Thursday, Aug. 29, 1996
Day before yesterday was a day of media cynicism about Monday night, the “ordinary people” night. In print, on television, and most scathingly, in ironic private commentary outside the network sky boxes in the convention hall. Words like “deplorable” and “shameless” and “lugubrious” have been bandied about. To which I can only reply, Yeah? So? What’s your point? (To be honest, I haven’t actually heard anyone say “lugubrious,” but I’ll bet these Scrooges would have done so if they had thought of it. It’s a lovely word.)
Candidly, and checking my own cynicism at the door, I found the parts I saw rather moving. Of course it was manipulative and contrived; what the hell else is it going to be? Offensive as it might be to our romantic notions of authenticity, actors put on makeup, writers consult dictionaries (I wish I had one in my hotel room this very moment, in fact), musicians practice their scales, poets recollect their emotions in tranquillity, and political parties calculate strategy. (There was a report on NPR this morning about the Anarchists’ Convention; hilariously, that event is also tightly scripted and controlled. If such an approach is acceptable to the goddamned Anarchists, how can we blame the Democrats and the Republicans?) The more important question is, beneath all the manipulation and contrivance, what message is being conveyed?
This very question arose in a conversation in the lobby of the Fairmont Hotel. I was chatting with two quasi-eminent journalists, one from the WashingtonPost, one from the LosAngelesTimes, and the latter suddenly demanded, “What was that Christopher Reeve business about? What was the point?”
“It was very emotional,” the other said.
“Sure, I can see that, but for what purpose? What point was being made?”
“It was very emotional. That was the point.”
I respect both these journalists, but I honestly don’t think that was the point. You can find the whole affair tasteless and shabby if you wish–the stagecraft was not, shall we say, deft, and our hearts weren’t stirred with what might be considered Mozartian delicacy–but it wasn’t vacuous. At least as I understood it, the point was quite simple: We’re all vulnerable, our hold on things is more tenuous than we know, even the most fortunate among us is poised over an abyss without realizing it, so we’d better be generous, we’d better be compassionate, we’d better try to take care of each other.
I’m not embarrassed to belong to a political party that chooses such a notion to be manipulative about. It’s certainly a lot more appealing than, “Let the market decide and the devil take the hindmost.”
To put it another way, better a bleeding heart than no heart at all.
I spent a good part of Tuesday with Richard Cohen. We hung out at the United Center, we had lunch together with Patty Cohen (no relation, but those conspiracy theories about the media are starting to resonate), and then, it being a lovely day, we walked along Michigan Avenue for awhile, heading in the direction of our respective hotels. But there was an unexpected outcome, which I learned about only this morning. ABC News apparently aired a report last night about the way aging baby boomers have become an important group of swing voters, and to illustrate, they used tape they had shot, without our being aware of it, of Richard and me walking by a Starbucks during our postprandial stroll.
Aging baby boomers! Give me a break!
Tuesday night, this whole thing finally started to feel like a convention. The Democrats were even true to their new tradition, humiliating a rising political star by walking out on his big speech. Evan Bayh was the designated schmuck this time, but I hope he doesn’t feel too bad about it. A similar experience introduced Bill Clinton to the world eight years ago. There can be life after Keynote.
I’m still not inured to the perks that go along with Laura’s current position. After four years, it’s still thrilling to me, it still seems like a novelty. And since, for me at least, all of it will be over in two days, I suppose it’s a good thing I haven’t learned to take it for granted. I’m back in the cheap seats before Labor Day.
I’m reminded of all this because Laura’s status has permitted us to enjoy our first convention in high style. The Cabinet-rank people (and their spouses!) have a sky box from which to view the proceedings, stocked with food and drink, offering comfortable chairs and a private-party-like atmosphere. We’re also free to sky-box-hop, to drop in on other personages and organizations that also rate a private viewing area. Leon Panetta’s was particularly popular last night, for some reason; in fact, it was so crammed with visitors that the chief of staff himself couldn’t squeeze in, merely waved to us a little desperately from the doorway. I thought he might fire a few White House employees simply in order to have a place to sit down, but no, that isn’t his style. H.R. (“Bob”) Haldeman wouldn’t have hesitated.
A little later, through the good offices of Richard Riley, Laura and I were invited to a South Carolina delegation party held down in the United Center basement locker room, where we drank our cocktails and ate our hors d’oeuvres amid the lockers, the shoes, and jerseys, the exercise equipment, the showers, saunas, and urinals used by the Bulls. This one was rather wasted on me, not being much of a sports fan, but I trust I’ll be able to make a few friends envious somewhere down the line. In the meantime, I was at least able to appreciate the Fellini-esque weirdness of it all. There were three good speeches last night too, and that may be the reason I’m beginning to catch convention fever. Jesse Jackson, Mario Cuomo, and Hillary Clinton reminded us all what a good show politics can be, and recalled to this former history major that in the last century, political oratory was considered a major entertainment medium. Of course, they didn’t have Nintendo then.
Immediately after the first lady’s speech, we were herded into her box by our friend Liz Robbins. This was a moment both privileged and strange. The box was close to empty, the first lady having just entered, standing almost alone, a tiny handful of friends scattered about. I believe Laura and I were the very first people outside her intimate circle to give her a response. It could have been a delicate situation, since, like anyone in the immediate aftermath of a performance, she was probably uncertain how it had gone. The crowd’s evident and fulsome affection must have helped, but still … there are always doubts and misgivings. Thank God we liked the speech! Hillary Clinton is too sharp a woman to lie to. And for all her admirable, tough-minded purposefulness, she sometimes appears as vulnerable as the rest of us.