The Convention From the Cheap Seats

Stuck between Al Franken and Al Jazeera in Boston.

Jim Hightower *  thrilled the delegates at the 1988 Democratic Convention by quipping that George H.W. Bush was, “born on third base and thinks he hit a triple.” The shoe somehow fit the son even better than the father, and George W. has been reliably tagged with that line for years. All of which leaves us in Boston this week, wondering how it’s possible that John Kerry managed to be born on third base, yet is somehow caught in a rundown between first and second?

Everyone here is waiting for the convention to really lift off. But last night’s speeches all seemed to hew to the same bizarre formula: “I’m worried, but optimistic.” “I’m upset, but confident.” “I’m terrified, but I’m hopeful.” What does all that even mean? With the exception of Bill Clinton’s slightly odder variation on that theme (“I’m really, really rich. And a draft-dodger too!!!”) it sounded like the Kerry campaign had somehow conflatedvoter indecision with voter confusion. But I don’t think the undecideds are confused, just undecided.

There is always a rather weird quality to these conventions, in that these speeches are happening right in your living room, yet we in the press are somehow supposed to mediate the experience. We can’t hear as well as you do, or see as well as you do, but we’re supposed to triangulate your direct experience against the fact that we are here. As a consequence, there’s a lot of Media Hall of Mirrors stuff, wherein the press reports on the press, reporting on you.

Hello, you.

This is why Jimmy Carter’s speech from last night, which sounded (admittedly, from the cheapest of the cheap seats—two rows behind the Al Jazeera section and just above the balloon sausages tethered to the ceiling) like it emanated from a paper bag full of marbles and Jimmy Carters, was interesting less for what he said than for the reports coming from the guy behind me on his cell phone. “It’s going over well on TV!” he crows to the section. The section heaves a sigh. (Everyone at this convention is on his cell phone seemingly all the time. Hopefully, one or two of us are on the phone with Kerry telling him to lose the line about being “anxious, yet sanguine.”)

This is also why I end up watching Clinton’s speech in the “press room,” a small bunker of large-screen televisions and Internet hookups. The divine Mickey Kaus is behind me blogging, while Al Franken is flopped on the floor in front of me, nodding at the screen. A cameraman films Al watching the speech. So—a casualty of too much reality television—I watch the cameraman watching Al’s reaction. This provides a fascinating look into the postmodernist conundrum of pastiche/simulacrum/deconstructionist reality. It really doesn’t tell you who to vote for.

My overwhelming memory of the GOP Convention four years ago was of the harnessed, focused, laserlike energy of suppressed Republican rage. I keep hearing about the rage of the Democrats, but I can’t find it here; with the exception of Michael Moore, who is whirling around like the Tasmanian Devil in a baseball cap.

Words like “Abu Ghraib” and “Guantanamo” and “torture memo” are choked back until your head hurts. I, for one, am not “terrified, yet braced-for-the-challenges.” I am “terrified, yet petrified.” I am “frightened, yet sickened.” Today, I hit the streets of Boston in hopes of hearing that speech.

Correction, July 27, 2004: The article originally attributed the “third base” quote about George H. W. Bush to former Texas Gov. Ann Richards. In fact, former Texas Agriculture Commissioner Jim Hightower said it. (Return  to the corrected sentence.)