Down and Out in Tampa and Charlotte
Two Weeks of Apocalyptic Daydreaming, Brilliant Speechifying, and Other Strange Visions at the Republican and Democratic National Conventions
I oozed into Charlotte for the Democratic National Convention on a Greyhound bus right as a sky full of nasty clouds cracked and spilled down lush streamers of piss-warm rain everywhere around me. I’d boarded the bus in Tampa, after the Republican convention, and it was full of the sorts of broken people that nobody mentions at political conventions anymore, if they ever did. They’re not the sainted American middle class that every candidate, however ineptly or skillfully, tries to woo. They’re the American underclass. People with criminal records, warrants, credit agencies on their tail. These aren’t the sorts of people politicians talk about when they talk about the good, decent, hardworking people of the United States. These people are hard to love. They get drunk in public. They engage in light child abuse. They get neck tattoos that virtually ensure they’ll never have a decent job. Some of them don’t speak English; a few who can speak English can’t read it.
Throughout my two-week convention adventure, everything kept breaking. I would like to attribute my many equipment failures to some unholy mixture of the humidity and the broken-down aura of the Greyhound, but really it started long before that. About 10 minutes out the door of my house two weeks ago, one of the wheels on my rolling luggage shattered into splinters. After scratching and screeching awkwardly along the streets of Seattle and then Tampa for a week, I finally traded out the busted cart for a duffel bag at an Army Navy Store, only to learn on my arrival in Charlotte that the new bag made every item in my possession reek of pungent mildew.
But that was only the start: My USB cords coughed and sputtered and died for apparently no reason; I’m on my third one this trip. My laptop, which bolted gracefully through the internet like a gazelle not so long ago, is now a choking, backfiring jalopy that can barely keep a solid connection for 15 minutes at a time. It shuts down at random moments, which means that I’ve lost whole chunks of my work at frequent intervals. The strap of my laptop bag keeps falling off. My belt is hanging on by a millimeter of leather; it was fine for three years but sometime in the last 10 days it developed a tear, and now it looks like it was gnawed to death at the throat of the buckle by hungry ferrets. My shoes suddenly decided to start tearing great, pasty white sheets of skin from the backs of my feet, and blisters started to form between my toes. I’ve had to swaddle my feet in Band-Aids the last few mornings to even achieve a passable limp. The elastics in my socks are failing. The Charlotte apartment building I stayed in caught fire the day after I arrived, and dozens of us gathered on the lawn to watch three trucks full of firefighters roam around the smoky interior of the apartment, their flashlights making the whole small space glow eerily in the night as water cascaded down the hallways and stairwells of the building below. My phone has become a greasy, crippled puck that occasionally shrugs and stops working. I’ve had “Call Me Maybe” stuck in my head for two solid weeks.
Maybe it wasn’t the humidity or the 17 hours on a bus that made every item I own fail me in one way or another. Maybe it was all the negativity of the Republican National Convention. I’m talking about negativity both from the Republican speakers onstage—at times, it felt like the secret meeting of a virulently anti-American organization on the eve of their attempted coup—and from inside me. There were brief, fleeting moments (like when I’d hear someone sputtering about our Muslim president or feminazis) when I wished violence to befall all of us, when I wanted a torrent of switchblades to fall from the sky and reduce us all to slick red ribbons, or a pack of feral, blood-red Dobermans to spring from beneath the sidewalks and drag us all, screaming, back below the hot, sticky tar. You simply can’t hate at that temperature and intensity for too long without the hate taking some sort of external form, like a festering boil or a cut that never heals or every inanimate object within your reach devolving into useless plugs of ugly gray-black plastic that no landfill will ever be able to fully digest.
You should know that I’m not complaining. Throughout the trip, I’m always aware that this is a rare experience. I’m one of the last few newspaper reporters assigned to a political convention in the early 21st century, and I’m a college dropout, besides. I was experiencing something not many people get to experience. There wasn’t a second that went by when I didn’t realize that I shouldn’t be there, that I didn’t realize how lucky I am to have had this opportunity. And Charlotte was much kinder to me than Tampa. The transit is quick and reliable and affordable, with a light rail running right from my mostly-not-burned-down apartment building right through the heart of downtown. Unlike the buses in Tampa, which were entirely devoid of any trace of the Republican convention save for grumbles about the gridlocked traffic, the trains and buses in Charlotte have been rolling Obama rallies, packed full of delegates and volunteers and media. They’re boisterous and friendly. The first night of the convention, the word “Michelle” weaved through the background of the trains like a breeze; people—especially the women, especially the African American women—couldn’t stop talking about the first lady’s speech. They used tones that were generally reserved for beloved spiritual leaders, or Oprah.
