Archive for August, 2008

We Have to Bend It

Sunday, August 31st, 2008

One thousand four hundred miles later, when my plane touched down in Cleveland, someone near the front said: “Fired Up!” There was a pause, and then a handful of people said: “Ready to Go!” A world away from the convention, the call and refrain started up again. And that’s how we made our way into the airport.

I knew, even before I got on the plane, about Sarah Palin. My wife called to tell me, just as I was boarding in Denver. The consensus on the plane seemed to be: Huh? I have to admit, my first reaction was: We just won this thing. After bashing Obama on experience for two months, McCain picks a VP with under two years governing a state with a smaller population than the city of Austin, Texas? She had been elected governor with 110,000 votes; Obama had 90,000 people at his convention speech.

It wasn’t until my mother-in-law called, later in the night, that I started to sense something amiss. She owns a business here in Akron, and she has a good pulse of the people in this swing state — and she was worried. By moring, with these New York Times headlines (“ALASKAN IS McCAIN’S CHOICE; FIRST WOMAN ON G.O.P. TICKET,” “A Surprise Pick; First Term Governor, Social Conservative and Mother of 5”; “An Outsider Who Charms”; “A Bold Choice, With Risks”) — I was, too.

NeuroticDemocrat that I am, I quickly sized up McCain and deduced that he was nothing short of a genius. After an early career of spurning the religious right, and a later career of kowtowing to it, he had in one fell swoop locked up — and most importantly — thoroughly energized the GOP base. (He’s already raised $7 million in the day since the announcement). This, I thought, neutralizes Obama’s biggest assest — the passion gap. Not only that, but McCain laid claim (some say) to the change mantle, and did it in a way that will appeal — if not to Hillary voters — than to the one democraphic (white, working class women) that Obama has the toughest time reaching. Her biggest liability — inexperience — is one that we can’t point out, effectively, given Obama’s weakness on the issue (and he’s at the top of the ticket). And while Biden should be able to roll her in the VP debate, expectations are absolutely everything in these affairs — Palin wins by not losing, and Biden loses, big time, if he’s perceived as even the slightest bit sexist or condescending.

For a few hours — on the heels of one of the most compelling, meaningful displays I’d ever witnessed in my life — I seriously considered changing the name of this blog to I envisioned Obama’s ten-point convention bounce evaporating overnight (I’m not sure it hasn’t). And we had this thing locked up! I glanced forlornly out our playroom window at the McCain sign recently put up in our neighbor’s yard, and knew, in a whole new way, that what my mother had always tried to teach me was utterly, depressingly true: Life, it turns out, isn’t fair.

It took me awhile to come around. What finally did it was a discussion with my aunt and uncle in Dayton. They were not simply undeterred — my uncle was going to an Obama rally near Columbus this afternoon, and my aunt was preparing to volunteer, locally. My uncle pointed out that, historically, VP has very little impact on the presidential race. And, gaining a second wind, I told him that, according to a Rutgers study, gender voting historically mirrors party, not gender. (Democratic women tend to vote Democratic, regardless of whether the Republican is a woman, and vice versa.) Furthermore, I said (I was on a roll), this election is going to turn on the economy — everyone knows that — and Palin brings McCain nothing on economics. (Think: He could have picked Carly Fiorino or Meg Whitman.) At best, she brings a rep as an ethical crusader. But McCain already has that rep. He doesn’t need it reinforced.

All politics is guesswork though. One thing I’ve learned over the course of this election — and I mean this — is that right now, nobody knows who will win.

Have you peeled yourself up off the floor?

It’s true. Even (especially) the pollsters. Nobody, in fact, has any clue at all.

This was brought home to me in dramatic fashion two weeks ago — the media foaming at the mouth about who Obama would pick as his running mate had reached a fevered pitch — when a very well-connected friend of mine pulled me aside to tell me that he’d received a call from a Congressman, who told him that he’d been approached by the Obama camp just that day about his interest in the VP slot. It was a serious entreaty, late in the game. What struck me most was that the congressman himself was totally shocked by it — he himself had no idea he was even in consideration, let alone on anyone’s shortlist — and he had never been mentioned in a single publication anywhere as a possible Obama running mate. (And with all that frothing about who McCain would pick — think of all the words of conjecture — did anyone anywhere seriously give Palin a shot?)

So I’m going to leave the politics behind for a moment, and discuss two things that I think are substantive here, as opposed to stylistic (see post: Jewish Values and Going Negative).

1. I think people are missing the boat on the “experience” question. Democrats so far have focused on McCain’s lack of judgment in making this choice, which is certainly fair. The pundits seem to be stuck on the genius of the political move — i.e., that Obama and his camp can’t question Palin’s inexperience, without reminding everyone of his own. Dan Schnur writes in the NY Times today: “By Monday morning, assume that every Republican in the country who believed that experience was important will no longer think so, and that every Democrat who didn’t think it was a big deal will now decide it is absolutely critical.” No, Dan — that’s not what we will decide. We have always been comfortable, more or less, with Obama’s experience. Eighteen million of us voted for him. We will, however, understand that McCain’s selection of Palin is hypocritical.

