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    Observations from the 2004 Democratic National Convention

    Friday, July 30, 2004

    Last call from Logan 

    So after reading the coverage of John Kerry's speech in the Times and the Post and the Globe, I was ready to speak with a tough critic who used to make peanut butter sandwiches for Gene McCarthy.

    "Of course I watched," my mother said. "He was won-da-ful." (Before you go sweeping for bias, my father went for Nixon that year.)

    This was the same John Kerry who has represented my mother's state since Paul Tsongas's day. My mother has never warmed to John Kerry, although the discovery of his paternal grandparents' Austrian-Jewish roots did make mom's eyebrows arch.

    My favorite description of Kerry comes from colleague Dick Polman who says he looks like one of those giant sad tree herders, the Ents , from Lord of the Rings.

    Not last night. He was on his game. They say Kerry's a closer, getting better as the race goes on. He was sharp and commanding, and made his points at a clip that Evelyn Wood would approve of -- as if he was costing the networks precious advertising revenue. Kinda goofy, that "My name is John Kerry, and I'm reporting for duty," not what you'd expect from the guy who is the great-times-seven grandson of Massachusetts founder Gov. John Winthrop, who coined the 'City on the Hill' line.

    Kerry was echoing Jimmy Carter's 1976 peanut-farmer amble through the fields on the way to the podium. Carter announced himself with the same "My name is Jimmy Carter, and I am running for president" line he had been using for months, when no one knew who he was. Kerry apparently still faces that problem. After listening to his dark-haired daughter, Alexandra, I was already warming to him a bit. Or to her - she can talk.

    Good speeches were not the order of the day. Wesley Clark, the exception, Kerry followed a series of dreadful procedurals from people who should know better.

    Maybe the networks know what they are doing. Do undecideds watch this stuff? Do Democrats?

    U.S. Rep. Nancy Pelosi does that gesture of the moment - pointing, but with the thumb over the finger - that 1/2 the speakers were doing, and she delivered "our team, their team" stuff that used to make me wretch in high school.

    Sen. Joe Lieberman - mom thinks he's a scold - seems too conflicted in this race to have any traction. Madeleine Albright has the edge of oatmeal. They didn't exactly generate momentum as the evening headed toward Kerry's acceptance of the Democratic nomination.

    Not exactly the Rev. Al Sharpton on 40 acres and a mule.

    But they didn't provide much competition, either, and so the week ended with the tree man coming to life and grabbing the flag from the field of battle, promising hope and help. "It's a pageant," I keep saying to myself, dog-waggingly.

    "Go balloons."

    Thursday, July 29, 2004

    Seeing things 

    Maybe it was chianti in the North End last night, but I'm starting to see things.

    Outside my hotel, the Omni Parker House, two groups of protesters line the sidewalk, barely distinguishable. There's the 20 or so well-dressed folks with Bush-Cheney `04 placards, chanting "Four More Years" and the "Billionaires for Bush," decked in top hats and party gowns, toasting profits and chanting "Four More Wars."

    You can tell the real Republicans because their suits fit better.

    Making the rounds between the groups is a man in a George Bush papier-mache mask and an Army green jumpsuit. He seems to be very friendly, as no one is rude to him.

    "Are you a reporter?" a woman asks, seeing my notebook. She's a formidable figure, Althea Garrison, an African American who grew up in Georgia and moved to Boston, representing in the state legislature the working-class neighborhood of Dorchester, where my dad had his hardware store.

    "This group good," she proclaimed, pointing to the Bush-Cheney section. "This group bad," she said of the Billionaires. "They are what we have the Patriot Act for."

    At this point I looked up to see her eyes dancing around and her smile spreading.

    She was playing with me.

    She also wore a Bush-Cheney sticker on the lapel of her pink jacket.

    The reason she is a Republican, she said, is she feels more comfortable with what they stand for. "I believe in traditional values, she said. "And I wouldn't trade that for anything. A lot of blacks do, too - they just don't say it."

    The rarest of creatures here ... a pink elephant.

    Tuesday, July 27, 2004

    Penned-in Anger 

    The "Free Speech" area became so inhospitable today -- from the screeching microphone reverb to the vacuum truck spraying waves of dirt on spectators -- that by 2 p.m., even the 9 1/2 foot Gandhi had had enough.

    Jes Richardson, a Havertown-bred peace activist, pulled the giant symbol of tolerance to a quieter spot outside the pen, and wondered why the street cleaner had continued even after someone pointed out the huge hole in his bag.

    "Are they doing this on purpose?" Richardson asked.

    The good news was that there were few protesters to bother.

    The pen protesters seem more theatrical than anything. A woman wearing red-striped knee socks and a nightie strolled around, bearing the sign: "Prevent Abortion. Use a Condom." A bearded man pushed "No More Bushit" bumperstickers.

    Then there was the giant Gandhi. Richardson, 56, has spent the summer taking the Indian leader's likeness to the swing states, promoting voter registration and encouraging people to support whichever candidate would more likely bring peace.

