The rafters of the Denver Pepsi Center are laden with biodegradable balloons; organic catered meals simmer over soy-fueled chafing dishes (no fried food allowed); and the podium is bathed in spotlights of magenta and baby blue.
Let the 2008 Democratic National Committee Convention begin.
The show didn't really start until late in the evening, with a roster of speakers that included Michelle Obama, Jesse Jackson Jr., and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, along with video tributes to former President Jimmy Carter and Senator Edward Kennedy.
That left the assembled reporters with little to actually report throughout the morning and afternoon. One of the National Journal's torrent of convention email updates conveyed the welcome news that the Pepsi Center practices "potty parity" – so no more long lines outside those ladies rooms. On a related note, another dispatch advised delegates (and not a few of their fellow journalists, no doubt) that the human body metabolizes alcohol more slowly up in Colorado's otherwise intoxicating heights, so getting drunk might take a little longer than usual.
Popular humorist James Lileks live blogged the convention's opening day as best he could. He watched "Katie Couric pick stuff out of her teeth" while people took cell phone pictures of Chris Matthews talking on a cell phone. Not to be outdone, Lileks gamely "took cell phone pictures of the people who took the pictures of Matthews."
The real action took place outside the Pepsi Center the previous afternoon, although the word "action" implies a liveliness and energy that the assembled obligatory far-Left protesters sorely lacked. For instance, the widely touted "Recreate ‘68" group had vowed to do just that: re-enact the notorious "police riot" that marred the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago. (During that event, which arguably cost the party the election, Yippies and hippies clashed with police, leaving 152 officers, at least 500 protesters and one high profile journalist – Dan Rather – superficially wounded.)
Fast forward to 2008. The 100,000 protesters Denver police had planned for failed to materialize. Instead, less than a thousand self-described anarchists, along with radical professor Ward Churchill, heckled, shoved, and harassed Fox News reporter Griff Jenkins but stopped short of punching him when state troopers stepped in. Then the usual suspects marched the streets of Denver under police guard, including minor antiwar celebrities Cindy Sheehan and Ron "Born On The Fourth Of July" Kovic. Less famous peaceniks included Green Party vice presidential candidate Rosa Clemente (who "chided the black and Latino media for ignoring her campaign") and Recreate '68 co-founder Mark Cohen, who called Barak Obama "part of the imperialist system." One Code Pinker huffed to the Washington Times that "these elections have sabotaged our peace actions."
Meanwhile, back indoors, protesters temporarily marred the DNC's first ever interfaith prayer meeting. Three hecklers, including notorious pro-life advocate Randall Terry, disrupted the assembly by shouting "Obama is a baby killer" before being escorted out of the Wells Fargo Theater.
Featured speakers included Sister Helen Prejean, whose story was told in the anti-death penalty film Dead Man Walking, and Dr. Ingrid Mattson, a Muslim convert and president of the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA). Robert Spencer of JihadWatch.com, among others, questioned the choice of Mattson as the meeting's mandatory Muslim speaker. Frank Gaffney of the Center for Security Policy points out that Mattson denies the existence of terrorist sleeper cells on U.S. soil while heading up the program that credentials Muslim prison and military chaplains.
While Senator Hillary Clinton called for unity at this afternoon's Hispanic Caucus, Presidential nominee Barack Obama sent a message to the Lesbian/Gay/Bisexual/Transgender Caucus, thanking them for making the party "immeasurably stronger" and calling their support "crucial" to a Democratic win in November. Rep. Patrick Kennedy then addressed the convention's Recovery Caucus, made up of recovering drug and alcohol addicts.
The convention proper finally got underway at 5PM EST, when Party Chairman Howard Dean banged the gavel. Like the woman who led the invocation immediately afterwards, Dean praised his party as proudly "diverse" and "inclusive"; true or not, the party at that moment was also mostly invisible – panning cameras revealed mostly empty seats, with assembled reporters taking up the best spots up front alongside and a handful of eccentrically dressed middle aged and elderly women of the sort usually spotted at cat shows.