Here is what McCain said June 3, from the Times:

“You will hear from my opponent’s campaign in every speech, every interview, every press release that I’m running for President Bush’s third term,” he said, trying to pre-empt one of the central Democratic strategies of tying Mr. McCain to the unpopular president. “You will hear every policy of the president described as the Bush-McCain policy. Why does Senator Obama believe it’s so important to repeat that idea over and over again? Because he knows it’s very difficult to get Americans to believe something they know is false. So he tries to drum it into your minds by constantly repeating it rather than debate honestly the very different directions he and I would take the country.”

“But the American people didn’t get to know me yesterday, as they are just getting to know Senator Obama,” Mr. McCain said.

As they are just getting to know Obama, dripping with condescension.

Here is what McCain said yesterday, about Palin: “She’s not from these parts, and she’s not from Washington, but when you get to know her, you’re going to be as impressed as I am.”

Putting aside the fact that, according to most reports, he had only met her twice (how well could he know her?), and putting aside the fact that America in fact is not just getting to know Obama (he came into the public eye in a major way four years ago, with his convention speech; he has two books on the best seller list, one of which gives his life story, and the other outlines his political philsophy; and he has been running for president in a 24-7 news cycle for 20 months), my question for him would be: “Sen. McCain — why is it suddenly okay to have someone a hearbeat from the oval office who America needs to ‘get to know’?”

The Republican National Committee has launched a Web site, no, mocking Obama on his experience. “A mile high, an inch deep.” The McCain campaign has made every attempt to paint Obama as inexperienced as foreign policy, drawing contrasts between the two candidates at each turn. For McCain to now pick as a running mate someone with decidely less foreign policy experience than Obama, suggests either that he was lying to us before, when he said it was critically important, or, more likely, that he is being a hypocrite: If I need someone with no foreign policy experience to energize my base and give me a shot to win this election, then it’s perfectly fine. Is it a risk to America Sen. McCain, or isn’t it?

I heard one GOP pundit say yesterday on CNN that most doctors say McCain has at least four years in him, and, after learning at the foot of a master foreign policy wizard for those years, Palin will have plenty of experience. Puh-leeze. What happened to the importance of “Ready on Day 1”? (It was Hillary’s slogan initially, but the McCain boosters greedily adopted it.) This suggests to me a new slogan that perhaps the McCain-Palin folks want to employ: Ready on Day 1,460. (Take it — it’s yours. No patent pending.)

2. For months, the McCain camp has argued that Obama is no friend of Israel. They have said, over and over, that the only criterion for friendship with Israel is action, and voting record, over years of service. Pretty words of support, they said, won’t cut it. Obama, for his running mate, picked a self-described Zionist. A few hours after the selection of Palin, I spoke to the head of a major Jewish organization. He said that his organization had done a Google search of “Palin” and “Israel” — and gotten no hits. Zero. Which means that should McCain die in office, we will have a president with no real track-record of support for the Jewish State at all. Two days ago, that was all that mattered to my Israel-first friends. A few minutes ago, my wife emailed on of those folks, asking about her take on Palin. This is a woman who lives and dies for Israel. She wrote back: “I like her.”

I hope to have more on the Israel issue later this week.

I have more to say, but it’s getting late, so I’ll just say this. My cousin, an Obama organizer in Philly, told me today that in response to Palin’s selection, more volunteers than ever before have been pouring into his office, offering to help. Another cousin, a feminist who lives in Ann Arbor — who has never really had an interest in politics or this election — now finds herself exercised and insluted by McCain’s pick (her parents tell me).

By day’s end, I’ve realized that instead of being all NeuroticDemocraty on this one, I can do something. I can act. I’ve been planning on continuing my involvement in this campaign at the strategic level — 30,000-feet — for instance, organizing drives targeting the Jewish community in swing states. (I’ve been doing this for some time, mainly behind the scenes.) Before I got off the phone with my aunt, she said: “Let me know about your organizing activities in Akron.”

I hadn’t been planning on getting involved locally. Thanks to Palin — no more. I’m going to the local office first thing Tuesday morning.

I can’t control the pundits and the venting and the polls. But I can roll up my sleeves and get to work. We all can. And I’d urge you — in response to this cynical, hypocritical play — to do the same. Join up. Help out. And then come to this blog and write about your experiences. Tell us who you meet, what they say, how you respond. Tell us what it’s like out there in the trenches.

Obama is fond of quoting Martin Luther King, who said: “The arc of history is long, but it bends toward justice.”

People — we have to bend it.

The Bridge that Led to the Stadium

Friday, August 29th, 2008

I’m the NeuroticDemocrat. I picked this nom de guerre not just to be funny, but because it felt like an accurate description of my mental state this election. I’ll wake up on a Sunday morning and read Frank Rich and feel vindicated, and calm about Obama’s prospects — almost as if the whole electorate had read Frank Rich — and then I’ll catch a glimpse of a daily poll on a ticker, indicating the race tightening, and my stomach will tighten. I might check my inbox and find some new ridiculous Obama smear, and feel even worse. Then, at night, I might watch Jon Stewart, Tivoed from Friday, and the universe would fall back in place again.

