Adventures of an Accidental Delegate

Can the Kids and the Grown-ups Get Along?
Notes from different corners of the world.
Aug. 29 2008 6:31 PM

Adventures of an Accidental Delegate

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My favorite non-prime-time moment Thursday night: when Invesco Field, 80,000 strong, started doing "the wave" and continued going round and round, while the delegates, holding their signs high, rotated in sync like time-lapse sunflowers.

My second favorite non-prime-time moment: the surprise visit of Shawn Johnson, whose Olympic performances I had watched over and over again, mesmerized by her feet—little flour-dusted whole-wheat loaves—landing perfectly each time on the balance beam. Does this mean that the Republicans will have Nastia Liukin—who, in her pre-competition self-absorption, occasionally bears more than a fleeting resemblance to Cindy McCain? Shawn Johnson's appearance closed the circle on three solid weeks of spectacle and made what happened at Invesco Field seem like the actual closing ceremony of the Olympics. (Indeed, the Beijing ceremonies had the advantage of making the Democrats' staging look relatively low-key and tasteful by comparison. Although I would have loved to see Barack fly in with a torch.

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For most of the night, the stadium was relatively calm, especially since, thankfully, there was only one placard—the single word CHANGE. The yellow-vests, who were usually in charge of choreographing placards and flags (one yelled at a 2-year-old two days ago for waving a flag at the wrong time), buzzed about peacefully. Actor Kal Penn—who was hauled off the floor on the first night—eventually became a yellow-vest. Stockholm syndrome?

I also saw a woman at the Sheraton wearing a button with a picture of her own face.

***

Although most of the televised speeches were directed outward, to undecided voters, when the cameras were off, the convention was all about party unity: not just of former Clinton supporters, but of the new and old visions of the party. The New York delegation is oddly split; almost every Clinton delegate is a major DNC player, elected official, or interest-group leader. The Obama delegates, on the other hand, are your classic ragtag band: community organizers, activists, and do-it-yourself grass-roots fundraisers (including a 20-year-old who has managed to raise more than $200,000 for the campaign).

The first New York delegation meeting took place in New York about a week after Hillary's concession speech and was bristling with tension. (It also featured the only registration line I've ever seen actually move backward, as every single delegate appeared to believe that he/she was too important to wait in line and cut in front of the other delegates.) The meeting—which began with a lightning round of acclamation votes that went by too fast for the neophyte delegates even to understand, much less consider—seemed calculated to drill home the message: "Look, you kids, your candidates may have pulled this off, but don't think that you get to run this state."

The new Obama delegates, who had arrived wearing well-practiced expressions of graciousness, looked bewildered, deprived of their chance to gloat. As delegation leadership roles and other boondoggles continued to flow to Clinton supporters, one Obama supporter was heard whispering, "Whatever happened to: To the victors go the spoils?"

At that first meeting, talking to someone who wasn't wearing a candidate button created the same sense of dysphoria as Saturday Night Live's androgynous Pat: You had almost no way to frame a conversation. Even a comment as innocuous as, "Are you looking forward to the convention?" could easily rub some nerve the wrong way.

The hypersensitivity between Clinton and Obama supporters, though lessened somewhat, was still there as the convention kicked off, exacerbated by the press's single-minded focus on whether supposedly disaffected Hillary supporters would "fall in line." Buttons handed out the first night of the convention said, "I'm a Hillary Clinton Democrat for Barack Obama," which ameliorated the tension by putting a name on it. Obama supporters were also on a hair-trigger—as the first Hillary placards were raised Tuesday night at the convention, a friend whispered to me, "How the hell did they sneak those in here?"

A hat with a tiny toliet mounted on it.
A hat with a tiny toliet mounted on it

Nevertheless, standing up, waving Hillary signs, finally allowing oneself to join in the familiar three-beat chant "HIL-LAR-Y!"—it was cathartic for us Obama supporters as well. By the end of the convention, the constant drumbeat of "Unity" had worked its subliminal magic, and I had an hourlong conversation with a fellow delegate without knowing or caring whom he had supported … almost. Even the lady with the toilet on her hat wore both Hillary and Obama pins.

Bridging the nongendered divide between the old Democrats and the new Democrats—the assembly members and the activists—is a more complicated story. The Old Guard showed up at the convention, as it had in past conventions, prepared to organize, to work on phone banks, to raise money—but not to join in the gambols of the frolicking Obamanians and certainly not prepared to let them run things. The Pepsi Generation, on the other hand, thought it deserved more credit for building and organizing perhaps the most effective national grass-roots campaign in history and was worried that its hard-won new voters would leave the party if the grown-ups came home and turned off the music. Going forward, it will be fascinating to see the way this tension plays out in the general election. A little tension is by no means a bad thing as long as there is someone efficiently organizing the various vectors.

***

Last night, as soon as the last, syncretic words of the benediction stopped echoing through Invesco Field, I watched an elected official from the Bronx literally wrestling one of his own constituents—a middle-aged African-American woman—for possession of the "New York" sign that had signaled the delegation's place on the convention floor. This time, he won.

Later, on the way to yet another party, I walked through the Colorado State Capitol, which was illuminated and completely deserted. Government buildings are weirdly touching when unoccupied—the neoclassical grandeur of their architecture calls to mind Montesquieu's dream of balance and symmetry. It's during the day that these buildings become clogged and hectic, filled with their unappealing bureaucratic stuffing. But it's also during the day that things actually get done.

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