The second night, the crowd was all about Bill Clinton. And a crowd that’s drunk on Bill Clinton energy is completely different from any other kind of crowd. Suddenly, everyone was as folksy and relaxed as if they were at a backyard barbecue, talking about the great old uncle who shows up only every once in a while, when the weather is nice, but who never fails to bring unadulterated good times when he arrives. It felt like the best kind of nostalgia, for a time when everything was simple and good and we didn’t even know it. Like all nostalgia, it was bullshit, but for the evening, it seemed like harmless enough bullshit, allowing the men to pretend that they had hair and waistlines again and the women to forget what the Bush years did to their bodies and their lives. You can flirt all you want when you’re feeling young again, and reality will snap back soon enough, anyway, to remind you about all the things you can’t do.
It stands to reason that of course Clinton would dominate the conversation. Even from his back side, he was amazing. I was sitting behind and high above him—the press seats at the DNC are somehow even worse than at the RNC—and I couldn’t take my eyes off him as he spoke, even though he was smaller than a G.I. Joe action figure. But my position meant I could see the giant teleprompter from which Clinton was reading, which meant that I knew exactly when he was improvising. He would stray from the Star Wars word crawl for five minutes at a time, launching into numbers-heavy digressions about health insurance premiums seemingly off the top of his head before fusing that digression seamlessly with the prepared speech, and then the suspended words on the teleprompter would lurch to life again and accompany Clinton for a while before he decided to wander off, in search of some other fact or figure with which to brutalize the Republicans. (On Twitter, reporters noted with some sense of awe that Clinton’s prepared remarks were just over 3,000 words long. He wound up saying more than 5,000 words.)
I have never been a fan of Bill Clinton. I resented his baby-boomer smugness, the calculating way with which he inveigled the Democratic Party into giving up some core values for a few fleeting moments of centrist popularity—particularly, giving up its devotion to the citizens who could not, for reasons of mental or physical competence, take care of themselves. And I detested the way he tried to tear Barack Obama down, to force him into waiting his turn in line for the presidency back in 2008. But I had never seen Clinton speak before in person, and so I could never understand what makes him so appealing.
Clinton has that one-in-a-million mixture of crippling neediness and unadulterated, (almost literally) unimpeachable self-confidence that generally breeds rock stars, or the kind of writers whose books teenagers keep lovingly rolled up in their back pockets. He desperately needs the love and affection of every single person in the Time Warner Cable Arena (some 26,000 people, with many thousands more turned away at the door) and he has the gall to believe that he deserves that love and affection, too. You can’t deny that kind of pulsing spiritual vacancy, that starving need for love, in a person. You want to help fill his need for attention, and you’re flattered by his attention in return. I giggled at his over-the-top exclamations of “heck” and “listen to this, now, ’cause it’s important” precisely because they were so over the top. I knew it, and he knew it, and it didn’t matter that I could see through what he was doing, because he got me anyway. He seduced a small army of people all at once with facts and figures and his masterful ad-libs. I still think his presidency was too complacent and that he squandered some opportunities that could have at least partially prevented the mess in which we find ourselves now, but I cannot deny—nobody can deny—that Bill Clinton possesses a rare genius.
What Barack Obama possesses is something different. Many—myself included—expressed disappointment during his speech that the fiercely competitive Obama didn’t rise to the challenge thrown down by Clinton and, yes, his own wife. He didn’t deliver the kind of speech that the blogosphere wanted, the conversation-changing agitprop that would leave everyone reeling. Though it was of course light years ahead of Mitt Romney’s speech in terms of content and delivery, it wasn’t even the best speech of the Democratic National Convention. It was not, you know, historic enough.
Something that I often forget about Obama, though, is that he has another, special kind of genius. He always knows how much energy he needs to expend, and he doesn’t expend any more than that amount. Obama never plays an ace when a two will do. During the 2008 debates, Obama surely could have blown John McCain away with a sharp comment or a figure that would have torn McCain’s argument out from under him. But the problem with those showy moments is that they bear a certain amount of risk; every dive for the jugular can result in a self-inflicting injury. (Think of when Obama told Hillary Clinton in 2008 that she was “likable enough.” What was intended to be a funny, offhand comment felt dismissive and arrogant, and probably resulted in another red-faced finger-wagging session from Bill Clinton.) Instead, Obama just ran out the clock on McCain, being reasonable and common-sensical, to show Americans that he wasn’t a freak or a socialist or a monster. By being patient, and by expending just enough energy, he won the whole contest, even though he didn’t give the commentariat the blood for which they were bellowing.
