The taste of hope

A partisan view of the state Democratic convention

THE LONG AND SHORT OF IT<br>Presidential front-runners Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama had plenty of company in San Diego, with all but one of their primary rivals attending last week’s California Democratic Convention. Also speaking were, Christopher Dodd, Dennis Kucinich (shown, dwarfed by his wife, Elizabeth), Mike Gravel, John Edwards and Bill Richardson.

Presidential front-runners Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama had plenty of company in San Diego, with all but one of their primary rivals attending last week’s California Democratic Convention. Also speaking were, Christopher Dodd, Dennis Kucinich (shown, dwarfed by his wife, Elizabeth), Mike Gravel, John Edwards and Bill Richardson.

Photo By Karen O'Neill

Come senators, congressmen
Please heed the call
Don’t stand in the doorway
Don’t block up the hall
For he that gets hurt
Will be he who has stalled
There’s a battle outside
And it is ragin'.
It’ll soon shake your windows
And rattle your walls
For the times they are a-changin'.
—Bob Dylan, 1963

If you give a damn about politics, you already know most of the news that came out of the Democratic State Convention in San Diego the week before last. Delegates flocked from all over California in record numbers, nearly 3,000 of them, disgorged from a succession of airline flights and shuttled to hotel rooms across the city, all of them charged up and ready to make California’s first-ever early primary a memorable one, with the nation’s largest state eager to weigh in on just who will carry the Democratic banner in the ‘08 race to the White House.

The significance of this early primary has been lost on no one, least of all the Democratic presidential candidates. Before the California primary date was moved up to Feb. 5, none of those candidates had committed to an appearance before this gathering, but once California established that early primary, we suddenly became the prettiest girl in the bar, and every candidate except Joe Biden came to hit on us in San Diego.

There’s no point in trying to hide my partisanship, no point in assuming a pretense of objectivity. The fact is I wouldn’t vote for a Republican these days if they water-boarded me. If Republicans want counterpoint, they can go to Fox News, where they might hear something like this: “Democratic Party faithful convened in San Diego to plot a takeover of the government. They call themselves ‘the base.’ In Arabic, the word for ‘the base’ is ‘al-Qaeda.’ Coincidence? Or diabolical plot? We report; you decide.”

I’m pretty sure I laid eyes on the next president of the United States at that convention in San Diego because the next election is the Democrats’ to lose, and though Democrats have proved fairly adept at losing presidential elections of late, it seems unlikely that will happen again in ‘08. Democrats own the issues. They have more-dynamic candidates. And, in the words of the cliché, their base is energized.

“Energizing the base"—that’s the chestnut used to describe the speeches by celebrity politicos in which they tell the faithful what the faithful want to hear. But the base came to San Diego already energized—united in opposition to the war in Iraq, united in revulsion toward the Bush administration’s crimes, corruption, and cronyism. They came united in the desire to effect change—in the nation’s schools, prisons, and health-care system. They came united in their desire to restore their nation to a place of honor and respect among the nations of the world. And they came united in their fervor to save the planet from global warming and other ruinous depredations of man against nature. Most of all, they came stoked.

And I, too, came stoked, both as a Butte County delegate bent on changing the direction the nation has taken, and as a writer keen on spreading the news about those who wish to be elected in order to effect that change in direction.

For three days in San Diego, I wore credentials around my neck, bearing identification on one side as a journalist, and on the other side as a delegate. The report that follows comes from both of those people, a writer’s notes from a schizophrenic perspective.

From the 16th floor of my hotel, the city can be heard seething below, alive with the white noise known in the heart of every American city, the hum of energy, of cars and the exhalations of the big downtown buildings. It’s the thrum and throb of electricity, the stuff that runs the big machine, fueled by oil, nuke power, and North State hydro, all of it funneled here to keep the engines of commerce, industry, tourism, and politics running smoothly.

Keeping that energy humming is the subtext of politics—left or right—and everything going on in those streets below—homelessness, energy policy, immigration, race, schools, and the cost of consumer goods—feeds into the politics of the convention.

