How the Party Parties
Behind the Scenes at the Democratic National Convention
T he welcome party for the 15,000 members of the media covering the Democratic National Convention in Denver was held, rather appropriately, at a giant amusement park called Elitch Gardens. Everything was free for the night and so, there among the roller coasters and water slides, the people who help write the election storyline wolfed down buffalo meatballs and crowded into lines for mojitos and beer. Then they proceeded to drop themselves from something called the Tower of Doom, launch themselves skyward via a reverse bungee jump known as the Sling Shot, and proudly hug large stuffed animals they had won through various feats of coordination and strength.
It felt as if the planners tasked with aligning every convention visual with an obvious message were being uncharacteristically sly about this one, pretending to celebrate the media's mass arrival in Denver on Saturday, August 23, with fun and games and rides while actually teasing us, setting us up to literally enact all the most common insults associated with the political press: a carnival of self- satisfaction, a fun house of unreality, a group of easily distracted adult children who live for the sensational thrill and the open bar.
I drank a huge mojito and, I must say, felt quite satisfied.
Then I rode a roller coaster called the Mind Eraser.
It didn't work.
Even after a 60-mile-an-hour, 10-story drop and some stomach-lightening loop-de-loops, I was still caught up—completely, rapturously—in the cast of political characters who were, at that moment, descending from the sky into Denver, still thinking about all the plots, subplots, and nightly cliffhangers that were about to unfold. Would Michelle Obama, in her speech on opening night, fit herself neatly into the "all-American" box or come off as an "angry outsider"? Would Hillary Clinton, in her speech on the second night, be magnanimous in defeat or play the role of the churlish knee-capper? Would the delegate roll-call vote on day three, and the speeches that evening by Bill Clinton and Joe Biden, reflect well on Barack Obama or embarrass him? Would Obama's closing-day speech at Mile High Stadium, an address coincidentally occurring on the 45th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech, meet expectations and launch Obama triumphantly into the final phase of the election? Or would it fizzle and leave him ever more vulnerable to attacks on his "celebrity" and hubris?
This was all racing through my un-Erased Mind two days before the convention opened at the Pepsi Center, a basketball arena just across the railroad tracks that had been renovated for the occasion (50 days of renovating, 5,000 seats removed to make way for an American Idol–like stage, 3,300 miles of telecommunications cable installed to help the rest of the world learn what was happening inside). I also was thinking: Say what you will about Democrats in the past offering up wilted, stilted personalities for the presidential-race drama. This year, at least, they have brought out big, boisterous, limelight grabbers—the inspiring, history-making Obama; the spurned Hillary and Bill Clinton; the fading Ted Kennedy handing out pre-deathbed blessings to his anointed heir; the philandering and consequently banished-from-the-convention John Edwards; the gray-maned, working-class hero Joe Biden. (No wonder the Republicans have been lacking for media oxygen. Who—at least until the arrival of the soap opera that is Sarah Palin and family—wanted to take their eyes off the Democrats?)
After the amusement park was a house party hosted by Salon.com. With every hotel room in Denver booked long ago, the writers for the online magazine were spending convention week in a rented home that felt a bit like Real World: Northeast Elite Edition. Someone pushed past me, asking where the martini makings were. Someone else pointed to the stainless-steel fridge. Outside, David Carr, New York Times media critic and notable former crack addict (his new memoir, Night of the Gun, explains all) was shouting into his cell phone, apparently on a first-name basis with a cab driver. Inside, the talk was of the just-announced Biden pick and whether an Obama-Biden administration would be a disappointment. A liberal political columnist said, essentially, that nothing could be that disappointing about the first African-American presidency in the United States. A liberal magazine editor quickly shot back, with a smile, that this kind of thinking represented "the hard bigotry of soft expectations."
Then we went to Rock Bar, which had been renamed, for convention week, Barack Bar. White guys and girls were dancing jerkily to "Rock Me Amadeus." So many sticky drinks had been spilled on the carpeted section of the floor that it felt like we were walking on glue. We had another drink, unstuck ourselves, went home to a crowded apartment that I had taken to thinking of as a tenement for broke journalists, and slept the sleep of the drunk and politically obsessed.
I had never been to a national political convention before, and the best piece of preconvention advice I received came in an e-mail from a savvy political operative a few days before Denver. It was a four-point plan for success:
1. Sleep through all breakfasts. ("You have to sleep sometime.")
2. Develop a party plan in advance and stick to it.
3. Avoid the parties that make you wait hours in line to get in; the clock is always ticking toward last call, and there are plenty of other parties.