If you’ve been reading the blog you know — this week has been no different. And Thursday — Day Four of the Democratic National Convention — might well be exhibit A.

We arrived at Mile High Stadium early, around 2:10 local time, and, after waiting about an hour to get through security, we found great club level seats, section 300, with a straight-on view of the stage.

I’d made the mistake of glancing at the New York Times before leaving my hotel, and watching a few minutes of CNN, so I knew that Republicans had already picked up on a description in a Reuters article, and were mocking the stage as “Obamopolis.” I’d heard Amy Holmes have a good guffaw over the fact that, after all the Democrats crying foul about the Obama celebrity ads, Brittany Spears’ set designer had in fact help design the stage. I knew, from the lead Times article, that the Obama folks — even at that late hour — were still working furiously to get things right: reducing the echo, making Obama seem part of the crowd, instead of high above it.

I’d been worried about the stadium venue for some time. When it was first announced, I wondered: What if it rains. After the GOP (smartly, to be sure), skewered Obama’s celebrity, I thought: aren’t we playing right into their hands?

Sitting in section 300, I did what the NeuroticDemocrat does best. I worried. I worried for half a day because so many seats, in the sections across from us, were not filled. Why weren’t they filled? Were there still people in line outside? I peered across the fifty-yard line not though my own lens, but through Amy Holmes’. I saw the ticker running across the bottom of the CNN screen: Obama fails to fill stadium.

And then there were the columns. They did look pretty gaudy. I think the Obama folks were going for White House — not the Acropolis — but still, didn’t that, too, play into our opponents’ hands? And the sound — it was terrible. At one point, someone was speaking, and we couldn’t hear a thing. I imaged speaker after speaking, inaudible. The night seemed to be coming on too quickly. I kept checking my watch, and looking across the field. Where are all the people? Let them in.

You wouldn’t have known it, looking at me. Maybe because even as I worried, I was thinking about something else. I was thinking about what it was like, being in Denver this week, amidst Democrats of all colors, all ethnicities, all sexual-orientations, from all over the country. I imagine that Denver — most cities, for that matter — has never before seen such a rich tableau. And I was thinking about all the people who have come to the stage in support of Obama-Biden, and the many, many folks I’d met, all here for a common purpose, sharing a common goal.

In this regard, today was the week in microcosm.

On my way into the city, I met Nasir, my cab driver, who came to America 14 years ago from Djibouti. He told me about how his friends had phoned him Monday, from East Africa, when they heard a rumor that someone had tried to assassinate Obama (three men had been arrested, though police say they never posed a serious threat). They had heard the news even before Nasir, who was busily driving his cab around Denver. “They are following so close with this election,” he said. “A lot of people in the world want change in America, too. They have that same hope.”

In the Starbucks, inside the Hyatt Regency, the barista asked a customer what her shirt said.

“Yes We Can Bitches,” she said.

The barista laughed. “I like it.”

Waiting for the bus to take us to the stadium, a volunteer beseeched us: “People — please — hold on to your credentials with your life. People are walking up and tearing them off the lanyards.”

A group of delegates from Colorado walked up, and, since there was no real line, stood near the front. Someone asked them to move to the back. “That’s fine, we’re Democrats,” said one woman, with twin donkey images etched on the lenses of her sunglasses. “It’s okay. Though I’ll never go to the back of the bus. I fought too many years to get to the front.”

She raised both hands and slapped another woman ten. “No way, no how, no McCain,” the other woman said. It was Hillary Clinton’s line. In Denver, all week, it was our mantra.

On the bus, to the stadium, the woman I sat next to told me about the text she had received the night before, from her friend, about Bill Clinton, which said simply: “I like him again.”

I was thinking about all these people, sitting in that stadium, as it slowly, slowly began to fill. Rodees setting up for Cheryl Crowe had their friends snap pictures of themselves on stage. One of the end zone sections worked to strike up a wave. On the floor, beach balls bounced from one delegation to the next. And then, up on the giant jumbotron, the Obama campaign posted a message, asking people to text in their comments. Before too long, there was a new kind of ticker scrolling across the bottom of the screens — message after message from people in the stadium, sometimes just a name and a city.

Raina South Bronx Dream Realized …
Carole Duncanville, Texas …
Erica and Klint Tulsa Oklahoma …
I believe in our country …
Alison Fargo, ND …
Bill Richardson brought it. Then Gore. Then Susan Eisenhower, who told America that Obama has the “energy, and more importantly the temperament,” to be president. Then came the military generals, and Joe Biden.


And then Roy Gross, a Teamster from Michigan, took the stage — and the NeuroticDemocrat thought: uh oh, here we go with the ordinary people, the oldest political cliche in the book. Only, these people were anything but ordinary. They were fiery and feisty and brave, unafraid to speak truth to power. And they seemed to be speaking, at least partly, off the cuff.

