4:30 p.m. : I just checked out the press section at Mile High Stadium, where tonight’s events will be. At the arena, the press section had a somewhat obstructed view but you could work there and at least see the speaker from the back. But the Mile High section is ridiculous. I can’t see a thing, and there’s nowhere to plug in. I decide to go in search of better seats with a college buddy who’s here as a guest of his state’s delegation.
5:20 p.m.: My friend has access to a prime location (if sort of high up, on the third tier of a five-tier stadium). He goes in and after failing to talk my way in, I adopt the strategy of simply looking self-assured and walking fast, and moments later, I wind up in a similarly choice location. The problem is, I’m in Box 310 and my friend’s in Box 307 and he has no seats saved for me and I can’t reach him to tell him to come to my box.
The sense of excitement throughout the stadium suggests—at least at this moment and to this crowd—that the decision to hold the final night’s festivities at such a grand venue was not in the end a mistake. Initially, there were worries. My own concern was rooted in my memory of my first (and only) Rolling Stones concert, which was something of a disappointment because I viewed it from the fifth tier of a football stadium. Everything looked small, the sound was bad, and it lacked any sense of intimacy. Barack Obama has talent and charisma, but not necessarily more than Mick Jagger.
Then there was the fear that it would play into the narrative of “The One,” the messianic strain in Obama—the idea that he and his enthusiasts consider this a cult of personality. The implication that what was good enough for all other nominees save JFK and FDR isn’t good enough for Obama is bound to play poorly in the news media. The construction of a set with ersatz Roman columns and pilasters didn’t help either. (Of course, as the press is now routinely noting, Bush used a similar set in 2004, although he didn’t make that choice amid attacks on his grandiosity.) But in the warm afternoon air, with a full crowd that seems far more excited than the arena audiences seemed at a comparable hour Monday or Tuesday, the mood is more one of innocent excitement than unearned grandiosity.
As I write this, however, the recording artist known as will.i.am has come out on the stage to sing the mawkish, cloying pop ode to Obama, “Yes We Can”–the one that succeeded in inducing millions of teenagers to beg their parents to vote for Obama, even as it drove older voters into Hillary’s camp. It would be a shame if, after all Bill and Hillary Clinton did the last two nights to urge their supporters to support Obama, Obama’s stage managers bungled tonight with the sort of schmaltzy and alienating idealism that contributed to the rift in the first place.
6:55 p.m.: Al Gore’s on. I’m very impressed that he’s giving more than just a routine political speech. It’s a serious call to arms about the “planetary emergency,” the issue clearly dear to his heart. After he lost in 2000, I remember all manner of pundits saying that he should have dropped the crafted speech and let it rip with the issues about which he felt most passionate. He’s devoting plenty of the speech to singing Obama’s praises, but he’s to be credited for delivering—as both of the Clintons but too few others did at this convention—a speech that sounds as if it is one he believes.
7:30 p.m.: The sun is setting, and it has the effect of the lights coming down. Inside, they suddenly shut down the concession stands. I can only infer that they are doing this because too many people are milling about and eating and there are too many empty seats in the television wide shots.
Now the “ordinary citizens” from the swing states are on parade. These moments always remind me of the Olympics, and the way in recent years it’s been turned from an athletic competition into an opportunity to present Hallmark-style stories of triumph over adversity. I love the irony. These people on display are not professional politicians, and yet their remarks feel even more canned and meaningless than the pols’; they are unfortunate conscripts in a political battle, sent to the front lines without proper training, forced to confess their personal trials before a voyeuristic public.
7:40 p.m.: I take it back. The last two of these speakers have been terrific. Barney Smith brought the house down. He was, I said to the guys sitting next to me, a character straight out of The Simpsons. Or maybe I should revise that: This is, after all, Barack Obama’s reality show and these are characters from Survivor. The Obama operators must have vetted dozens of these folks to find such a great haul. Kind of makes you believe in the grassroots. His line about needing to care more about Barney Smith instead of Smith Barney sends the crowd into a roar of delight. (Chiasmus—gets ’em every time!) I am tempted to start a chant of “Barney! Barney!”—and not two minutes later a crowd in the next section over does just that.
Jonathan Alter of Newsweek, to my surprise, shows up looking for a seat. He agrees with me that these are better than the press section, although I imagine he must have had better press access than I. He and I have met a few times in the past and we reacquaint. I give him my friend’s seat, since I’m now convinced my friend will be stuck in Box 307.
1:50 a.m.: I had to fold up the laptop once Obama came on, and then one thing led to another, and I am only now reopening it. As with last night, I’m not going to try to punditize; I’m guessing readers have, by now, heard plenty of instant analysis of Obama’s speech.
But one tidbit worth sharing: After the convention adjourned, our boxes exited into a lounge where food was being set up. My college friend and I met up only to discover that we were in the middle of some kind of high-rollers party—with my friend having heard that Obama was going to make an appearance. With my ticket to the Vanity Fair/Google party having failed to materialize, this was welcome compensation.
Indeed, the Obamas, after an interval, did show up—seeming rather like the bridal couple at a Jewish wedding returning from their moment of seclusion following the ceremony and before the party. He gave another (much shorter) speech. It was a different Obama. He knew he’d made a great speech. He was exhausted. But he was also deeply worried about the fall campaign and made it clear that he wasn’t taking anything for granted—almost begging the crowd to redouble their efforts because it was going to be tough. In short, he was not nearly as confident as he sounded in public.