4. Never, ever pay for alcohol. ("Someone's always giving it away for free.")
This plan, notably, had absolutely nothing to do with the convention as the average viewer experiences it on TV. "It's totally 'two Americas,'" the political operative wrote. The televised part of the convention involves the delegates, the speeches, and the pundits who analyze them. This is the convention of 7:30 a.m. delegate breakfast meetings, high- minded midday panel discussions, and sitting patiently on the convention hall floor from 2:00 until 10:00 p.m. so as not to miss any responsibilities or Robert's Rules action. Then there is the convention of everyone else, which, the political operative explained, goes like this: "Get up around 10:00, hit a lunch... maybe... start boozing around 2:00, go to the floor around 7:00 p.m. for the headliners... booze till 2:00 or 4:00 a.m. Rinse. Repeat."
The phrase went through my head every morning as I woke up in the journalist tenement, showered, and put on the "professional attire" that getting credentials required. Journalists are used to politicians forcing them to wake up at insanely early hours of the morning for conference calls and press availabilities, but in Denver, no big public business got done before 3:00 p.m. It was lovely, and a recognition of the fact that most people, including the politicians, had been out drinking until 3:00 a.m. the previous night and needed to follow Rule Number 1 (sleep through breakfast) before—rinse, repeat—showering and heading to one of the early afternoon free cocktail hours that preceded the opening gavel.
The fatal flaw in my daily convention cycle was that, as someone with a hungry blog to feed, I didn't have time for the sleep-in-until-noon part. The internet, veterans say, has sucked all the free time out of convention life.
On the second day of the convention, I woke up early in the tenement, noticed that I was sharing an air mattress with a guy who had helped me get into two great New Mexico delegation parties the previous evenings, adjusted to the mellow Denver light coming through the open windows, heard the fans that had been running all night long moving the dry heat around the living room, and ascertained that a man who had arrived in Denver quite sick (in my imagined tenement world he had succumbed to tuberculosis), and who had been passed out on a nearby couch for what seemed like two straight days was, in fact, still there sleeping, but with his hanging bag now draped over the windowsill, perhaps a sign that he intended on this day to finally rise and put on "professional attire."
I grabbed one of the free bikes Denver was offering for the week, rode across town to the convention hall, left to go to a free 4:00 p.m. cocktail hour hosted by the liberal watchdog group Media Matters, and then joined the procession—the regular afternoon hustle, always featuring the sweated-through shirts of credentialed types (journalists, "honored guests," "special guests," delegates, congressmen and -women) walking briskly toward security checkpoints around the Pepsi Center. This afternoon the procession was huge, with important D.C. sorts trying to cut the line using the trick of pretending to talk about urgent matters on their cell phones to avoid being stopped by the police who were attempting to maintain order. The reason for the crush of insiders: Hillary Clinton was to give her prime-time address that evening.
It took about 40 minutes under a very hot sun to get past security, and then I was in and on the floor, getting pushed aside by workers in neon traffic-cop-like vests hauling garbage bags of "Hillary" signs to and fro, watching Andrea Mitchell buttonhole Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell for an interview, listening to Clinton speak—magnanimous, selfless, and a little heartbreaking—and then pushing my way back out in the dark, warm evening, hustling off to a party hosted by Politico and the Glover Park Group. After about an hour of free booze and high-end-journalist schmoozing, and just as Congressman Rahm Emanuel was pulling up to the door and his Secret Service detail clearing a path at the crowded entryway, some of us rushed across town to catch Death Cab for Cutie playing an acoustic set in honor of an environmental group in the upstairs of an old church. I arrived too late to hear Washington governor Chris Gregoire introduce Death Cab, but she was said to be in rare, excited form. It was an amazing night—Death Cab's set, the setting, the sweatiness of the young crowd. The experience was the perfect embodiment of the liberal utopia that had materialized in Denver over the course of four days—free music, free drink, politics on the agenda but not as the only item on the only agenda, sex in the air, dancing, and afterward stumbling out smiling, then back to part two of the Politico party (it took up two bars) where former Clinton adviser Howard Wolfson sang his favorite political song ("Find the Cost of Freedom" by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young) for a music writer from Seattle and everyone was talking loudly about Hillary Clinton or some other bit of political intrigue, and the lights came up a little before 2:00 a.m., and then off to sleep so that I could wake up a few hours later and do it all over again.
At some point, someone slipped me an electronic spreadsheet, prepared by one the country's leading newspapers, that definitively cataloged all of the Denver parties, their sponsors, and the points of contact to get on the various guest lists.
