Convention Diary: Boilerplate Speechwriting, The Tsuris over Unity

Convention Diary: Boilerplate Speechwriting, The Tsuris over Unity

DNC Diary: The Tsuris over Unity

9:45 a.m.: Jogging on the treadmill in the hotel fitness room, I watched CNN. Since I’ve arrived in Denver, I’ve watched very little TV and spent surprisingly little time on the Web; there’s real-life interaction to be had. (Although it should be added that the barrage of the cable news channels is there for those who want to heed it—in every media tent, in the arena itself, in bars and restaurants and hotel lobbies.)

Several journalist friends and I have discussed over the last day whether being at the convention places you closer to the action or farther away. On the one hand, you can witness news as it happens, engage in face-to-face discussions, and make judgments for yourself, and that makes you feel as if you’ve arrived at your own autonomous opinions—getting a better purchase on how things really are. On the other hand, you miss the far more common experience of the millions of people who experience political life primarily through the media—and to appreciate how everyone else is likely to be viewing the convention, it is perhaps important to know what David Gergen is saying.

There are some similarities, though. Around Denver, for last night and this morning, the questions “So?” or “What do you think?” meant, “What did you think about Hillary’s speech?” And on CNN, the talk was almost entirely about the same question. And in both instances, the general consensus was that it was a great speech—the first one all week that truly electrified the audience, a deserved tribute, and a sincere effort to explain to her supporters the stakes of not getting behind Obama.

12:00 p.m.: After picking up my credentials for the day, I walk downtown along Denver’s 16th Street pedestrian mall. A huge mob of people is swarming around the entrance to a restaurant, many of them with their digital cameras aloft, some craning their necks, others on tiptoe. “Who are you all waiting for?” I ask one woman. “I don’t know,” she replied. “A celebrity!”

5:30 p.m.: A peripatetic journalist needs a place to eventually park himself. As a contributing editor at Slate, I’ve been using its spots in the media tent, which happen to be within the Washington Post’s spacious alcove, which happens to be well provisioned with such necessities as notebooks, Diet Coke, and Advil. Across the way is another alcove that’s essentially a feeding station for journalists, serving up the kind of food that’s fine for college students and happy hours but doesn’t quite add up to a meal (lunch: cheese cubes and crudités; dinner: Swedish meatballs and nachos).

My other perch is inside the hall, at the writing stations for the periodical press. I’ve been parked next to a correspondent for a distinguished weekly and we’ve been passing the time during the preliminary speeches with wisecracks about the numbing boilerplate. Tonight I got in early, because Clinton is speaking and that means both a full hall and a Secret Service sweep that required barring the doors at 6:15.

At my writing station there is a thick sheaf of nearly identical one- and two-page transcripts, all with the header “EMBRARGOED FOR RELEASE ON DELIVERY.” They are the interchangeable speeches to be delivered by a string of politicians, all to be dutifully read off teleprompters. At times, the deadening hand of the strategists—the reduction of real-life problems to readymade clichés ripe for opportunistic deployment—reaches comic proportion. Example: On last night’s list of speakers, one of the “ordinary people” allotted a few minutes to tell her story was identified as “laid off textile worker with huge medical bills.” Res ipsa loquitur.

7:55 p.m.: I’ve been trying in these missives to describe the local color, which rarely comes through from the professionals’ reporting, and to avoid punditry, of which there is more than enough a mouse click away. But two thoughts occur to me that I haven’t seen the columnists yet make. The first is about Bill Clinton’s assured and assuring speech: he was publicly extending an offer to Obama—offering a theme for the fall campaign that goes beyond hope and change. It is the phrase he repeated twice: the job of the next president is to rebuild the American Dream and restore America’s leadership in the world. Obama has been searching for a way to talk about the challenges and his candidacy’s purpose that neither descends into policy laundry lists nor dissipates into ethereal word poems. Clinton provided it.

The second observation is that there has been a lot of talk among journalists here, especially those of us who are publicly or privately sympathetic to the Democrats, about the anxiety hanging over this event: the tightening poll numbers in the last two weeks; the remaining resistance of many Clinton supporters to support Obama; the unseemly hostility toward the Clintons and their supporters held by so many Obama-ites. It occurs to me it would have been much better to put Bill and Hillary both on Monday night and let that night be a tribute to the Clintons. Then the whole tsuris over the “unity” question would have been swiftly put to rest, and there would be three days for Obama, instead of one.