t exactly sure I wanted to take more heat for my views.

It was at the DNC party after the convention when I realized something had turned. About an hour into the party, Barack Obama made a surprise appearance, with his wife, and Joe Biden and his wife. “I’m a little speechless,” he began, standing on a stage a few feet away. He spoke about ten minutes to a few hundred supporters. Before leaving, he said: “We’ve got lots of work to do.”

For me, if I’ve learned anything this week, I’ve learned that the work starts with standing up for what you believe in, and, like the people on that bridge in Selma, having the courage of your convictions.

I’m Josh Rolnick, of Akron, Ohio. And I support this message.


Barbara W said...

I'm glad to hear you are continuing the blog. I hang on your every word. I watched the convention every night for hours. Sometimes I watched the networks with the talking heads. But most of the time I watched on my computer. No talking heads. Just me and the convention. I felt like I was there with you.

Jacob Rosen said...

Great blog, great post, I really appreciate everything you do Josh. Keep up the great work!

Jacob Rosen

Loyal said...

18 key to Obama states and how they stand

Beautiful post.

ND, you know your grandmother was at King's IHAD speech. I htink your uncle too, but not sure.

unc2u said...

I hope you continue with the daily,weekly entries. They are at the least a refreshing perspective and at best a persuasive argument for your man.

drdad said...

I've loved all of your posts - they made the convention more real, more immediate, and more personal than it otherwise would have been. I am happy that you will continue the blog.
I loved your ending - speaking truth to power means being clear that you are lending YOUR voice, your commitment, and your identity to the struggle. And yes, your grandmother and I were there, listening to Dr. King and, if I may speak for her after our numerous phone conversations, we both are proud to see where his words and the efforts of millions of others have lead.

62Robinson said...

Question: Will you be blogging from St. Paul?

(Always lead with a joke.)

Seriously, it's been great getting the inside scoop from someone who's there, who I know I can trust more than CNN. I know you're a lifelong Democrat, but I also know how smart and level-headed you are, and I know I can trust you to avoid hyperbole.

That's why you have me so excited. Your posts have been filled with euphoria.

I have always voted Democrat for president (must admit to one Republican vote for Senate and a few independent votes for City Council) but it's usually been solely out of duty to do what's right. I think this is the first time I've actually been excited by a candidate. Obama did that, but your blog didn't hurt the cause!

Your description of sitting in the stadium reminded me of sitting at Giants Stadium last month waiting for Springsteen to come on. Most of the seats were empty because an overturned tanker had closed Exit 16W. I got increasingly anxious waiting for the show to start. By the time it did, 2 1/2 hours late, the stadium was packed.

Another similarity between Bruce and Barack: "I believe in the promised land."

(cue harmonica)

In the spirit of solidarity: This has been Gary Miller, Linden, N.J.

NeuroticDem said...

Posters --
Just back now in Akron and reading through these -- and I really can't tell you all how much your comments mean to me. Knowing that I wasn't posting in a vacuum (far from it) this week reallly kept me going, a few of the days into the wee morning hours.
62Robinson --
That means a lot to me, too, about the posts being filled with euphoria, but somehow not exaggerated. That's what I'm aiming for -- and it's hard sometimes, give how strongly I feel about this one.
Oh -- and by the way -- singing "Born in the USA" with (now they are saying 90,000) people, on this day -- reclaiming it finally, officially from Reagan -- it was perfect.