There were, it turned out, an average of 75 parties a day for four days, put on by interest groups, corporations, and the likes of Brownstein, Farber, Hyatt, and Schreck. This high-powered Denver law firm rented out the Daniel Libeskind–designed Denver Art Museum for a swank preconvention party, where friends and I spotted, variously: former congressman Harold Ford accompanied by a hot white woman of exactly the type Ford got slammed for associating with in a famous Republican attack commercial; Senator Charles Schumer, wearing awful boat shoes and worse khakis, declaring to a group of elegant women, "You girls are all too young—do you remember the song 'Lipstick on My Collar'?" and then singing it for them; and Joe Pantoliano, aka Joey Pants from The Sopranos, milling about and not looking very sinister at all.
Events such as that one quickly put to rest any lingering illusions that the Democratic Party might be different than the Republicans when it comes to being cozy with lawyers, lobbyists, and such. So did a reception put on by the odd couple of pharmaceutical behemoth Eli Lilly and the Congressional Black Caucus, a slew of AT&T-sponsored delegate luncheons, and a post-gavel party hosted by, among others, the Distilled Spirits Council. (At the Republican National Convention a week later in Minneapolis-St. Paul, with an unfortunately timed hurricane bearing down on the Gulf Coast, there was some hasty papering over of what these convention parties are all about; a "Political Chicks a Go Go" party, hosted by Lifetime and others, morphed into a hurricane relief fundraiser, while the Distilled Spirits Councils' "Spirits of Minneapolis" party was quickly renamed "Spirits of the Gulf Coast.")
In Denver, some of the more revered points in the liberal constellation were throwing parties as well, and they happened to put on some of the better events: Planned Parenthood, Human Rights Campaign, Rock the Vote, NARAL Pro-Choice America, and, memorably, Trojan, the condom manufacturer, which brought Bill Maher out for a "condomvention" at which Maher explained the political philosophy of John Edwards ("There are two Americas, and in one of them I'm single"), condensed the Republican scare-rap on Obama into one sentence ("His pastor wears a dashiki and he has a big black uncircumcised cock and it smells like curry"), and revealed the true racial identity of the Democratic nominee ("Barack Obama is actually white—that's a birthmark"). Outside, afterward, in a not atypical moment, a friend spotted Susan Sarandon looking a bit confused as she was introduced to RZA, and listened attentively while nearby, the hottie Nebraska Senate candidate Scott Kleeb, holding a cigarette, complained about how the New Yorker had recently drawn him with his jeans tucked into his cowboy boots, which is not how he wears his jeans.
Some parties were just strange, and made one wonder whether the combination of perpetual boozing and Denver's high altitude was triggering some sort of psychic break. A friend of a friend reported: "It was right about the time that I was eating coconut-covered shrimp at the Denver Aquarium and watching a tiger lick up the words 'DNC 2008' written in whipped cream that I realized I had no idea what the convention was about." Why there was a tiger at the Denver Aquarium could not be answered by anyone I encountered.
But there was, in the end, a lot more to learn at the parties than in the scripted, tightly controlled confines of the convention hall. Late on the eve of the convention—not long after passing a swishy young man with green highlights saying to someone on his cell phone, "I'm here at the DNC for a week... I'm doing Diane Sawyer's hair... Yeah"—I found myself at a party at the Brown Palace, a 116-year-old treasure of a hotel in downtown Denver, where the New Mexico delegation was handing out cigars in a literal smoke-filled room. The decor was outrageous: rococo wall paper, wood-paneled bar, overstuffed leather chairs and couches, a giant gilded mirror on one wall, a brass chandelier. It felt like a Wes Anderson film, everyone quite tipsy, time moving slowly, odd characters drifting in and out of my field of vision through the haze: a rotund lobbyist dressed in a seersucker suit, jowls hanging over collar, belly hanging over belt, sour expression on his face, cigar held daintily in pudgy hands; the former American Idol contestant Antonella Barba, who explained she was in Denver as part of an attempt to pump up the youth vote and then gave me a handbill bearing her picture; a tall Sikh man who was accompanying the young Ms. Barba; union folks in union shirts; several black businessmen; a few frumpy journalists.
A flat-screen TV broadcast the Olympics, on mute. No one was watching. Later it would come out that more TV viewers watched the Democratic National Convention than the summer games, which made sense to me. The convention was simply the better show, lousy high-stakes drama and political intrigue, even at this New Mexico delegation party, where, in a back corner, an acquaintance whispered to me that a lot of the state's Hispanics, who make up the largest part of New Mexico's majority-minority population, and who the Democrats are counting on to deliver the swing state to Obama, will never, ever vote for a black man.
Another party, another day, and a political blogger friend was complaining to me with cocktail in hand that he had no idea how the convention was being received in the wider world. It was spooking him. I felt the same way. Both of us were deep inside the bubble, far behind security barricades and checkpoints, spending so much of each day broadcasting our impressions outward, and spending every extra moment living convention life in order that we would have something to broadcast later, that we didn't have the luxury of taking in what everyone else was broadcasting outward. Which only drove home the fact that the dominant reality would not, in the end, be what the two of us were experiencing anyway. It would be what the most powerful of the mass-media broadcasters said it was.