To make the six-block walk from my hotel to the convention center, I pass a phalanx of homeless people of a particularly Southern California kind—mostly healthy looking, and quite friendly. But some of the homeless are dramatically less favored. One of them is a haunted-looking specter with red eyes and a trembling frame, a man suffering untended maladies of mind and spirit who says only “please” to all who pass. Another block down Fifth Avenue, a homeless man sleeps in the entryway to an empty storefront, slumped in his wheelchair, swathed in a dirty gray blanket.

Outside the doors of the center, I introduce myself to a man carrying a sign that features a picture of his son in full combat gear, accompanied by a hand-lettered caption saying that the boy—Sgt. Ryan Kahlor—had been two years on active duty in Iraq. The father, Tim Kahlor, is active in a group called Military Families Speak Out. He tells me that the photographer who took the picture of his son was later killed in Iraq, a victim of the violence he fears may claim his boy, Ryan.

“He has a traumatic brain injury and compressed discs in his back, but neither condition has been deemed serious enough to get him released from active duty,” Kahlor says, and when he utters the words “traumatic brain injury,” tears well up in his eyes.

A demonstration calling for the impeachment of President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney is taking place across the street, perhaps 300 people, many of them students from San Diego State, waving banners and signs. Passing motorists honk their support. When I enter the convention center, I pass a security guard who is watching the demonstration. He stops to talk with a co-worker. “What a beautiful sight that is,” he says, pointing to the demonstrators.

At the back of the main hall, tables have been set up by each of the campaigns, and by an assemblage of special-interest groups—various American Indian tribes pushing gaming agendas, the California Teachers Association, Planned Parenthood, and others. One table sells an array of bumper stickers, T-shirts, and lapel pins. Slogans include: “Impeach the Son of a Bush,” “Jesus is a liberal,” “GOP does not spell GOD,” “Churches should stay out of politics—or be taxed,” “The Road to Hell is Paved with Republicans,” “Don’t Pillory Hillary” and “Republican Health Care—Don’t Get Sick.”

Words on the page cannot convey the excitement that accompanies Hillary Clinton’s appearance on this Saturday morning. She enters to the chorus of “You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet,” the old Bachman-Turner Overdrive song.

B-B-B-Baby, you just ain’t seen nothin’ yet.

NO FANS OF BUSH<br />Around 300 people, many students from San Diego State, protest across the street from the convention center — their impeachment message earning honks of support from passing motorists.

Photo By Karen O'Neill

Here’s something that you never gonna forget.

B-B-B-Baby, you just ain’t seen nothin’ yet.

The crowd is electrified, and if there is leftover annoyance with her because of the vote she cast to authorize the war in Iraq, that annoyance is absent from the ovation she receives.

She is hoarse when she begins to speak, but she draws energy from the crowd’s enthusiasm. When she talks about 9/11, her anger is genuine, and when she speaks about the need for universal health care, she begins with a wry allusion to the beating she took trying to reform health care in the early years of her husband’s administration.

“Y’know,” she says, “I tried that before, and y’know, I’m glad I did. We spend 2 trillion dollars on health care in this country, and we don’t get our money’s worth.”

Every line of her stump speech prompts cheers from the assembled faithful. “If you’re black,” she says, “you’re invisible to the Republican Party. If you’re disabled, you’re invisible to the Republican Party. If you’re poor, you’re invisible to the Republican Party.”

Dramatic pause.

“But you’re not invisible to the Democratic Party.”

And the crowd responds, shouting “Hill-ar-y, Hill-ar-y, Hill-ar-y,” and waving a sea of blue and white banners that say the same.

The chant subsides, and she continues. “I think it was one of the most shameful moments in American history when the president stood on the deck of that ship to declare ‘Mission Accomplished.’ This war is one of the darkest blots on our history. I don’t think we yet know even half of the damage he and the VP have done to this nation.”

And then she launches into a story told to her by former secretary of State Madeline Albright, a story about a trip the Secretary took to the Czech Republic where she was greeted by a lot of Czechs waving the American flag.