Monica Early of Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio said that she had received an email with all kinds of claims about Barack Obama. When she took it upon herself to check out its claims, she found them false. “I am grateful for that email that tried to scare me,” she said. “It brought me here, an ordinary citizen inspired by a leader who told me I can make a difference.”

They took the stage, one after another, and told it like they saw it. “Hello, I’m Pam, from Pittsboro, North Carolina,” said Pamela Cash-Roper. She told us her story, about how she and her husband had lost health insurance, and then said that she’d been a lifelong Republican — voted for Nixon, Reagan, Bush and Bush. “But I can’t afford four more years.”

When Barney Smith of Marion, Indiana stood up and said: “We need a president who puts Barney Smith before Smith Barney,” 75,000 people began chanting — Bar-ney, Bar-ney, Bar-ney — as if we’d known the guy all our lives.

Your gonna be the greatest prez ever!!! I’m so proud of you. Ciera …
Obama-Biden 08 YES WE CAN Dayton, Ohio …
Rebecca, Silver Spring, Md …
Native American in S. Arizona supports Obama …
“This is better than a ballgame,” said the man a few seats away from me, his dreadlocks tied up in a neat ponytail.


Durbin came on. Then the movie. Obama spoke about how his Mom used to get him up at 4:30 in the morning for his less
ons. “If I grumbled, she’d say: ‘This is no picnic for me either, buster.’ ”

The movie ended and Obama came out. You know what he said and how he said it. If you’re like me, you thought his words were eloquent, substantive, and transformative. We cheered him. Drowned him out. Time and again, we started cheering before he finished a sentence, and he kept talking, and we kept cheering, even though were couldn’t exactly be sure what he’d said. What struck me, though, was less the raucous cheering than the quiet that always followed. 75,000 people, and we hung on his every word. At one point, we heard voices from the skybox above us, and the person was shushed into silence. I put my notebook down, and stopped taking notes.

After the speech, hundreds of us gathered at a DNC party, at the club level of the stadium. Then, thoroughly spent, I left the stadium, found a bus to take me back into town.

On the bus, it was more of the same. Delegates of all stripes, from all over America.

“I’m from Alabama,” said one. “Birmingham.”

“Huntsville,” said another, reaching out his hand.

A delegate from Texas spoke up. Asked a question about a Birmingham politician.

“That was Selma,” a woman said.

“Selma, Birmingham, same difference,” the Texas delegate said, to laughter.

“I’m from Selmahistoric Selma,” the woman said, a new fire in her eyes. “It was Selma — that bridge — that got us into this stadium.”

I had a vague sense of the bridge she was talking about, but I wasn’t totally sure. So when I got back to my hotel room, I looked it up. It was the Edmund Pettus Bridge, named for Edmund Winston Pettus, a confederate brigadier general. The bridge was the site of Bloody Sunday, March 7, 1965, when armed police officers attacked peaceful civil rights demonstrators.

Just a few hours post convention, and already, I’d taken a few steps across a bridge of my own.

I started writing this blog, in part to help me synthesize all that went on around me this week. And in part, to give friends, family, and colleagues who couldn’t be here a unique perspective on the goings on.

Indeed, something happens when you’re here. Something I’m not sure you get, watching on TV at home. You get the community. You get Nasir and Raina. Carole and Rebecca. Pam Cash-Roper and Barney Smith. Sitting through speech after speech after speech for four days running, you get bored, and then you get something else that’s much bigger. You get that you’re not alone. You knew it before, of course. But being here, you come to know it and feel it in a different way. My sense is, knowing this, feeling it, will make it a little bit easier to shoulder through the dips in the polls; to weather the GOP onslaught that’s coming at us next week; to be a bit more steadfast.

In the meantime, I’ve decided to keep this blog going. So keep checking in every now and then. That will help, too.

A few weeks before the Ohio primary, I was invited to attend a small meeting between Barack Obama and Jewish leaders in northeast Ohio. After the meeting, I sent out an email blast, strongly defending Obama’s stance on Israel. It went viral. Mostly, people who responded to me were thankful that I’d shared my views. For months after, however, I also got scathing emails – usually unsigned – accusing me of crimes against my family, my people. That’s partly why I decided, when starting this blog, to post as NeuroticDemocrat instead of using my name. I wasn’t exactly sure I wanted to take more heat for my views.

It was at the DNC party after the convention when I realized something had turned. About an hour into the party, Barack Obama made a surprise appearance, with his wife, and Joe Biden and his wife. “I’m a little speechless,” he began, standing on a stage a few feet away. He spoke about ten minutes to a few hundred supporters. Before leaving, he said: “We’ve got lots of work to do.”

For me, if I’ve learned anything this week, I’ve learned that the work starts with standing up for what you believe in, and, like the people on that bridge in Selma, having the courage of your convictions.

I’m Josh Rolnick, of Akron, Ohio. And I support this message.

