4:30 p.m. (Mountain Time): The Cherry Creek Hotel, where I am staying, is a lot farther from downtown Denver than it looks on the map. The place is rather desolate at this hour. Maybe everyone’s gone to the arena (I refuse to call it the “Pepsi Center”). Then, all of a sudden, into the lobby walks Pat Buchanan. We begin to chat and I remind him that he sent me a nice note when my book on Nixon came out a few years ago. He feigns memory of it in a friendly way. Buchanan’s reputation has always been as a nice guy, at least according to many people I know who’ve dealt with him. When I let him know that I left full-time journalism many years ago to become a historian, he tells me with a broad smile to read his new book, Churchill, Hitler and the Unnecessary War. This only underscores that temperament and politics have nothing to do with each other: fascists can be delightfully gracious and the noblest liberals can be real creeps.
5:50 p.m.: I’ve arrived at the arena. I’ve been to only one convention before, in 1996, and just about my only memories of it are Al Gore’s speech about his sister’s lung cancer and Bill Clinton and “the bridge to the twenty-first century.” So although I’ve seen the workings of a convention before, it’s still eye-opening to me. I’m struck all over again by how much of the behind-the-scenes activity never gets reported, even in an age of the all-intrusive camera and 24/7 coverage. Presumably it’s old hat to the political reporters, deemed not deserving of comment, and only exciting to first-timers. But still, since most news readers and audiences have never been to a convention, wouldn’t it be of some interest to them to have some of the detail reported?
The mood is a mix of excitement about the convention beginning and boredom over the wait until the night’s main events (speeches by Ted Kennedy and Michelle Obama). Until then, there is the swirl of people, some in search of the A list parties, the celebrities, and the pseudo-celebrities; in making the rounds, I see throngs of people—and cameramen, many of whom seem to be professionals—inexplicably enthralled by sightings of Dennis Kucinich or Bill Maher. But many seem happy just to meet up with old friends. In this sense, it is no different from the attendees at a convention of historians or orthodontists or Peace Corps veterans. Also in the air is the vaguely Orwellian feeling of enforcing a party line; I step into the men’s room and hear Barack Obama’s ghostly voice talking about community organizing from unseen loudspeakers, a continual propaganda soundtrack. There is the rush and crush of reporters and cameras and security people and food vendors—so numerous that they seem to outnumber the delegates themselves. One gets the feeling of a huge machine, an industry; the commercial motives of the week are suddenly as evident as the philosophical and political purposes.
Going into the hall itself, I have the distinct feeling of having arrived at a party too early. On the big screen, Nancy Pelosi’s face is shown in close-up, and on TV I can imagine a home viewer thinking the audience inside the hall must be rapt. They’re anything but. The proverbial dull roar permeates the room, punctuated by wan cheers. The action is still in the hallways: delegates wolfing down $6.00 slices of pizza; newcomers scoping out the place and the people; some people even leaving the premises, presumably to return when it heats up. And yet the speaker of the house, a major figure in the party (albeit a less-than-electrifying orator) is on stage, and barely anyone seems to care. Are people watching on the cable news channels? On C-SPAN? Whom is this spectacle for?
7:30 p.m.: The place has come alive with a video tribute to Ted Kennedy and his appearance before the delegates. Until the other day, he wasn’t expected to speak. We’ve had few reports on the state of his health since his brain surgery months ago. Kennedy has clearly lost a step, speaking a bit more haltingly than usual. This talk doesn’t match his 1980 “the dream shall never die” address. But for that reason, too, it is stirring. It’s not quite a lion-in-winter moment, for Kennedy seems too healthy, but it does gives the narrative of fulfilling a long-deferred promise a sense of urgency. Shouldn’t we have national health care in Ted Kennedy’s lifetime?