Obama’s speech, then, was like that. It contained promises and mentions of important liberal causes like global warming and marriage equality, but it didn’t reframe the conversation or try to wriggle out of charges of class war by positioning himself as a moderate. This is presumably because Obama and his team have done the calculations, and they’ve realized that they can win on this conversation, that Americans don’t believe that self-interest should be the prime motivation of the country, that fairness and cooperation do have their place in the United States that they want to live in.
There was plenty of fight in the speech. The best moments came when Obama ripped into Romney, mocking his foreign policy claims that Russia was our greatest foe and making light of his disastrous trip to Great Britain that wound up with Romney being pilloried by the mayor and media of London for the amusement of the whole world. Obama, it’s clear, genuinely doesn’t like Romney. This is new for him; he obviously respected Hillary Clinton, and he seemed to admire John McCain’s biography and career, even as McCain tried to feed Obama to the slavering dogs of the nascent Tea Party. But now Obama finds himself butting heads with the kind of clueless entitlement and old-money ignorance that he’s bristled at his whole life. That WASPy old boys’ club that Obama learned how to dance with at the Harvard Law Review and in the Illinois State Senate suddenly has a face and a name—Mitt, no less, sire of a litter of young Aryan-looking boys with names like Tagg. This is the opponent, the symbol of a generation and a class that has always discomfited Obama, and you can tell he’s dying for the opportunity to prove himself against the man. For the first time, Obama is in danger of taking a little too much joy at attacking his opponent.
So it’s true that President Obama didn’t move heaven and earth in his speech, but the crowd in Time Warner Cable Arena acted like he did, anyway. They roared and cheered and laughed uproariously when Obama defined the Republican prescription for a cold as “take two tax cuts, roll back some regulations, and call us in the morning.’’ They had been sitting in their seats for hours, waiting for him, and they felt as though it was their personal duty to make as much noise for him as possible. At the end of his speech, there was a climactic human thunderclap that I don’t think registered on TV. It was not unlike the sound of an apocalyptic engine launching into a new gear, or a plane breaking the sound barrier, or a fire finding a fresh new source of oxygen. It felt like a natural disaster, triggering my body’s flight instinct for a second. I expected a tsunami to crash down upon me. Nothing else came but more cheers, and then more cheers, and still more cheers after that.
And so we all poured out into the streets again. The older delegates climbed onto their buses and began the slow crawl back to their hotels. The younger delegates climbed on board the trains. Despite all the punditry chatter about an enthusiasm gap between angry Republicans and deflated Democrats, there can be no comparison between the crowds in Tampa and Charlotte. The Democrats swirl with energy. They cry from too much excitement. They laugh and smile at each other and break into spontaneous chants. I saw none of this in Tampa.
Something else that was not in Tampa: Hundreds of street vendors hawk all manner of bootleg Obama merchandise. Cheap T-shirts, Obama hand puppets, an Obama’s head piggy-bank, statues, bobbleheads, buttons, posters, programs, a generic home-recorded song called “The Obama Shuffle” (“to the left! To the right! That’s the Obama shuffle!”) and a remarkable bit of folk art, a painting showing Obama as the sheriff of a posse of African-American leaders on horseback: Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jr., Tupac. Obama is dressed like a SWAT cop in this painting. He’s wearing a black bulletproof vest, and the expression on his face is serene. The delegates couldn’t stop buying the souvenirs; their arms were heavy with t-shirts, and many were developing chitinous shells of buttons that spread across their vests and hats.
The truth about this jubilation is that these are probably among the last Democratic conventiongoers America will ever see, at least in the sense that we know political conventions today. Conventions are ridiculously expensive affairs, and networks just don’t seem interested in the work of putting them on. Why bother carting thousands of delegates from every state around two American cities for two weeks every four years when the outcome of their vote is never in doubt? Why upend and reshape an American city with the National Guard, Secret Service, and a truly disturbing number of television newscasters when everything is as scripted and unsurprising—Clint Eastwood aside—as a television sitcom?
I attended a couple of events with the Washington Democratic delegation. (To their credit, all their events were open to the media; the only time I even got close to the Washington Republican delegation in Tampa, three policemen threatened to arrest me and I got kicked off the grounds of two paradisiacal beach hotels.) The first was a party at a legendary local barbecue restaurant called Mac’s Speed Shop. There was a groaning table piled high with pork and macaroni and cheese and salad and sauces and banana pudding; the Washington delegation helped themselves to all of it.
The next morning, there was another all-you-can-eat spread at their hotel, a ridiculous breakfast buffet, with piles of sausages and pastries and mounds of eggs and bacon and a continually refreshed table of hot coffee and juices. Hangover jokes abounded. Washington state Democratic chair Dwight Pelz explained the rules of being a delegate (basically: go down to the convention floor, be on time, look enthusiastic for the cameras, and we’ll explain what happens when it comes time to vote) and read a satirical list of items not allowed in Time Warner Cable Arena thanks to new, stricter Secret Service regulations (“boiled eel, farm equipment, and intellectual property”). An array of speakers came and paid tribute to the delegates, including Senator Patty Murray, House Representative Keith Ellison, and, for some reason, former Scrubs star Zach Braff.