Jewish Values and Going Negative

Thursday, August 28th, 2008

One of the things I have struggled most with throughout this primary campaign is how to square Obama’s obvious desire to run a positive, issue-oriented campaign, with the countervailing need in modern day politics to “go negative.” It’s something I’ve thought about more and more as the McCain campaign has taken the gloves off — going after Obama for being an elitist, for being a celebrity; running ads featuring dark images of terrorists with shady voiceovers about Iran, then insinuating that Obama feels Iran is only a “tiny” threat; starting a Web site dedicated to the fact that Obama is “not ready” to be president; using some of Hillary Clinton’s own footage for a 3 a.m. ad of their own. Some of these ads may be “fair” — certainly, a candidate’s readiness to be president is an issue — but there can be no disputing that all of them are “negative.” And can there be any doubt, especially if Obama is in the lead, that we will see Rev. Wright ads in the future?

I sat in on a focus group a few months back that was extremely eye-opening. A moderator was asking a group of Jewish swing voters questions about Barack Obama and John McCain — I watched from the other side of a one-way window, along with a few pollsters. (They knew we were there.) The moderator read a dozen verifiable, true positive statements about Obama. Then the moderator read a dozen verifiable, true negative statements about McCain. When responding to the positive statements (things like: Barack Obama has proposed a $1,000 tax cut for the Middle Class; Barack Obama says the security of Israel is sacrosanct, and he has the support of the American Israel Public Affairs Council), the voters were not uniformly impressed; many questioned the veracity of the statements. When responding to the negative stuff (things like: McCain has said he doesn’t know much about the economy; McCain has said he could envision a long-term presence in Iraq, much like what we have in Korea and Japan), the group got totally riled up. Angry. Indignant. Frankly, I did, too. The message I took home with me was a disappointing one: Going negative works. And it works, well.

Yesterday, the National Jewish Democratic Council hosted a square table discussion at the Convention Center downtown, focusing on “Practicing Politics With Jewish Values.” The room was packed to overflowing — in part because it was held next door to the room where Hillary Clinton had just addressed her delegates — many of whom filtered in after Hillary finished speaking.

I was particularly moved by the arguments made by Steve Rabinowitz, a kippah-wearing veteran of dozens of political campaigns, and former Bill Clinton White House aide, who currently runs the media messaging firm, Rabinowitz/Dorf Communications.

“I’m about very aggressive politics,” he began. He went on to say that he sees two kinds of acceptable messages — positive, and what he called “contrast” ads, where candidates drawn distinctions between themselves and their opponents.

He noted that Judaism prohibits Lashon Harah — or evil speech against someone else — citing Leviticus 19:16: “Do not deal basely with your countrymen.” Maimonides, he said, has an even tougher standard: you can’t tear down your opponent even if what you say is true. The very next line in Leviticus, though, has been interpreted by the sages to mean that we are not to “standy idly by” if the blood of our contrymen is being spilled.

“We have allowance for this in the text,” Rabinowitz said, “so we can both be aggressive political campaigners and not feel we are violating our Jewish ethics at the same time.”

“For me — Obama’s political and intellectual blood is being spilled.” (In particular, participants spoke of the smears against Obama — that he is a Muslim, for instance, who attended a radical madrassa as a youth.)

After the event, I went up to Rabinowitz and asked him to expound on his argument. Where, I asked, is the line in “contrast” advertising. He said, without hesitation: the personal attack. Pirkei Avot, the Ethics of our Fathers, teaches that “a controversy for heaven’s sake has lasting value, while a controvery not for heaven’s sake will not endure.” “Heaven’s sake,” in this case, is a controversy about Torah or law — substance, as opposed to style.

“For me,” he said, it means “I can’t attack McCain on his age or his temperament, his mental competence, his wealth, his personal-life.” But on the issues — like how to best support Israel — contrast ads are fair game.

Certainly, though, the McCain side has already hit Obama on his personal life — noting that he has an aquaintance who was once a member of the Weather Underground, for example, or painting him as a Harvard elitist. This, I said, even as McCain has seven houses, and flies around the country in his wife’s corporate jet. I have to admit, I said — I’ve felt damn good when Biden has hit McCain for his wealth and extravagent, 30,000-foot life style.

“The biggest sin in politics is hyprocrisy,” Rabinowtiz said. “Corruption is bad, but hypocrisy is worse. It you are corrupt, and you campaigned against corruption — it’s worse.” (Eliot Spitzer comes to mind.)

“Is pointing out that someone is a hypocrite a personal attack — even if it’s true?” he asked. “That’s what I’m still conflicted about.”

“Defending Obama is no problem,” he said. “Counter-attacking — that’s the dilemma.”

I suppose if I’m looking for something definitive, I’m in the wrong religion.

I have to say, though, that I was struck by the fact that we were having this conversation at all at the Democratic National Convention. Dan Shapiro, one of Barack Obama’s top liasions to the Jewish community, was in the room for the conversation. After listening to the discussion, he noted the value of “intellectual inquiry”; the value in “acknowledging the gaps in one’s knowledge”; the value of “intellectual curiosity” for leadership.

I left with the sense that the Obama campaign will, and should, continue to hold itself to a higher standard –even as it pushes and questions the boundaries — as this campaign moves into its next phase. The campaign will not — it can not — stand idly by. It will draw contrasts, big time.

This work begins in earnest in just a few hours.

