Show Starters

Cautiously optimistic, the Democrats convene to get their act together.

Posted by Jackson Baker on Fri, Jul 30, 2004 at 4:00 AM

BOSTON -- So there is justice in the world, after all. Or something that Democrats, local as well as national, would be inclined to use that word for, anyhow. Consider:

n Al Gore, the former vice president who many people (including virtually all card-carrying Democrats) think actually won the 2000 presidential election, got an ovation befitting an incumbent Monday evening as he served as the first prime-time speaker of this year's Democratic National Convention.

n John Tanner, the 8th District Democratic congressman from Union County, got his own standing ovation Tuesday for being -- as Shelby County party chairman Kathryn Bowers put it at a luncheon of the Tennessee delegation -- "the only congressman that would talk to Michael Moore." (Tanner was one of the congressmen ambush-interviewed by filmmaker Moore in Fahrenheit 9/11.)

n A young Memphian named Michael Negron got to address the convention as the winner of a national youth essay contest sponsored by the DNC.

n Add one more: Massachusetts senator John Kerry, who is set up to become the party's formal nominee later in the week, was given enough distance by the schedule-makers to avoid unfavorable comparisons with the first night's show-stopper, former President Bill Clinton.

All in all, Kerry -- who, according to some polls, had actually been losing ground of late to the Republicans' main man, President Bush -- remained the big question mark for a Democratic Party that convened in Boston with a palpable optimism, a heady sort that was scarcely affected by the city's unprecedented security precautions.

Even getting to and from the Fleet Center, the right fancy (if somewhat small) arena where the convention is being held, is no piece of cake for the horde of delegates, alternates, journalists, and rubberneckers who have converged on Boston. Anyone entering the arena must pass through multiple checkpoints and deal with an abundance of pocket searches and scanning moments.

Although some civil libertarians were scandalized by the degree of close supervision by local, state, and federal authorities (there were uniformed personnel from every imaginable jurisdiction on every street corner, it seemed), there has been an obvious and even eerie appropriateness to some of it.

The first checkpoint for all entrants into the Fleet arena on Monday took them by a fenced-in pen where the Rev. Fred Phelps of Topeka, Kansas, a self-proclaimed prophet and gay-basher, held forth with his flock brandishing such signs as "God Hates Fags," spewing venom at Kerry and running mate John Edwards, and singing "America" with such amended lyrics as "God show his wrath on thee."

Hurling imprecations of various kinds nonstop from his de facto cage, Phelps also made it clear that the tragedy of 9/11 -- the terrorist horror that was the proximate cause of the in-depth security -- was just what "this evil nation" had coming to it.

Serious precautions were also observable at the preliminary event that many of the visitors regarded as on a scale with the convention itself: namely, the weekend Red Sox-Yankees series at Fenway Park, won by the Sox two out of three over their traditional rivals from New York, where the adversary GOP will conduct its nominating rites next month.

As if to prefigure the political combats to come, all three games -- watched by a who's who of Democratic office-holders -- were closely contested slugfests that weren't decided until the last out. The second of them, an 11-10 game won by Boston with a walk-off home run, featured a bench-clearing brawl.

Hard as tickets were to come by for these spectacles, Memphis state senator Steve Cohen (a Yankee fan, it should be said) was handed a freebie outside Fenway for Sunday's finale. The reason? Cohen's Kerry-Edwards pin, which happened to match the politics of a kindly scalper.

Another attendee at that game was businessman Pace Cooper, who, with fellow Memphian Jason Yarbro in tow, was not so lucky but was willing to fork over the premium rates demanded by most scalpers. "After all, we're here, and this is going on, so why not?" was Cooper's thinking.

If the show inside the Fleet Center turns out to be as good as the games were, Cooper, Cohen, and the several thousand other Democrats gathered here will get good value for their money, time, and inconvenience. Clinton's Monday-night stem-winder which contained the memorable line, "Strength and wisdom are not opposing values," was good theater and not bad as exhortation either.

Advance word had been that Monday night's heavyweight Democratic speakers -- Gore, former President Jimmy Carter, and Senator Hillary Clinton of New York, as well as her husband -- had been advised to go light on the Bush-bashing, but criticism from all of them, especially concerning the president's conduct of the war in Iraq, was reasonably stout.

Carter's was perhaps the most stinging, all the more so for being uttered in the characteristically soft-spoken drawl of the former president, now almost 80. Said Carter, "The United States has alienated its allies, dismayed its friends and inadvertently gratified its enemies by proclaiming a confused and disturbing strategy of 'preemptive' war. With our allies disunited, the world resenting us, and the Middle East ablaze, we need John Kerry to restore life to the global war against terrorism."

Arguably, the most poignant moment Monday night came when Gore asked rhetorically if those "third-party" (read Nader) voters who may have deserted Democratic ranks in 2000 still thought there had been "no difference" between the candidates and parties four years ago, when the election was so close between himself and Bush as to necessitate a month's worth of chad-counting in the disputed state of Florida.

"Take it from me," Gore said with evident irony, "every vote counts and let's make sure that this time every vote is counted."

Presumably that will be the case, and the course of events in Boston this week will have a decided impact on which way that count will go.

Meanwhile, the world goes on in its appointed orbit. U.S. representative Harold Ford Jr. of Memphis -- 2000's convention keynoter and a scheduled convention speaker for later in the week -- had a well-attended party for delegates, while the congressman's father, former U.S. representative Harold Ford Sr., was on hand also, along with son Jake, who was involved in a well-publicized wrestling episode two weeks ago in Memphis but smiled civilly and even beatifically Monday night, even during the most stirring rhetorical passages.

Jimmy Naifeh of Covington, speaker of the Tennessee House, meanwhile was keeping things in perspective. "It's raining in Memphis," Naifeh said happily Tuesday morning on the elevator at the Cambridge hotel where the Tennessee delegation is staying. That was good news for his plants, the speaker, a resident of Tipton County, noted with satisfaction.

The remainder of the week will determine whether John Kerry can be a rainmaker and scare up a storm for George W. Bush et al. to worry about. We'll be there and will let you know in detail next week how it came out. n

(For more Democratic convention coverage, see our convention blog at MemphisFlyer.com.)

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