The best thing about being in the Pepsi Center for the first day of the Democratic National Convention is that you are in a Zone of Silence. That is -- you have no idea what the pundits think. All you have at your disposal are your own thoughts, your own feelings, your own judgments. Instead of thinking what David Gergen tells you to think, you get to decide what to think, yourself. Almost entirely.
Things impressed me today that I'm fairly sure would not have impressed The Best Political Team on Television. Like, for instance, the roughly 500 volunteers in green shirts stationed at all the garbage bins leading up to the arena, to help people sort their trash into three buckets: recycling, composte, and garbage. So, for instance, when I handed over my Starbucks cup, they put the cup holder and cup in the composte bin, and the plastic top in recycling; only a small piece of chocolate went into the trash. Their goal is that less than 10 percent of the trash generated at the convention should go to landfills. Having volunteers stationed at the bins makes that possible. I spent about five minutes getting the story from one of the volunteers, and the whole time, Wolf Blitzer was nowhere in sight.
I was impressed, today, by what felt like a near total Democratic takeover of an entire city. It was kind of like showing up at one of the first round sites for an NCAA tournament game, except that everyone you meet is rooting for your team.
And I was impressed by Denver's humor. The Shag Lounge, on 15th Street, was featuring Discobama 2008. La Boheme Gentelman's Caberet, across from the Convention Center, promised "The Sexiest Democrats Inside," noting, further down its marquee: "Who ever heard of a nice piece of elephant?" That one took me a minute.
I was a bit nervous, heading into the hall. Earlier in the day, at an event that focused on the Jewish vote, Republican Richard Baehr, the chief political correspondent for American Thinker, had blasted Obama for giving Jimmy Carter a prime time speaking spot. Given Carter's third rail status in the Jewish community -- and given Obama's troubles attracting Jewish support -- why, Baehr wanted to know, would Obama give Carter such a plum role on the first day of the convention?
It turns out Obama handled the situation just about perfectly. Carter appeared in a video, specifically focused on Katrina and the aftermath. He then walked out on stage with his wife, waved to the crowd, and walked off stage. In this way, Obama honored one of two living past Democratic presidents -- without giving him the stage. "Yes, Mr. President, you can come, but you can't say anything," said the NJDC board member sitting next to me.
Jesse Jackson Jr. was the first to really bring it. He envisioned Martin Luther King looking down from heaven, and noting that "This is the first political convention in history to take place within site of a mountaintop." He was followed shortly thereafter by Caroline Kennedy, there to introduce the film that introduced her Uncle Ted. It was incredible to see the hall erupt in cheers at Ted Kennedy stumping on film. "Government can function for the common man," Kennedy said. We can "get healthcare for all Americans," he said. "It is time now for a new generation of leadership -- it is time for Barack Obama."
Everything changed -- in the hall, in the convention, possibly in the country -- the moment Ted Kennedy, striken with a brain tumor, walked out on stage. When Kennedy said -- "I pledge that I will be there next January, on the floor of the U.S. Sen ..." -- we cut him off in mid-sentence, drowning him out with cheers: Kennedy ... Kennedy ... Kennedy. He was pledging to be nothing more than alive, and if he could make such a promse -- well, then, every one of us could do the same. And if we could do that, we could do anything. We could elect a black man president of the United States of America.
With Obama, Kennedy said, "we will break the old gridlock." Every American will have "decent, quality health care." "Barack Obama will close the book on the old politics of race, gender, group against group, and straight against gay." "This November," he said, his voice straining, "the torch will be passed again, to a new generation of Americans." And then he stopped, and the band struck up "You're Still the One." Those around me, without benefit of prompting from Candy Crowley, declared the moment nothing short of amazing. Inspirational. It felt like Obama's promise had been renewed.
The lull that followed was all the more stark because of what had come before. Chicago City Clerk Miguel del Valle. Iowan Candi Schmieder as an "American Voice." Jerry Kellman, who gave Obama his job as a community organizer. Sen. Tom Harken, of Iowa, introducing Republican former Congressman Jim Leach, and then Leach, excoriating his own party for failing to deliver on its own historic promises. "Little is riskier to the national interest than more of the same," Leach said. It was dry, though. In the hall, I found myself hoping this segment had not been televised.
The main thing that struck me, during Sen. Claire McCaskill's speech, was that the Democrats really hadn't gone after McCain in any kind of sustained way. McCaskill did speak about the "risk" of John McCain and the same old GOP policies. I wondered, though, if it was enough.
And then Michelle Obama's brother, Craig Robinson, took the stage -- to cheers of "OSU ... OSU ... OSU." (Only later did I learn he was the head basketball coach at Oregon State.) Craig spoke about his little sister with great tenderness and affection. The line that stuck with me was when he said that Michelle was always talking to him about "who was getting picked on in school." She worried about them, he said. She wanted to help.
When Michelle Obama finally spoke, the silence was louder than any I'd ever heard. How many people -- 20,000? -- and each of us, completely absorbed by her words. "Your word is your bond," she said. "You treat people with dignity and repsect even if you don't know them, even if you don't agree with them." As her speech built, she seemed to get more colloquial, starting every third sentence with "You see ..." -- but the impact was startling. It was as if she were getting this story out because she absolutely had to, purging something insider herself in the process, willing us to understand her in a new way. "We have an obligation to fight for the world as it sould be," she said. And we can, in America, she said, adding: "That is why I love this country."
I don't think I've ever seen an ovation quite like the one that followed. You could sense the gratitude, the relief -- Michelle Obama had finally told her story, answering her critics. "That's how we raise them in Illinois," a woman told me, with evident pride.
The moments that followed, with Obama speaking to his daughters and wife via video from Missouri, were wonderful political theater. The older girl wiping a tear away at the sight of her dad. The younger one jubilant, precocious, facing her father's face on screen (not the camera that was, presumably, sending her image back to him), stealing the show in a rush of joyful words. Obama, happy, relaxed, joking, teasing his wife. A private moment with the whole world watching.
I don't know why it hit me the way it did -- maybe because I was in Denver, at the convention, and my own sons and wife were an hour away, in Boulder -- and, in all the convention hoopla, I'd barely seen them in the previous two days. I'd missed their trip that afternoon to the Construction Museum and Butterfly Pavilion, and I knew they'd be leaving Colorado the following morning, while I stayed for the remainer of the convention. It was a moment of triumph, and yet a part of me was empathizing with Obama. Her moment was his moment, and they were half a country apart.
Later that night, in the ESPN Zone, at a party hosted by the Ohio delegation, my zone of silence was rudely pierced. I saw -- on the muted TV on the wall -- the words scroll across the screen, beneath Anderson Cooper: "GOP Response: Dems Waste First Night of Convention." And: "Did Dems Let Bush Off Too Easy?"
It was more than enough to shake the NeuroticDemocrat, to make me wonder about everything I'd just witnessed.
On the ride home to Boulder, I phoned my hotel, to make sure they were holding a room for me for the following day. The clerk, Pierre, told me he would hold my room -- if I could get him credentials for the convention hall. I laughed. I knew I couldn't. But we got to talking. I asked if he'd watched the convention. He had. "Kennedy and Obama -- they just blew it up," he said. "I never cried before, watching anyone speak. But I had tears in my eyes, watching them."
"It was incredible," I told him. "When Michelle Obama spoke, you could have heard a pin drop."
It's now five hours since the convention let out, and I still don't know how the world took it. I just know how Pierre took it.
Thanks, buddy, for letting me check in.