Barack Obama is Ready to Lead America

Thursday, August 28th, 2008

It’s 1:17 a.m., and I’m just back from the Pepsi Center, where Barack Obama was nominated to be president, and Joe Biden, vice president. I’m tired, in one way, but in another, more awake then I’ve felt in a long time.

Today, there was something in the air downtown. An excitement that started building early in the day. You could sense it. It was as if the history of the moment — the formal nomination of the first black man for president of the United States — was, at last, eclipsing the cynicism.

Outside the convention center, for several blocks, vendors were doing a brisk trade in Obama merchandise, surrounded by masses of delegates and tourists and gawkers. They sold Obama playing cards with Bush and McCain as the jokers. “Yes We Can” umbrellas. T-shirts with images of Obama’s face and slogan after slogan: “Run DNC,” “McCan’t 2008,” “Barack The Vote.” Someone shook a tambourine. Someone else sold flashing novelties, beads, hats, and flags. Dozens of folks wore stickers that read: “Make Out Not War.”

There was a police presence, leading into the arena, like nothing I’ve ever seen. Columns of black-clad officers, guns ready, visors raised, standing in the streets, and on black SWAT trucks, ready, word had it, to block thousands of protestors from disturbing the proceedings. Weaving between them, rushing the arena, I felt my heart beat kick up a notch.

I arrived just as Melissa Etheridge was singing her God Bless America medley, which included verses from The Times They are a Changing, Give Peace a Chance, and Born in the USA. Rep. Patrick Murphy, an Iraq war vet, declared: “It is time for Barack Obama,” then left the stage to the chorus of “Eye of the Tiger,” Rocky Balboa’s old anthem.

You just had this sense — a sense that the Democrats were going to bring it; a sense that all the naysayers were about to be proven wrong. On Monday, we were criticized for not going after McCain hard enough, for “wasting” the day. On Tuesday, when we picked apart McCain — did not the governor of Montana seem to love every minute he spent chewing out McCain for his nonexistent energy policy? — we were criticized because Hillary did not exactly say that Obama was “ready” to lead. And today, all the newspaper reports assured us, Clinton was coming into the whole affair angry that he had been asked to speak about foreign affairs. Come to think of it, we were told, he was still furious at Obama, at how he was treated during the campaign. Watch out, we were assured — because a jilted, angry Clinton will never stay on message.

I don’t know. Maybe we didn’t believe the hype. Maybe we knew Clinton well enough, after all those years fighting for us — and fighting against the right-wing that claims superiority in this country — to know that he would not let Obama down; that he would not let us down. Maybe that’s why, when he finally took the stage, we cheered him as if we would never get another chance to cheer him or anyone else, ever again. Maybe we wanted to thank him — 20,000 of us, on this, Barack Obama’s night. To let him know that we don’t always buy what we are force-fed on TV. “Stop it,” he said — trying his best to quiet us. “Stop.” Be we wouldn’t. Every single person stood. Everyone of us waved an American flag. “Settle down,” he said, “we gotta get this game started.” But we wouldn’t. I don’t know how long it went on. It felt like a few minutes, the affection the pouring down from the highest bleachers even as it rose from the floor, rolling like thunder. We were telling him something he already knew — that our country has been hijacked, and that he could help us get it back.

And help, he did. “Last night, Hillary told us in no uncertain terms that she is going to do everything she can to elect Barack Obama,” he said. “That makes two of us. Actually — that makes 18 million of us.”

What? Where was the ambiguity? The thinly-veiled disdain?

“Everything I have done as president … has convinced me that Barack Obama is the man for this job.”

“A long, hard primary tested and strengthened him. And in his first presidential decision” — selecting Joe Biden as VP — “he hit it out of the park … Barack Obama is ready to lead America.”

“Most important of all,” he said, “Barack Obama knows America can not be strong abroad unless we are strong at home … People around the world have always been more impressed by the power of our example than by the example of our power.”

More wild cheers, and the spontaneous refrain: Yes we can … Yes we can … Yes we can.

“Yes you can,” Clinton said. “But first you have to elect him.”

“The Republicans said I was too young and too inexperienced to be commander-in-chief,” he said. “Sound familar?”

And then he finished, and U2’s “Beatiful Day” struck up, and the camera flashed to Hillary and Chelsea, standing, cheering with the rest of us.

It’s truly been amazing, being here for all of this. And blogging about it each day afterwards has helped me come to terms with what it all means. Yesterday morning, I wrote about how our best politicians teach us to be brave. As Bill Clinton showed tonight, they teach us something else, too — something that has to do with the incredible power of burying the hatchet. Of forgiveness, and moving on. We think of our politicians as selfish and egocentric and cynical. Hypocrites, who would do anything for power. But think about the example they set for us when they put personal animosity and rancor aside, and publicly embrace those who have hurt them and cost them the most. Even when it runs against their own interests.

It’s healing and unifying and cathartic. Everything they promised us it wouldn’t be.

Hillary, Obama, Unity

Wednesday, August 27th, 2008

There’s so much that I could say about what happened in Denver yesterday.