Albright’s family had fled Czechoslovakia when she was a girl, and this trip had represented a triumphant and emotional return. But she noticed that most of the American flags the Czechs were waving bore only 48 stars. They were, as it turned out, flags that had been given to families by American GIs in World War II. People had kept those flags for half a century, hidden them from their Soviet occupiers at some risk to themselves.

The Czechs told Albright that the flags gave them hope. We wanted freedom, they told her. We wanted a chance to live in freedom.

“Those people did not give up on American ideals,” Clinton concluded, “and neither should we.”

Upstairs and across the building, Clinton is to meet with the press. Probably 200 reporters fill the press room. When Clinton enters, she does a genuine double take at the size of the press contingent. “Oh my goodness,” she says, “hi everybody.”

She is wearing a bright red Mandarin-style blouse and black pants. Behind me, a reporter whispers to a colleague: “Her butt isn’t as big as I thought it would be.”

Someone asks her if the nation would get a two-fer if she were elected, a combination of her own abilities plus the acumen of her husband, the former president.

“When Bill was in the White House,” she answers, “I would offer my opinion on things, like any spouse. Sometimes he took my advice, and sometimes he didn’t, and I think it would work the same way if the situation was reversed. I would value his opinion, and there’s no better messenger to the rest of the world than Bill.”

SOBERING REALITY<br />On Fifth Avenue, mere blocks from the convention, a homeless man—slumped in his wheelchair, covered by a dirty blanket—takes refuge in the entry of a vacant store.

Photo By Jaime O'Neill

And then the press conference is over, and it’s time for the hundred-yard dash back across the convention center for the avidly anticipated appearance of Clinton’s main challenger: Barack Obama. He enters to the soaring voice of Aretha Franklin, singing the words from the song “Think,” with the refrain that gives me goose bumps even as I type these words.

You better think (think) think about what you’re trying to do to me

Yeah, think (think, think), let your mind go, let yourself be free

Oh freedom (freedom), freedom (freedom), freedom, yeah freedom

Freedom (freedom), freedom (freedom), freedom, ooh freedom

And when the excitement settles enough to allow state Democratic Party Chairman Art Torres to introduce Obama to the still-cheering throng, a writer for a conservative Southern California paper standing near me says, “Geez, you’d think Torres was introducing God.”

Obama’s presence is electric. They say he’s like a rock star, but that cliché doesn’t quite fit. He embodies something other than celebrity and sex appeal. He embodies the promise of change, and it’s palpable. He walks with a kind of loping grace, and his smile is positively beatific. He carries in his slender chain-smoker’s body the message of what seems like historical imperative, a JFK for his time.

Addressing the delegates, Obama talks of his decision to run. “I prayed,” he says, “and then I talked it over with my wife. After consulting those two higher powers, I decided to make this run. I have a history of having strong women around me, and I take strength from them.”

And then he launches into his stump speech. “There is an awakening taking place in America today,” he says, “and it’s time to turn the page.”

The page he vows to turn is, first and foremost, the page that contains the war in Iraq, but he also vows to turn to a new page that would “show the world that America is still the last, best hope.”

He pledges to reach out to rebuild lines of respect and communication with the rest of the world: “Whether it’s terrorism or climate change, global AIDS, or the spread of weapons of mass destruction, America cannot meet the threats of this new century alone.”

Sen. Chris Dodd Dodd has the misfortune of looking like an old-line politician sent from central casting. And, though he is the father of two young children, marketing him as the candidate for youth and change would be a challenge for any ad campaign.

But image aside, Dodd brings a formidable résumé. As a former Peace Corps volunteer, he remains committed to the idea of young people from the U.S. working to improve conditions throughout the world.

“When John F. Kennedy conceived the program,” he says, “he envisioned a million former Peace Corps volunteers by this time.” Dodd would double the size of the Peace Corps. “Morocco and Jordan are the only two places in the Muslim world where there is a Peace Corps presence,” he says, and that leads him to a story about a trip he made to a base in Iraq with fellow Sen. John Kerry.