    The satirical Billionaires for Bush strut through the city in top hats and tails. A giant vertebra snakes through the streets, urging the Democrats to keep some progressive backbone in their platform.

    The most action yesterday morning seemed to be outside Faneuil Hall, where U.S. Park Police objected to a peace group hanging a Democracy sign on a barrier police wanted to be able to see through.

    The argument went on for 15 minutes, attracting a dozen or so spectators who started chanting "Let them keep the sign."

    Meanwhile inside the historic hall, a meeting about the "national and global crisis" attracted a smaller crowd than portrayed in the giant oil painting hanging behind them, George Healy's "Webster Replying to Hayne."

    Those who attended the meeting, organized by a trio of peace groups, heard Ross Gelbspan, Pulitzer Prize winning expert on global warming, say, "The country is more deeply divided than it ever had been in my lifetime." Ronnie Dugger, an author and co-founder of the Alliance for Democracy, warned that Americans will never accept "the second theft of the presidency."

    More peaceful co-habitation on the other side of Faneuil Hall: both anti-abortion and pro-choice demonstrators sharing a corner with their placards like limo-service drivers awaiting their fares at the airport.

    Shakin' It 

    Finally hit one of these famous parties. The club Felt was hosting the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, and once past the giant ice sculptures dispensing vodka martinis, we worked our way downstairs to hear a fairly spicy bar band:

    Los Lobos.
    Ten feet away. Close enough to pull sax player Steve Berlin's ZZ Top beard.

    You had a United Farm Workers organizer line dancing with the New Mexico attorney general and a Congresswoman.

    You had a sensual slow dance called "Sabor A Mi," which Soledad Roybal, 27, of New Mexico, translated for us as "My Taste."

    "Can you understand any of the words?" she asked, and taking pity, she provided a sample lyric of the song that means "My Taste:"

    "More than 1000 years will pass, and you'll still be able to taste me."

    This would be why singer David Hildalgo announced afterward that this had been the time for action. "That was your chance, man, If you didn't make your move. C'mon politicians, that was your chance for love."

    The band from East L.A. played more than an hour over two sets, from "I Got Loaded" to a jammy medley of "Papa Was a Rolling Stone" and "Oye Como Va."

    In between the playing, there was some speechifying, U.S. Rep. Bob Menendez from New Jersey saying "Latinos know how to party. And we know how to win elections," claiming Latino voters will make the difference for Kerry in New Mexico, Colorado, Florida, Nevada and Arizona.

    Monday, July 26, 2004

    When dinosaurs breakdance 

    It wasn't exactly "The Anarchists' Convention," that old John Sayles short story that reminded me of my family dinners - 14 seats and 20 arguments. But the Blogger's Breakfast did gather a world of lone voices in one room where they clinked china, greeted the rising stars among them and got to hear praise from Howard Dean and advice from Walter Mears.

    Dean got a standing ovation, which is unusual from a crowd of scribes, and he thanked them for their help changing the dynamics of the primary season. "What we've created here is a real community," he said.

    Mears both gave and solicited advice. After 46 years pounding them out for the Associated Press, Mears is now a veteran of one day of blogging. His grandson, 12, had to tell him what one was. But he's finding his voice, and no doubt still typing as fast as Clark Kent, and he warned the crowd that they were going too be hard-pressed to find real news. What they should do, he said, is work the state caucuses, hanging out in hotel rooms, and taking the temperature of swing states.

    Blogger Tom Burka was wondering how long it would take for big media to co-opt the bloggers. The Villanova-reared attorney and political satirist had read NBC reporter Andrea Mitchells' blog and wondered why she was writing about shoes. Navals must be next.

    The dinosaur is trying to breakdance, I told him, as I lumbered around hesitantly, wondering what that speeding asteroid was all about.

    Sunday, July 25, 2004

    You got a license for that? 

    The First Amendment is on vivid display outside the Park Street T station, six ladies introducing themselves as the latest in entertainment from Crawford, Texas.

    "Shop in the name of war," they sing, these bikini-clad sirens in red, white and blue wigs, feathers, furs and prominent ballistic codpieces. Their name is a rhyme of Dixie Chicks, the first word being "missile."

    Their homage to the Supremes' song packs other topical lyrics, such as "send Iraq a nice bomb for Christmas" and "let's kick some #$%^@ for Texaco and BP ... don't think it over."

    Next to them, a character wearing a George W. Bush papier-mache mask performs rope tricks, demonstrating what he'd do if he caught Bin Laden.

    Nearby, Lyndon LaRouche supporters hand out a magazine bearing Bosch's "The Garden of Earthly Delights." The headline: "The Sexual Congress for Cultural Fascism."

    I'm tempted to read it, but there's too much to watch: another guy in a battered ballcap walking around with a sandwich board saying "Military recruiters out of schools," and my favorite -- a guy who looks like a ragged Walt Whitman, passing by. He's seems completely out of it, and one gives him lots of room on the sidewalk. He looks up, and growls:

    "Avoid North Station."

    Indeed, the stop is closed during the convention. Excellent advice.