I could write about the protestors outside the barricade that rings the Pepsi Center. Mainly anti-choice folks. There weren’t that many of them, frankly, but what they lacked in numbers, they made up for in shock value. Scrawled in chalk on the sidewalks that we all had to step on to get into our convention were colorful little slogans like: “Obama Murders Babies” and “Obama for Infanticide” and “Obama is Killing the Black Race.” There were people with giant plackards showing photographs of aborted late-term babies — body parts, mangled, bloody baby faces. (I’d seen a truck driving around town earlier with even bigger pictures of the same.) One of the National Jewish Democratic Council staff members that I’m here with had to avert her eyes as we passed — which I suppose is the point. The fact that Obama — while pro-choice — favors restrictions on the kinds of late-term procedures these demonstrators were depicting, did not figure prominently in their messaging.

I could write about the even smaller contingent of John McCain supporters who tried to give me a McCain sticker as I walked toward the convention hall. “You got the wrong guy,” I said.

I could write about how the NeuroticDemocrat felt, getting up this morning, after watching two days of barnburning, powerful speeches in a packed arena, given by people who love this country and want to make it more perfect, only to find that in the latest Gallup tracking, McCain has edged ahead of Obama for the first time, 46-44.

I could write about my mother-in-law, who just called me — her voice, clearly pained — asking what the situation on the ground was like, with the Hillary supporters. Or my friend, who emailed me, distressed, after watching CNN interview two Hillary supporters, unmoved by her speech last night. “Hillary has handled this whole thing with great dignity,” he wrote. But he just couldn’t understand her intransigent supporters, one of whom, he wrote, said that “Obama hasn’t asked for her vote yet and she won’t give it to him until he (and his supporters) effectively start showing Hillary the respect that she deserves. This woman felt personally mistreated (she referenced the hate mail that she expected to receive following this interview) by Obama supporters, and essentially her non-vote for Obama is sort of her idea of retribution for all the nasty things that happened to her on the campaign trail.”

I could write about how an NJDC board member told me that at a breakfast with Hillary supporters yesterday morning, many were clearly still upset, angry, feeling un-charitable. Or how I have felt, watching all the unseemly, distasteful attempts by Republicans to inject themselves into the fray, hosting a “Happy Hour for Hillary” here Monday night, indicating how they felt Obama had dissed Hillary by passing her over for VP. (These very same Republicans, like Rudy Giuliani, who have made careers out of bashing Hillary and tearing down her feminist supporters. Why isn’t the media pointing this out?)

But that’s not want I want to write about. What I want to write about is how I felt, leaving the Pepsi Center last night, moments after Hillary Clinton finished her historic speech. Watching her, I couldn’t help but think about the person behind the politician. Here was a woman who had lost the very thing she had been fighting for, the thing she wanted most in life, to a rival who, by most accounts, she doesn’t like very much. And there she stood, giving him a full-throated endorsement — doing absolutely everything in her power to mend the divisions in the party, to soothe her own supporters, urging them, with every fiber of her being, to get behind Barack Obama. “You haven’t worked so hard over the last 18 months, or endured the last eight years, to suffer through more failed leadership,” she said. “No way. No how. No McCain.”

Here was a woman putting the causes she has dedicated her life to — universal health care, equal pay for equal work, a woman’s right to choose — high above her own crushed personal ambitions. I kept thinking, as I watched: This was supposed to be her night.

She was funny (“To the sisters of the traveling pantsuits”), cutting (it’s no coincidence McCain and Bush will be together next week in the “Twin Cities”), personal and emotional (putting her hand over her heart when speaking about her desire for “a health care plan that covers every single American”). But most of all, she was imploring, insistent, firm — more than a plea to her supporters — a demand: “These are the reasons I ran for president, and these are the reasons I support Barack Obama.” This is why you should, too.

I have been an Obama supporter since it was cold. I know there were plenty of pragmatic political reasons Hillary gave the speech she did last night. But what I kept thinking about was her, her courage, in soldiering on, despite such immense personal setback.

It was the same thing that Ted Kenney had done, the night before — arriving in the Hall — the Denver Post reported this morning, straight from the University of Colorado Hospital, where he was being treated for a “debilitating bout of kidney stones.” “With less than two hours to go before he was supposed to take the stage, Kennedy — sitting unnoticeded in a room at the University of Colorado Hospital — told his wife, Victoria, and doctors that he wanted to go to the Pepsi Center and deliver the speech,” the paper reported. “One concession to the kidney stones: The speech he gave was about 10 minutes, roughly half the length of an earlier draft.”

It was the same thing Al Gore did, eight years ago, when, after winning more votes than anyone in history, he finally conceeded the presidency to Bush. “As for the battle that ends tonight, I do believe, as my father once said, that defeat may serve as well as victory to shake the soul and let the glory out,” Gore said. I cried when he said it. Then I wrote it down on a piece of paper, folded it, and put it in my wallet. It’s still there today, but, more importantly, it’s in my heart.

