October 2008 Issue
by Jay Gentile
AUGUST 27, 2008, DENVER — Wolf Blitzer is seated five feet to my right, Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell stands five feet to my left, and everywhere around me people are losing their minds. The 1972 O’Jays tune “Love Train” (“people all over the world / join hands / start a love train / love train…”) is piping in over the loudspeakers, and the woman behind me is weeping. I’m standing on the floor of the Democratic National Convention in Denver’s Pepsi Center (home of the Nuggets), where Hillary Clinton has just ceremoniously ended the convention’s roll call vote and officially thrown the party’s nomination to Barack Obama. Everyone knows it’s all carefully scripted political theater, but at the moment no one seems particularly inclined to derail a perfectly good love train.
While covering the 2008 Democratic National Convention for Chicago INNERVIEW, it’s hard not to spot the parallels between political conventions and the large multi-day music festivals that the magazine had become accustomed to reviewing before its recent expansion into politics. With roughly as many convention speakers as bands playing at a major festival like Lollapalooza, there are the headliners (Obama, Joe Biden, Al Gore), older bands on their greatest hits reunion tour (Jimmy Carter, John Kerry), and up-and-coming surprise acts (Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer, Tammy Duckworth, etc.) There was also speculation regarding unintended scheduling conflicts, with many wondering if the heavy Clinton presence (Hillary speaking on Tuesday, followed by Bill on Wednesday) would upstage Obama’s festival/convention-closing jam on Thursday.
And like any crowded music festival, acquiring good seats— in this case, floor seats, amidst throngs of people would require a bit of, shall we say, ingenuity. With 15,000 members of the media from 134 countries covering the convention, everyone wants to be one of the chosen few reporting from the floor, where only big-shot pols, delegates from assorted swing states, and major TV media types are allowed. Even candidate Obama himself was unable to secure such a credential, the highest of the three types of credentials, at his party’s convention in 2000. Besides a floor credential, the other types of convention credentials issued by the party are either hall (granting access to the site but not the floor) or perimeter, which allows access for surrounding areas but not the auditorium itself.
Chicago INNERVIEW was granted a hall pass for its coverage of the 2008 presidential campaign as recognized by DNC staffers, but once inside the arena we found it hard to resist the allure of the floor. After wandering through the West Virginia delegation and nearly bowling over Fox News correspondent Jim Angle on our way towards the floor just as the credential-checking floor worker was looking the other way (our hall credential was purple, floor credentials were green), Chicago INNERVIEW suddenly found itself standing upon the coveted convention floor — where I watched the remainder of the proceedings surrounded by the Pennsylvania delegation and next to the CNN crew who were broadcasting live from the floor.
There I watched DNC Secretary Alice Travis Germond perform Wednesday’s roll call vote, asking each state how they would like to cast their votes amongst the two candidates whose names were placed into nomination at the convention: Obama and Clinton. While it is rare that more than one name be placed into nomination at a major party’s convention, it is not unheard of…happening as recently as 1992 when Jerry Brown’s name was placed in nomination after losing the primary to Bill Clinton. This time around Hillary’s name was placed in nomination in an effort at party unity following an extraordinarily divisive primary, and while everyone knew the eventual outcome it was still an interesting process to watch.
Towards the end of the roll call vote, New Mexico passed its votes to Illinois, represented by Mayor Daley, who declared: “From the far plains of the great city of Chicago, candidate city for the 2016 Olympics and, in 2008, World Series between the Chicago White Sox and the Chicago Cubs, hometown of the next president of the United States, Barack Obama, we yield to the great state of New York.” It was then that the spotlight shifted to a “surprise” entrance by Hillary Clinton, who effectively ended the long primary battle with the statement: “Let’s declare together in one voice right here, right now, that Barack Obama is our candidate and he will be our president.” House Speaker and DNC Chair Nancy Pelosi then asked the crowd if there was a second to Clinton’s motion to nominate Obama, to which a thunderous “aye” echoed in reply — and the love train began…
As jaded of a political observer as I may have become over the years, it was hard not to feel moved at that moment as delegates danced in the aisles holding hands before breaking into a spontaneous chant of “yes we can!” I may have even seen Anderson Cooper breakdancing. Well, not exactly, but I did get to meet Asif Mandvi of “The Daily Show” and rub elbows with the likes of Katie Couric, Illinois Senate President Emil Jones, former California Governor Gray Davis, Clinton Administration advisor Paul Begala, MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell and other assorted VIPs while roaming the floor.
And like any major concert, there is of course a backstage — an arena in which Chicago INNERVIEW would also familiarize itself with later that night. After taking an elevator down to the basement level of the Pepsi Center and following a herd of people while looking like he knew where he was going, Chicago INNERVIEW correspondent Matt Jackson found himself in exactly the right place at the right time as Obama made a surprise appearance during vice presidential nominee Joe Biden’s speech Wednesday night. Capturing the following on video, Jackson stuck his fist out in an effort to fist-bump the man who stands a 50-50 chance of becoming our next president but Secret Service intervened, shouting “Show me your hands!” In the midst of the commotion, someone bumped into Jackson from behind, causing him to drop his camera as the candidate moved on to the stage.
The following night Jackson and I watched Obama accept the nomination from a packed 75,000-seat Invesco Field at Mile High (home of the Broncos), where sharpshooters patrolled the roof while flanking both sides of a giant bronco statue. Even Stevie Wonder showed up to jam, along with Sheryl Crow, will.i.am and Colorado’s own Yonder Mountain String Band. Again we managed to finagle good seats about 30 rows up from the field where we watched, in one of the highlights of the night, a recently laid-off Indiana plant worker named Barney Smith speak during the “American Voices” program which preceded Obama’s acceptance speech. The nerdy-looking Smith, a lifelong Republican who is supporting Obama, declared that “We need a president who puts Barney Smith above Smith Barney” — a one-liner that won over a skeptical crowd, who immediately burst into a spontaneous and hilarious chant of “Barney! Barney!”
Later that night we found ourselves surrounded by rabid supporters hoisting blue cardboard “CHANGE” campaign signs as large segments of the crowd, many of whom had never seen Obama speak before, howled and jumped up and down in approval. All in all, it seemed obvious that the convention was largely successful in achieving its goal of uniting the party and firing up supporters. What’s less clear is whether or not modern-day political conventions, which have devolved from forums in which candidates were actually selected to 4-day party advertisements preceding inevitable end results, actually succeed at winning over any undecided voters or members of the opposition party.
In the final analysis, Denver 2008 has to go down as one of the best political conventions in Democratic Party history. Whether or not it propels Barack Obama to victory on Election Day is entirely another matter…
CI Political File #009