    But wait ... later I go by North Station, and under it is the First Amendment pen, where protesters will be allowed to protest, but the concertina wire and mesh keeps them from the delegates. It is a gulag, one observer says.

    What was Walt Whitman telling me?

    Good Golly 

    The bashes started tonight, and the Boston Globe held the biggest, if not the most exclusive -- local and visiting media milling about as soul food and lobster snacks arrived at their tables as if by magic. The new convention center's doors swung open at 9 p.m., revealing a ferris wheel, an electric car, and after a while, none other than Little Richard.

    He was having a hard night.

    Behind him, and a band of thousands, a giant screen held him in sweaty close-up, and after the first song, he was asking them to turn the thing off. At the end of the second song, "Blueberry Hill," he stopped asking. "Turn it off," he said. "For years they've been taking my music, and they're still doing it."

    The video taping was wrong, wrong, wrong, he said. He'd never made any money off such hits as "Tutti Frutti." Turn it off. He was starting to sound like the paranoid parody of himself he played in "Down and Out in Beverly Hills."

    "I'm a 71-year-old man," he said, though he looked pretty damned trim with his pencil-thin mustache and pompidour that flowed into a fusilli mullet. "I am the creator of rock and roll," he huffed. "I am the architect."

    Cameras off, he loosened up, and took more than a few people to the school of rock.

    Friday, July 23, 2004

    Left or Right? 

    Outside the Fleet Center, as the media swarm arrives and the sidewalks are so hot you could broil a lobster, a silver pick-up truck bears the bumper sticker:

    "Bush '04. Four more wars."

    I can't tell whose side the driver is on. Yeah, I remember the Republicans chanting "Four More Years" for Nixon in '72, but this guy's not serious is he?

    More easy to paint was the geezer at the Porter Square subway stop the night before. I dropped my $1.25 token into the slot and pushed the turnstile twice. My mistake. I had no more change so I tried some Philadelphia charm. Is there any way the machine could have eaten my quarter? I asked. He looked at me for a moment, then came out of his booth, and checked each turnstile, his fingers expertly sweeping the insides of each coin return. No dice. But he opened a gate for me anyway, saying "John Kerry took your money."

    "Are you sure?"

    "Yeah, the DNC or the DMZ," and he padded back to his post.

    So there might be Republicans here as well as the packs of Democrats who are now braying in the lobby of my hotel, the Omni Parker House, where Ted Kennedy used to dine with his grandfather Honey Fitz, where old brother John declared his candidacy for Congress, where Malcolm X used to be a busboy.

    It was a less storied place where I had dinner, Joe's American Bar, with my parents and four of their good old friends. This was in suburban Dedham. Not a chance they were going into town - not with all the warnings.

    The conversation was as crusty as the baked scrod.

    "It's the media that's blown this all out of proportion," said one of my folks' wise friends.

    "They're making this seem like it's some sort of catastrophe."

    That's the media for you.

    They blamed the police for threatening to picket the convention and the mayor - even though an arbitrator on Thursday gave them a 14.5 percent pay hike over four years. They blamed the mayor for letting things drag out until the eve of the convention. That's the police and politicians for you.

    Thursday, July 22, 2004

    Street Team 

    "Hi. Want to help us defeat Bush?"

    "Hi. Want to help us defeat Bush?"

    That's one of the siren calls outside the Au Bon Pain in Harvard Square - a half dozen sunny youths stopping sweat-soaked pedestrians in an effort to get them to 1. register to vote 2. vote. 3. give money.

    Another siren call came from a grizzled guy carrying a large cross: "I am not afraid!" he shared in a grave baritone. A third guy hawked the homeless sheet, Spare Change. A fourth was doing some fundraising for himself.

    I chose Paola Moll, 20, a student at mostly Republican Bentley College who delivered her spiel in a rapid-fire, fact-filled soft-sell. It's one of 60 a day she's been doing, and will continue doing for the Democratic National Committee until Election Day.

    She's one of 30 or so street canvassers. There are equal numbers of door knockers. ""This is about your future and mine," she said.

    Boston is starting feel like there's a convention coming.

    Transit cops started checking the bags of every 11th commuter this morning at two suburban stops. The ACLU is considering legal action.

    Construction crews near The Fleet Center, where things begin next week, are building a First Amendment pen where protesters are free to speak their minds - a bit far from the delegates and inside a sort of mesh cage that one of the contractors has likened to a prison camp. The ACLU is considering legal action.

    The fancy hotel next door will be scanning guests' irises as big wigs begin checking in this weekend. No word from the ACLU.

    Meanwhile, Bostonians are grousing about the inconveniences. Most of the merchants recently polled predicted the arrival of 35,000 politicos and their enablers will do nothing for their business, given how much gridlock and artery closings are predicted. They're betting on losing business.

    All for a $50 million pep rally to remove the word 'presumptive' from stories about John Kerry.

    Daniel Rubin

    Daniel Rubin is a staff writer for The Philadelphia Inquirer. He can be reached at


       •  July 2004

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