12:40 p.m.: Waiting around at LaGuardia Airport, I see a middle-aged guy—the sort of man who has made peace with losing half his hair by shaving off the rest—wearing a blue “Obama” shirt, with the letters, all capitals, printed in red. It occurs to me that everyone on my plane must be going to the convention. It’s nonstop to Denver, arriving at 12:48, just in time to check in, shower, get one’s credentials, and not miss any of the action. But apart from the Obama guy, I see little evidence of excitement for the convention.
On the plane, I sit next to a man with a bag that has the seal of New Haven, Connecticut and the name John DeStefano, Jr. embroidered on it. This is the name of the New Haven’s mayor, but I don’t know if it’s the mayor himself or an aide. Would the mayor fly coach? Maybe; a few weeks ago, I was on a flight with Missouri Senator Claire McCaskill, who almost certainly precedes the mayor of New Haven in the order of succession to the presidency in the event of a nuclear attack. I should ask the gentleman if he’s the mayor of New Haven, but reticence gets the better of me. (This is why I chose not to become a reporter.) At one point we discuss his airplane reading—Drew Westen’s book, The Political Brain, about how Democrats can use new “insights” into human psychology (supposedly derived neuroscience) to win elections. He offers me a summary that stresses the different levels of political appeal—values, then principles, then issues—and notes the importance of speaking to people in a language of values. This was the dominant conventional wisdom used to explain Ronald Reagan’s success 25 years ago. I resist the temptation to suggest that the reason Democrats are finally winning isn’t because of Westen, or George Lakoff, a cognitive linguist who wrote The Political Mind, or Mara Vanderslice, that creepy woman who gets paid oodles of money to tell Democrats to inject even more religiosity into the public discourse. The reason is that Bush and the conservative movement have made a complete hash of things, and that even if you’re not on the left, it makes sense to move to the center.
I have brought along Norman Mailer’s Miami and the Siege of Chicago. Paul Berman wrote a brilliant little essay about it in the New York Times Book Review the other day, and it seems a logical choice to tote around as one’s companion. The problem with reading Mailer, however, is that even when Mailer’s writing is terrible, as it can be in this book, it’s still great writing—it bears his unmistakable imprint. If Mailer tried to write under a pseudonym, Donald Foster of Vassar College would unmask him in an instant. Confronting such distinctive and memorable prose can have a chilling effect on one’s own writing, to say nothing of the larger-than-life drama of Chicago ’68 that he reported on in his own self-centered but revealing way.
But some echoes of 1968 rumble around in my head as I think about Denver. Given how much farce there was then—Mailer writes of running into Allen Ginsberg, Terry Southern, Jean Genet, and William S. Burroughs in Lincoln Park at midnight—it doesn’t quite work to read the drama of this year’s riven Democratic party through the lens of Karl Marx’s dictum-turned-cliché about history. But there are, if not repetitions, rhymes: the war; the Democrats’ ambivalent relationship with a self-proclaimed “movement”; the feeling of uneasiness about what the fall will bring.
Moreover, this morning’s New York Times bears, under the unremarkable headline, “Delegates Will Switch to Obama, Poll Shows,” some contradictory signals. While the Times notes more than eight in ten delegates described themselves as enthusiastic about Obama, the fact that two in ten are not strikes me as worrisome. (The Times didn’t say whether such percentages were, as a historical matter, high or low, and I haven’t been able to check.) A poll released last night by CNN showed that the number of former Hillary Clinton supporters planning to vote for John McCain has actually increased since Obama chose Delaware Senator Joe Biden as his running mate—suggesting that Obama erred badly in allowing his veep-selection process to drag out. The extended teasing led many people, including Hillary’s supporters—who like everyone else had by mid-August considered her out of the running—to conclude that Obama wouldn’t be drawing it out unless he planned to thrill the political world by choosing her. When he didn’t, people were disappointed all over again—as they would not have been had he made the choice a week or two earlier.
All of which raises concern about whether Obama really will be able to bring the Clinton voters—an alliance of feminists, Jews, seniors, Hispanics, and downscale white workers—back into the fold. The answer could determine the outcome in November.