Three hours later, Dean handed the gavel over to Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi. While enthusiastic endorsing Barack Obama, Pelosi devoted much of her extremely long address to recalling Hillary Clinton's "historic campaign." The assembled delegates milled about loudly, indifferent to the historic figure giving the speech.
However, the crowd came to attention during a video presentation featuring Jimmy Carter, praising his own efforts at helping rebuild neighborhoods ravaged by Hurricane Katrina. Carter's voice-over emphasized the need for federal government intervention in such circumstances, as well as virtually all aspects of American life.
Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. took the podium next, to deliver a polished, enthusiastically received Obama-centric speech which demonstrated that he'd inherited his father's speaking ability without Senior's cloying affectations.
Again and again throughout the day, pundits and party insider had promised that after the evening's video tribute to ailing party patriarch Senator Edward Kennedy, directed by acclaimed filmmaker Ken Burns (The Civil War, Jazz), there wouldn't "be a dry eye in the house."
Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg, the daughter of late president John F. Kennedy, stepped behind the podium at 9:15 to introduce the film about "Uncle Teddy." "I've never had someone inspire me the way people tell me my father inspired me, until now," Kennedy said. "His name is Barack Obama."
Without a hint of irony, the film began with shots of waves crashing on a beach, and Kennedy himself describing the sea as life-giving. This was followed by footage of Kennedy's speeches calling health care (including, presumably, emergency trauma treatment after automobile accidents) not a privilege, but the right of every person. Democratic pundits' jibes throughout the week about John McCain's inability to remember how many houses he owned rang slightly hollow in view of shot after lovingly composed shot of Kennedy's opulent sail boat.
Contrary to earlier reports, the Senator himself took the stage after the film to thundering applause, looking remarkably hardy. He called on his fellow Democrats "to change America and restore its future ideals." Barack Obama, he vowed, will break the old bonds of "group against group and straight against gay." As with the film itself, Kennedy's address harkened back again and again to his late brothers' memorable words and achievements. It was the same oratory he has thundered for his entire career: a left-wing agenda delivered with gusto, wrapped in his brothers' memories. Knowing the subtext of his own health struggles, it is undeniable the Senator showed great personal strength by making it to the Convention to give such a powerful speech.
Michelle Obama's greatly anticipated speech began at 10:30. In light of her notorious statement in February that she'd only felt proud of her country once her husband began his campaign for the Democratic nomination, Michelle Obama was under pressure to soften her image. Her highly personal speech on Monday night focused on family, "values" and the "American dream," as well as stressing her family's "working class background." She also made sure to state that she loved her country. One paragraph in particular will likely garner the attention of conservative commentators:
And in my own life, in my own small way, I've tried to give back to this country that has given me so much. That's why I left a job at a law firm for a career in public service, working to empower young people to volunteer in their communities.
Michelle Obama neglected to mention that she is now a hospital vice president whose salary was tripled last year, to the tune of more than $300,000. What a sacrifice for the children.
Overall, the irony of the convention's opening night, and Obama's campaign itself, is the odd juxtaposition of "progressives" touting "nuance" and "new and original ideas" while repeating the same two simple words over and over for hours: "hope" and "change." It also remains questionable whether self-congratulation and nurturing a cult of personality alone can provide American leadership. Indeed, with a resurgent, aggressive Russia, a foreseeable victory in Iraq opposed by much of the Congressional leadership, a regrouping al-Qaeda and Taliban in Pakistan, and an underlying energy crisis, it remains to be seen if Americans will want social workers who pride themselves on their compassion and on loving their families to occupy the White House, instead of politicians with executive and foreign policy experience.
In the end, Michelle Obama did not disappoint her admirers. She gave an impressive performance, revealing that she is a very capable and charismatic speaker. Her presence on the podium also served as a meaningful reminder of the American Dream itself, showing how African-Americans have been able to engage in political and social upward mobility within the egalitarian paradigms of American society. In the end, it is that reality that her speech underscores, and which undermines the key leitmotif of her party: America is a great country, where anyone regardless of color, sex, or economic status, can reach as far as his or her abilities will take him.