On that junket, Dodd and Kerry met Brian Freeman, a young Army captain, a graduate of West Point who came out of the shadows on the night the two senators landed at a base far from the safe green zone where so many politicians go to get their news and views.

“You need to know what’s going on here,” Freeman told them. “We go out, we come back, but there is no mission except to come back without getting killed.”

Not longer after their meeting, Capt. Freeman was captured, tortured and killed by Iraqi insurgents, Dodd tells the delegates, and he concludes the story by invoking the name of Gen. George Patton. “Patton would not have the American military locked in the middle of a civil war in Iraq,” he says.

Dennis Kucinich follows Dodd down in the main hall, the diminutive darling of the more militant Democratic activists who admire him for his consistently vocal outrage at the war in Iraq, and for his call for impeachment of both the president and the vice president. He thinks they are war criminals, and he surely could not find many who would disagree in this assembly.

NOTABLE CONVENTIONEERS<br />Rep. Maxine Waters (shown, with California Democratic Party Chairman Art Torres) ably plays the role of cheerleader, sparking responses similar to those for speeches by Hillary Clinton and Nancy Pelosi.

Photo By Karen O'Neill

Remember when there was a little media buzz a few years ago directed at finding a mate for Kucinich, who was being portrayed as “the lonely guy” of American politics? Well, since then he has done rather well for himself, with a new bride about half his age and twice his height. He positively beams when he looks at her, and with good reason. She’s a knockout.

Together, they take the stage to the strains of “I’ll Take You There,” by the Staples Singers. Though he is bubbling with energy, his speech seems a bit off in delivery, which I chalk up to exhaustion. Still, his appeal to the party’s most progressive elements is undeniable.

After the Kucinich speech, there’s just enough time to go back to the hotel and freshen up for that evening’s dinner with Nancy Pelosi.

The television news is like a parallel universe, with almost no attention given to the issues delegates have been hearing about all day. Little is said about poverty, the environment, health care, or education. Instead, the most pressing issue of the day seems to be Alec Baldwin’s angry phone message to his daughter, and speculations about whether Rosie O’Donnell will be leaving The View.

Back at the convention center, the dining room is filling up. If a big earthquake strikes this place, the elaborate web of the state Democratic political organization will be shredded.

All the movers and shakers are here—Gavin Newsom, mayor of San Francisco; Antonio Villaraigosa, mayor of L.A.; Fabian Nuñez, the up-and-coming young Latino speaker of the Assembly; Don Perata, president pro tempore of the state Senate, and dozens of other luminaries—all gathered to see Pelosi, the first woman to become speaker of the House of Representatives, the first Italian-American to attain that exalted post, and the first Californian to hold it as well.

She is introduced by Nuñez, who grew up poor in a barrio just a few blocks from the site of this gathering.

Pelosi is awarded a long standing ovation even before she begins to speak. Everyone is aware of what her ascendancy means to women, everyone is aware of her courage in taking on the Bush administration’s war policies, and everyone is aware of the nastiness of the hits she’s taken from the right.

“Whatever you think of this party,” she says, “it has been the source of more new ideas than any other force you can name.”

“Every day,” she says, “I repeat the phrase ‘Remember the one-in-five.’ “ One in five American children live in poverty, and it is the thought of those children that keeps her focused, that buoys her commitment to keep on keepin’ on.

Of Republicans, she says, “they are sooo yesterday. We are different from the Republicans, and we will make our difference known.”

She refers to the Latin inscription on the dollar bill, the phrase that translates to “a new order for the ages.” That is the vision America must reclaim for itself, she says.

And the evening draws to a close on that note.

Maxine Waters leads off Sunday morning, stirring delegates with the chant of “Not one more nickel, not one more dime, not one more soldier, not this time.” When she leaves the stage, the applause continues until she comes back for one last ovation, and Art Torres shouts into the microphone: “Now you know why I’ve been in love with her for 30 years.”

And then it’s John Edwards’ turn as he threads his way toward the podium, wrapped in the moving cocoon of a couple hundred supporters who guide him to the stage to the strains of the Foo Fighters’ song “Hero.”