Yet another party, and some interesting talk over Scotch on the rocks: Someone thought the left-against-left protests at the convention were failing because a certain class of outraged liberal no longer has to go out into the streets to be heard by the liberal establishment. He or she can simply vent in the comment threads of national liberal political blogs—virtual rage parties unto themselves—and likely be heard by far more people. Street protest, this man was suggesting, is now the province of only the most disconnected.
I had been to Denver twice before this convention, and each time it seemed too empty, its overwide boulevards and boxy skyscrapers reminding me of Chicago but its street life reminding me of Yelm—scant in the day and utterly barren at night. This time, with so many thousands of people from urban America swarming the city, it felt, finally, like a real party town, as if the people from the big cities were showing Denver how to fill its bars, dance with its hookers, and cram culture of all kinds—music, comedy, bad art—into every available corner.
It felt, too, as if Denver had briefly become some sort of politico-cultural epicenter, and the resulting combination of exhaustion and excitement was, I believe, one of the main reasons people in Denver seemed to be crying all the time during the convention. Michelle Obama's mother did the voice-over for an introductory video, and tears flowed. Michelle herself spoke: more tears. Hillary Clinton talked about her accomplishments on the trail and then reminded the delegates she was backing Obama: more tears. Joe Biden's son talked about his former stutter: more tears. Mama Biden got a shout-out from Senator Biden claiming the VP nomination: more tears. I sat down on a bench next to a Clinton delegate from Washington State and asked her about her week: still more tears.
Some of this was no doubt the result of a kind of Stockholm syndrome that affects political obsessives at national conventions, a blurring and merging of their identities with the politicians who gleefully hold them in thrall. It was also, certainly, about the isolation of much of modern American life, an isolation that persists even in this moment of exploding virtual connectivity, and the presence in Denver of this isolation's radical opposite, an overwhelming, crowded, in-the-flesh perpetual connectedness, far more real and satisfying than the perpetual connectedness that Obama has so successfully hinted at with his regular text messages from "Barack" and promised with his talk of one America. Here, finally, on the packed convention floor and in the bursting barrooms, was Obama's America, conjured up in physical form on a grand, city-sized scale.
It made people a bit more open. It made the parties a lot more fun. It gave one of the songs that played during an interlude before Obama's speech at Mile High Stadium on Thursday a deeper resonance. Who else but the people behind the Obama campaign would play the moody opening bars of The National's "Fake Empire" for a crowd of 80,000 people who had come to see a potential next president of the United States? This is exactly what connects the Obama supporters: their sense that for eight years Republicans have been faking it, to our country's lasting detriment, and their exultation at the fact that Obama is not only willing to call conservatives out on this but also has the capacity to sell liberalism anew to Americans—in thrilling, stirring terms.
Up in the hermetically sealed press box, where I was seated with a bunch of supposedly dispassionate mainstream journalists, it was as if someone had clinked a glass and put the party on pause.
"Our government should work for us, not against us," Obama said from a stage that recalled a White House portico, designed to help the 38 million Americans watching on TV imagine him at the helm. "It should help us, not hurt us. It should ensure opportunity not just for those with the most money and influence." He told the audience that the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy would be replaced by tax cuts for the middle class, that the country's addiction to foreign oil would be ended, that our broken health-care system would be reformed—huge projects, yes, but "now is not the time for small plans."
He spoke of equal pay for women, of ending the war in Iraq responsibly, and of returning to a sense of optimism and respected international leadership.
"We are the country of Roosevelt. We are the party of Kennedy. So don't tell me that Democrats won't defend this country. Don't tell me that Democrats won't keep us safe. The Bush-McCain foreign policy has squandered the legacy that generations of Americans—Democrats and Republicans—have built, and we have to restore that legacy."
There were quiet sniffles in the press box as Obama, hitting his closing emotional chords, echoed King's words, "We cannot walk alone." Then, afterward, I boarded a shuttle bus waiting outside the stadium. The driver was waiting to be told where she was supposed to go. The crowd knew where it wanted to go—downtown, the heart of the city, the heart, at this particular moment, of America. The crowd wanted to go now. The driver relented. "Yes we can!" the crowd chanted.
I got off, walked through a startlingly alive Denver, and met some fellow writers at a bar. We ordered drinks. We talked a bit. Then we told the waitress we wanted the sound on the TVs turned back up and the station switched to political cable. We knew what we'd seen. We knew how we felt. But we wanted to know what had happened.