At around two on Thursday afternoon the whips were donning their yellow net vests and getting a strategy session on how to manage the floor for the prime time conclusion of the convention. This was in the Boiler Room, a corner headquarters tucked behind some curtains in the third floor corridor opposite the stage that was the Fleet’s cerebral cortex, the place where action and timing were coordinated. It was open only to DNC staff and required a credential that I hadn’t even noticed before. THE BOILER ROOM, said the tags. I slipped in to get a glimpse: wide, wall-mounted flat screens showed various views of the hall; in the corner, another curtain enclosed a food depot where piles of sandwiches and water were massed in waves before being disseminated to hungry staffers and delegates in the hall; and on the desks, there were phones for relaying information and commands to the whips on the floor, like exactly when to let each variety of planned political flair rip for the cameras.
“Last night we let some of the flags get away from us a little bit during Edwards,” said the team leader, addressing his squad while standing on a chair. “Despite that, I think we did really well last night. Good work on the Hope signs.”
I had been right beneath John Edwards’s podium to watch a fracas erupt as the whips amongst the Washington delegation, who had handed out the HOPE IS ON THE WAY signs too early, were desperately trying to manage an inadvertent rebellion against the EDWARDS pole banners that were apparently the intended visibility targets at that moment in the speech.
“Hope down!” screamed one whip, looking like a hornet as he shuttled around in close quarters and gestured wildly. “NO! NO! Edwards up! Hope down! OK, now Edwards and hope — Edwards and hope together!”
As if the precision of the signage is that important when only three hours of the event made it onto broadcast television, leaving an even smaller fraction of time available to show the crowd. Not that the news cameras would pick up the best shots anyway. Most news videographers aren’t interested in composition; they want proximity. They’re the most ruthless lot on the campaign trail — more willing to trample innocents and mow down bystanders than Karl Rove. They’ll push you out of the way, step on your feet, knock you off the risers. The still photographers are marginally better, except for this one bitter crank whose been flaring his nostrils at the rest of us since Iowa and looks like a Transvaal trekker but with a red bandana and film rolls instead of shells stuffed into his khaki vest pockets. With all the bad karma the guy’s accumulating, I hope he’s at least getting some nice shots.
Spending Wednesday night in the photography pit was a mistake, and not just because of the bad vibes. The place was hot and stinky too. Really stinky. On Thursday, I lucked into an empty desk spot in the media stands next to the stage. Michael Scherer from Mother Jones was there. Stephen Elliott made his way over. And Gideon Yago, weary from too much time on the floor, came up to join us. Nearby, the papers and wire services were ensconced with full computer setups, writing copy and tinkering with leads before Kerry’s speech was halfway over.
The press received copies of the six-page speech an hour early and had combed it for the choice moments. But the crowd hadn’t seen it, and so the applause often appeared unexpectedly. Or not in the usual places. Like who would have suspected what a barnstormer stem cell research would be? It was especially effective in a one-two combination, paired as it was with the sensible question: “What if we have a President who believes in science?” — a point about the fundamental flaw in the Bush Administration that has never been emphasized enough.
It wasn’t quite the showstopper that Al Sharpton’s “ride this donkey” line was, but when Kerry invoked Abraham Lincoln to say “I don’t want to claim that God is on our side . . . I want to pray humbly that we are on God’s side,” the room jumped to its feet. True to form perhaps, The Rev had dropped a bomb, whereas Kerry preferred a surgical strike — remarkably, it was these few words that drove most directly to the moral heart of what is sadly turning out to be the politics of the twenty-first century.
In an evening stacked with military men recalling military deeds, there was plenty of patriotism, all of which received wild enthusiasm. Both Clark and Kerry scored big with the solemn assertion that “the flag belongs to all of us.” This, I think, is the root of Kerry’s underlying appeal — as a personification of loyal opposition. Democrats are grateful that Kerry volunteered to serve in Vietnam, and fought hard despite misgivings. He exorcises the ghosts of 1968. Because to be anti-war today does not mean rejecting America with the feckless Dadaism of the Yippies or some Maoist loathing for “capitalist-imperialist structures”; it’s a faithfulness, rather, to the better side of America’s political legacy: caution, collective security, and due process. And yet the administration has been trying to paint by numbers with that 30-year-old brush of treason. So when Kerry stands up to question the war, it provides a footing for Democrats. The feeling is that Kerry earned that privilege with blood; that he “heard the thump of mortars” while Bush, Cheney, et. al. were coming in well over par on some fairway back home; that even if Kerry won’t do so himself, his record gives others the right to say: FUCK YOU — OUR CRITICISM OF THE WAR IS MORE PATRIOTIC THAN THE WAR ITSELF.
Policy-wise, some specifics emerged. Or were re-iterated after months of obfuscation by the Republicans, as in the case of the tax-cut repeal. But I still don’t understand why Kerry hasn’t capitalized on the Firemen’s union and SEIU endorsements to make first response and public health infrastructure as the missing front in the “War or Terror” a main campaign platform. As all the specialists who study terrorist threats have said in unison, before and since September 11th, the first defense against catastrophic biological or chemical terrorism should not be expensive military expeditions, but rather improved fire and emergency services, hospitals, epidemiological tracking systems, and so on. As policy, it seems like a no-brainer: strong on terrorism while benefiting the country directly. And it could all be captured by asking: “How many extra police, firemen, ambulances, emergency rooms and rapid response teams would $87 billion buy? Why create more terrorism with a boondoggle in Iraq, when we could have spent that money at home?”
There were a few other nice moments before the wrap up when Edwards joined Kerry on stage and Don Mischer made the week's only gaffe by cursing on CNN when the balloons didn’t drop in the right order. As they did float down and start filling the stands, Stephen Elliott spent ten minutes trying to nail a Fox correspondant as he interviewed a woman who might have been Mary Beth Cahill, Kerry’s Campaign Chair. Below us, the delegates hugged and danced. Bill Richardson moved that the convention adjourn; the Ayes had it; and at that moment, the entire hierarchy of the past week ceased to exist. Credentials no longer had meaning. Foot traffic streamed out of the Fleet Center, and the gatekeepers at the doors and escalators abandoned their posts, replaced by a uniformed army of DNC volunteers with handmade pole-arms specially designed to pop balloons.
In the entire complex of temporary structures relating to the DNC, the first place to be dismantled was the hospitality room in the press tent. It had been the one mediocre perk granted to the media — or rather selectively granted, because even there you had needed a special tag to line up for lukewarm coffee and cold chicken tenders. By midnight, the hospitality staff was throwing out the napkins, and there was a single Budweiser left. "Looks like this Bud's for you," said the girl cleaning out the ice. I sat down to crack it as someone carted off one of the walls. Then they wanted my chair. I went back to the file room. At 12:10, the network was about to go down.
“One minute,” the guy with headset announced.
“Thirty seconds . . .”