The excitement is roughly equal to the fervor that greeted both Clinton and Obama the day before. Edwards, too, is hoarse, as Clinton was, but he is equally game, talking to the crowd about “the bleeding sore that is Iraq,” but leading off his speech with a flat-footed mea culpa: “I voted for this war,” he says, “and I was wrong. I am now speaking out with every fiber of my being to get our troops out.”

His speech ends with a thundering ovation from the crowd, and it seems a thankless task that Bill Richardson will have to follow it. But before Richardson is to speak, the Edwards campaign has made its candidate available to the press, so I make the hike across the convention center for that event.

Edwards is vain. It’s a small human failing, but it’s detectable. So what? But the Republican radar that hones in on small human failings is unerring, and if Edwards becomes the candidate, it’s certain that there will be attack ads showing him primping, or repeating the tale of the two $400 haircuts.

UPBEAT DOWN SOUTH<br />The North State contingent included 90-year-old Doris Smith, chairwoman of the Butte County Democratic Central Committee; party strategist Bob Mulholland, and former Assembly candidate Mickey Harrington.

Photo By Karen O'Neill

I get a question in about that at the packed press briefing.

“Senator,” I ask, “in view of your campaign theme about the ‘two Americas’ and the gulf between rich and poor, I wonder if you have any additional comment about the $400 haircut flap.”

He gives me a hard look before he answers.

“No,” he says, “I’ve said enough about that.”

I return to the main hall just as Richardson takes the podium. If he has a theme song, I didn’t get back in time to hear it.

Richardson is one of the best-qualified candidates in the primary field. He is the current governor of New Mexico, but he also served in Bill Clinton’s cabinet as secretary of energy, and as U.S. ambassador to the UN. Before that, he served in Congress from 1983 to 1997, so this is a guy who knows how things work—at the state, national, and global level. But his speech to the convention is boring, offering the same boilerplate positions already outlined by those who preceded him to this platform.

The speech is badly crafted, framed by the list of what he will do on his first day of office (bring the troops home from Iraq) and then the second day, and so on. By the time he reaches the fourth day of the Richardson administration, I fear he plans to lead us through every single day of a Richardson first term.

But in the press conference that follows, he is absolutely winning—charming, funny, self-deprecating. He jokes about phoning his mother to tell her that he’s running for president. “President of what?” she replied.

“I don’t even have my mother’s vote yet,” he jokes.

“But this decision shouldn’t be about which candidate is the biggest rock star, or who has raised the most money,” he says.

After a few questions, Richardson’s handlers try to get him out of the press room. There’s plane to catch, and the schedule is tight. But he is enjoying the interchange with reporters, and when his aide tries for the third time to get him to leave, he jokes, “I’m polling at 8 percent. I’ve gotta do better.”

He fields another question, then succumbs to the entreaties of his staff. As he leaves the room, I shake his hand and wish him luck.

Surely he will need it, as will any candidate emerging to take on the Republicans and then go on to repair the damage left behind by the Bush years.

Back in the hotel room, I prepare to leave while listening to Bob Dylan singing “The Times They Are a-Changin’ “ on television. It’s background music for a Kaiser Permanente commercial.

The cab driver who takes us to the airport is from Somalia, with a mother, a wife, and a wounded brother back in that war-torn and ravaged nation. All the world’s problems inevitably reach these shores, and all the world’s changes ultimately land in the Oval Office. The next person to occupy that office must surely do better than the current occupant. Of that fact, there can be little doubt.

Later that day, after the plane ride home, as I drive the road to Magalia, a song by Claudia Schmidt comes up on my CD player, sung by Laurie Lewis with her angel’s voice.

There is a darkness in the land. I seek the taste of hope There is a darkness in the land With more sorrow than we can stand But I say, hope lives in these quiet hills There is a darkness in my heart—the taste of hope is sweet There is a darkness in my heart, But I can feel the healing start And I say, hope lives in these quiet hills.

The song brings the convention weekend to a close like the soundtrack to a movie filled with heroes on a quest for better days.