Adventures of an Accidental Delegate

The Yellow-Vests Take Control
Notes from different corners of the world.
Aug. 26 2008 9:02 PM

Adventures of an Accidental Delegate

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The veep nominee and me
The veep nominee and me

Reports that the New York delegation had been banished to the nosebleed seats, as revenge against the Clintons, are false. We are seated partially on the floor and partially in the first section of bleacher seats. (The floor seating is reserved for elected officials.) Seating is tight, however, and last night the DNC-designated blogger for New York state was kicked out of the seat next to mine in order to make room for a New York delegate, who herself had been kicked out of a seat designated for elected officials. I heard that even Ted Sorenson, JFK's speechwriter, was unable to get a seat in the press box until someone raised a stink.

Yellow-vested campaign functionaries try to enforce seating discipline. But whenever possible, people leave their seats and clog the aisles. Members of the Secret Service clear paths for elected officials, who seem to be crisscrossing the floor just to flaunt their freedom of movement. Kal Penn (star of Harold and Kumar Escape From Guantanamo and an Obama stalwart) was kicked off the floor by a yellow-vest, apparently for the unpardonable offense of insufficient celebrity. One of my fellow delegates never made it to the convention, apparently caught in traffic around the Sheraton in an incident in which anarchist protesters were sprayed with pepper spray.

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At one point, a friend of mine called me up to the last row of bleachers below the skyboxes for a photo op. It turned out to be the place where Joe Biden was making his appearance, kissing his surreally beautiful grandchildren and generally cranking out enough charisma to make the immediate vicinity seem like a tanning booth. I'm wearing my super-special convention hat, designed for me by Machine Dazzle of New York's beloved Dazzle Dancers, which features the NYC skyline done in glitter and rhinestones as well as white silk roses and ostrich plumes. The overall effect is, in Machine's words, "both patriotic and chic." Joe posed with me in my hat, and I was staring, hypnotized by the perfection of his teeth, when I was blindsided by 20 tons of photographers and well-wishers all seeking their own photo op.

I soon found myself unwillingly sharing my seat with an obese man in a Panama hat who seemed to be trying to absorb my body into his, like the Borg. I was desperate to escape, but the cameras were rolling, and I wasn't about to climb over three rows of seats in a dress, especially with Fox News and its wardrobe-malfunction-hunting cameras in the vicinity.

I did eventually get back to my seat, where I started listening to the speeches in earnest—only to be distracted by the woman sitting next to me, who was emitting an almost visible low-level hum of passive aggression. I asked her where she was from, and she somehow managed to make "Buffalo" monosyllabic and turned her head away. She didn't applaud a single speaker and refused to hold signs or even to pass them along when they were handed to her by the yellow-vests. In my foofy hat and Obama buttons, I felt self-conscious. Does she think of me as frivolous, post-feminist, ungrateful? I wondered. Then I wondered: Why do I even care what she thinks of me? It's a peculiarity of political events that applause, rather than being an expression of inner enthusiasm, tends to be outwardly directed, aimed at making someone else notice the fact and intensity of your applause. I found myself whooping and clapping until my hands were sore whenever Clinton's name was mentioned, hoping for a smile from my neighbor. But I was eventually forced to admit defeat.

Meanwhile, the yellow-vests were passing around nominating petitions for both Clinton and Obama, which I assumed is a formality in advance of the roll-call vote. The Obama petition was filled up, so the yellow-vest next to me was trying to get an Obama delegate to sign the Clinton petition. He was not having much success explaining that, yes, the Obama campaign wants you to sign the Clinton petition. "It's a trick," shouted a deep-voiced man in front of me. "He's been trying this all night. Go on, you get out of here before there's trouble." The yellow-vest hung his head and shuffled away.

After my time on the floor, I went to the Slate party, where I stayed too late and ended up taking the free shuttle bus home. At midnight, downtown Denver was almost deserted, black-glass icebergs in an asphalt sea. I fell into conversation with a handlebar-mustached member of the Sheet Metal Workers' Union, who has been working 12-hour days building the podium for Thursday night's speech at Invesco Field. I asked him what it looks like. "Grecian," he said. "You mean with columns?" I asked, and he nodded.

As I walked into the Sheraton, the big-screen TVs in the lobby were showing a clip of me, taken from a terribly unflattering under-the-chin angle, with Joe Biden shaking hands with Howard Dean at the top of the frame. I looked around. No one in the lobby was watching, and I felt an overwhelming desire for validation. I tapped the nearest guy on the shoulder and pointed at the screen. "That's me," I said. He looked, nodded, and turned back to his Blackberry.

...

The speeches at the Democratic Women's Caucus today blew last night's convention speeches out of the water. Perhaps Democrats are more comfortable talking frankly to other Democrats without the entire nation looking on. The Women's Caucus speeches were refreshingly hard-hitting, especially after the spectacle last night of watching powerhouse women such as Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri and Michelle Obama digest and regurgitate pabulum, as if ministering to a nation of baby birds.

BET co-founder Sheila Johnson's speech was especially strong, but she struck the one false note of the morning's speeches when she said, of Michelle Obama's speech, "Let no one diminish … the speech she gave for all of us." Michelle's speech wasn't given for the Democratic women—it was given to soothe the deep-rooted fears of Republican men. Her speech received at least 10 times the scrutiny that Joe Biden's speech will receive, and, unlike Joe, she was unlikely to be forgiven any mistakes. Michelle's speech was strategic—it achieved its goal—but, as the world waits to dissect every inflection of Hillary's speech tonight, I wonder whether there is any female-gendered equivalent to the word "emasculation."

By contrast, the Women's Caucus was an intentional public flexing of political muscle. The point was drilled home, by multiple speakers, that the majority of delegates are women, as is 51 percent of the population. Lifetime Networks had placed purple and green tambourines on every seat in the cavernous ballroom, and applause consisted of an ominous, deafening shimmy—5,000 rattlesnakes saying, "We are dormant now … perhaps even friendly … but don't tread on me." Only when the audience started chanting "O-BAM-A" did the rattle resolve, temporarily, into a golden, Kumbaya-like rhythm.

Monica Youn is an attorney in the Democracy Program of the Brennan Center for Justice at the NYU School of Law.