This kind of doting attention is no doubt fun—who wouldn’t like to be carted around a new city on a bus to be praised and celebrated by politicians? At the free breakfast, which followed the free dinner, delegates were buzzing about the free lunch to come, which reportedly involved a “battle of the BBQs.” They swapped stories about celebrities they encountered (“I had a beer with Jon Stewart,” one man said, to great cheers and backslapping) and discussed which rallies and parties they were going to attend during the day. It all carried with it a patina of incredible excess, the kind that politicians always say the American political process can no longer bear.
In his short book about the Democratic preparations for the 2012 campaign, Obama’s Last Stand, Politico reporter Glenn Thrush writes that party officials were considering doing away with this old and outdated style of conventioneering, opting instead for a series “of one night mini-conventions in four cities—possibly Charlotte, Cleveland, Denver, and Vegas—but a secret consultation with a few TV executives yielded an angry ‘no way,’“ citing outrageous costs and logistical problems. But with internet video viewing on the rise, television executives are no longer going to be able to dictate parameters anymore, and the old-fashioned convention as we know it will surely die.
For now, though, the benefits of a convention are clear: The Democrats stated their case clearly and with a lot of gusto. They brazenly stole the mantle of foreign policy expertise from Republicans and tried to wipe the imaginary socialist foreigner Barack Obama that Clint Eastwood, Mitt Romney, and Paul Ryan lectured in Tampa from the public’s memory. And the incalculable human benefits are great, too. A woman from Detroit joined a woman from Alabama in leading a chant of “fired up! ready to go!” that got so loud, the train car seemed to shake from side to side on the racks.
But there’s always a party pooper, and in this case, it was a very drunk Charlotte native, an older African-American man who silenced everyone around him by snarling at a middle-aged white man’s broad smile. “You think you’re so great,” he muttered, and people started looking at the floor of the train. Many of his protests were unintelligible; the vapor of his breath was enough to send little jolts of drunkenness to your brain. But his point was clear. He resented being forced out of the middle of his town by the military and the police who have been bused in from Chicago for the cameras and the pretty lights and the street vendors. He felt ignored, and he was angry about it, and so he took it out on this one guy in a blazer and cuffed trousers who was having a good time up until now.
In response, everyone on the train tried to ignore the drunken man. The man in the blazer stared at the floor and tried to look either contrite or completely ignorant; I couldn’t tell which. The drunken man wobbled and tried to make his case, to dis-disenfranchise himself. He got so angry that a younger delegate finally said “Dude,” with an implied “stop” tumbling along after. And the train pulled into a station and the drunken man staggered off. The conversation started up again, and the enthusiasm returned to just about where it once was, with people recalling their favorite moments from a very memorable day in order to forget the discomfort that just demanded their attentions.
If there’s one moment I’m going to pull from both of these conventions and carry with me until I die, I know exactly what it is. There’s no doubt. It was a pure moment of grace and awe. When Gabby Giffords came onstage on the last night of the DNC to lead the crowd in the Pledge of Allegiance in her halting, childlike voice, and blew kisses at the crowd, and was guided off the stage, I lost it. I was bawling, and so was everyone else in the print journalists section, far to the rear of the stadium. And so, I suspect, was everyone in the Arena. It was the kind of moment that TV reporters love to ruin with their careless choice of words, like courage and tragedy and strength. Those words are too blunt, too inexact, to express what that moment meant.
Almost two years ago, this woman took a bullet to the brain in an Arizona parking lot. News organizations around the country reported her to be dead before they corrected their mistake. She was there for just another dumb press event that congresswomen have to show up for every day if they expect to keep their jobs, and a mentally unhinged man who slipped through the cracks tried to force his will upon her, to make her dead so that he could have something he could call his own. He took something precious from her that will never be replaced, but he failed.
Giffords was broken on that day, and she’s broken now. I’m broken, too, and so are you. Every day breaks us in a different way. But broken is not the same thing as dead, and if you’re not dead, you’re alive, and if you’re alive, you can do something. That’s not courage; it’s just what you do. You wake up. Something’s sore. Your head hurts. You don’t want to do what you have to do today. You don’t want to talk to humans. There’s so much weight that it feels like you can’t do it anymore. It’s pointless. It’s unmanageable. It’s awful. You can’t do it. You know, deep down in your stomach, that you simply can’t do it anymore. It’s impossible.
You get up anyway.