Walking out of the Pepsi Center last night, I wasn’t thinking about Clinton’s supporters, who still insist on giving interviews to CNN about why they support McCain. I wasn’t thinking about all the disunity that apparently swirls around this convention, none of which you even sense, sitting in the convention hall.

I was simply feeling thankful — for Hillary Clinton. I was feeling the kind of deep gratitude that is all to rare in life. I was feeling that because of her words — and her deeds — I would be better able to face down my own defeats; to move forward despite my own ample fears.

Standing on a stairwell jam-packed with Democrats, clutching signs to their chests that read “Hillary” and “Obama” and “Unity,” I jotted these words in my notebook: “Our best politicians teach us how to be brave.”

The GOP may yet steal this election, sowing fear and disharmony. But they can never take our courage away.

He Doesn’t Believe It Anyway

Tuesday, August 26th, 2008

Perhaps the most striking, and under-reported, comments of first day of the convention yesterday came not in the Pepsi Center, but a few hours earlier, at the Colorado Convention Center, Korbel Room. That’s where the National Jewish Democratic Council (NJDC) hosted an open-to-the public event, before roughly 130 people, analyzing the 2008 Jewish vote.

The main thrust: Most polls show Obama winning 60 to 62 pecent of the Jewish vote nationally, to McCain’s 32 percent. A striking number when you consider that Clinton took 80 percent of the Jewish vote in 1992 and 1996 — though, according to an April Gallup Poll, Obama was drawing only four percent less than Hillary Clinton, who was at 66 percent.

The reason, according to Richard Baehr — chief political correspondent of the American Thinker and the only avowed McCain supporter on a panel of four — has less to do with Obama than with the fact that many Jews like John McCain. “McCain is doing better because he’s McCain,” Baehr said, nothing that his brand, particularly in the Jewish community, remains strong.

(There was some strong dissention on this point from the audience. Florida State Sen. Steve Geller, the minority leader, whose district is in Broward County, and State Sen. Nan Rich, whose district is in Broward and Dade, said that when they speak to Jews in South Florida, it’s not McCain that Jews trumpet — it’s fear of Obama, and the Rev. Wright connection.)

You could sense a frustration building in the largely Jewish audience. McCain, who vows to try and overturn Roe v. Wade, and said at Saddleback Church that life begins at conception, has a strong “brand” in the reliably progressive Jewish community? McCain, who has said that the United States is a “Christian nation,” and that he would feel more comfortable with a Christian president, has a strong brand among Jews? McCain, who has appeared at the reactionary Christian colleges he once shunned, and who has gone out of his way to court the religious right, is viewed by one-third of Jews in a positive light?

“He’s just not as scary to certain people as a lot of other Republicans,” asserted panelist Stu Rothenberg, editor and publisher of the Rothenberg Political Report.

“He doesn’t wake up in the morning thinking about how he can advance the agenda of the religious right,” Baehr said, adding that what he thinks about, first and foremost, is national security.

Finally, a member of the NJDC board seemed to burst. Why is it, he asked, that the media is giving McCain a free ride on his staunch right-wing views.

Oh how I wish we could scroll the answers on the CNN ticker for a few days.

“Most journalists know John McCain pretty well,” Rothenberg said. “And we know he doesn’t care about social issues. He cares only about national security and foreign policy. He doesn’t even care about the economy very much. So we give him a free pass.”

“Journalists are not inclined to beat up McCain” on these issues, he added. “We think most of the stuff he’s saying, he doesn’t believe anyway.”

Oh, really? The Fourth Estate has decided to play God on this one? Why is it that the press did not similarly conclude that Obama didn’t really believe what he was saying on NAFTA, during the Ohio primary, and instead skewered him for days? (I mean come on — they had the smoking gun on that one — the Obama aide who allegedly told the Canadians that Obama was just paying lip service to the unions.) How come the press didn’t really believe Obama when he said — completely out of character — that when some voters get bitter, they turn to God and guns — and in turn pilloried him, costing him dearly in the Pennsylvania primary. (I mean, all you have to do is read Audacity of Hope to know he is a deeply spiritual, God-fearing Christian who firmly believes in our right to bear arms.)

He doesn’t believe it anyway. Is it me with Obama-blinders on, or is this one of the most startling, chutzpahdik comments imaginable? An admission — by one of the Fourth Estate’s most prominent — that he and others like him perceive a John McCain wink on little issues like, I don’t know, a woman’s right to choose, contraception, separation of church and state, and so on, and have therefore made a conscious choice not to dwell on his comments, no matter how egregious or out of the mainstream. Is it any wonder that 32 percent of the Jewish electorate supports John McCain?

By the way: Near the end of the session, Baehr said that he doesn’t expect McCain to pick a pro-choice running mate like Tom Ridge or Joe Lieberman. He called McCain’s dropping of those names a “head fake.” “It’s a win both ways,” Baehr explained, adding that it “looks like” McCain is “open-minded” — “and then they wind up picking someone more predictable, like a Romney.”

It’s an interesting angle on calculated political deception. Don’t expect the mainstream media to write about it any time soon.

That is Why I Love This Country

Tuesday, August 26th, 2008

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: KennedyKennedyKennedy. 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.