Unconventional Politics 

Back-to-Back Party conclaves get the final act of election year 2008 under way.

Some 800-odd miles separate Denver, the mile-high city at the foot of the Rockies, from Minneapolis-St. Paul, a closer-to-sea-level urban clime located near the source of the Mississippi River. And in this political-mantra year of "change," only a weekend — and the specter of Hurricane Gustav — separated the nominating convention of the Democrats in Colorado from that of the Republicans in Minnesota.

The abruptness of the threat from Gustav quickened the descent of the national consciousness from the lofty rhetoric of Barack Obama, the Democrats' presidential nominee, to the more pedestrian style of John McCain, the Republican choice in 2008. As they say, however, it's an ill wind that blows nobody some good, and McCain, perhaps sensing both an opportunity and a call to service, put the business of his convention on a de facto hold and made for the danger zone, in tandem with his surprise vice-presidential choice, Alaska governor Sarah Palin.

That circumstance allowed McCain, who already owns a mantle of heroism from his years of military service and P.O.W. captivity in Vietnam, to look something like an acting president as he conferred with the governors of the hurricane-threatened states — all by coincidence Republicans. It also allowed him to wrest himself out from under the burden of what would have been first-night convention appearances by his party's widely unpopular president, George W. Bush, and vice president, Dick Cheney.

Gustav's high winds probably also blew away some of the lasting impact of Illinois senator Obama, whose inspiring oratory before 80,000 at Denver's Invesco Field had further exalted his personal saga as the first African American to become the nominee of a major party for president.

The reminder of natural disaster, coupled with a disastrous economy and a still-raging war in Iraq, also focused attention on the two men's choice of running mates. Obama, who had burst onto the national scene only in 2004 with a stunning keynote address at that year's Democratic convention, had opted for the tried-and-true Joe Biden, a senator from Delaware and a foreign-policy maven. The 73-year-old McCain's choice of the nationally unknown Palin was riskier but typical of a politician whose maverick tendencies have been suppressed during a year of strategic knuckling under to the GOP establishment he had once made a point of bucking.

The conventional wisdom was that McCain, in what still looks like a Democratic year at the polls, needed to work a minor miracle. Stress on the word "minor," because Obama's post-convention bump in the polls seemed to have been less than expected, and some samplings still had the candidates even as this week got under way.

Now McCain, who'll be delivering his own acceptance address on Thursday (Gustav permitting) has the chance to do some streaking in the polls, though no one expects him to be as eloquent or as soaring as Obama had been in Denver.

The reaction by Tennesseans in Denver to Obama's "now is the time" speech, which took on opponent McCain frontally and outlined some of the specifics of his platform, was telling:

"I cried. I couldn't help myself." That was the response of Lois DeBerry, the Memphian who serves as speaker pro tem of the Tennessee House of Representatives. DeBerry said she regarded Obama's remarks as "powerful and inspirational," the most moving of any acceptance address she could remember.

"I've known Obama for years, since he was a state senator, and we used to see each other at legislative seminars and that kind of thing," said DeBerry, adding that while she was surprised at the speed of Obama's ascendancy, she always had seen him as presidential material.

DeBerry said she had been with Obama since he proclaimed the beginning of his presidential campaign in February 2007.

But equally moved was fellow Memphian Gale Jones Carson, a newly installed Democratic National Committee woman from Tennessee, who originally had supported Obama rival Hillary Clinton for the presidency. "It was great," she said. "It will go down as one of the most magnificent addresses of all time."

Another Memphian, Desi Franklin, was struck by the fact that Obama's acceptance address was delivered to a throng of 80,000 at an outdoor stadium. "That puts it in the same historical class as JFK's," she said, referring to the acceptance address by then Senator John F. Kennedy at the Los Angeles Coliseum in 1960.

Delegate Bruce Shine of Kingsport agreed but threw in a note of caution about what several analysts refer to as the "Bradley effect," so named after early poll results in a California gubernatorial election of some years ago showed then Los Angeles mayor Tom Bradley, an African American, leading his opponent, who prevailed, however, on election day.

"I think you have to be cautious enough to discount at least 2 or 3 percent of whatever poll figure attaches to Obama," Shine said. "But there's no question he moved and inspired a lot of people, and also no question that he's already a large historical figure."

Almost as memorable as Obama's coming out to the watching world at large (more people saw his acceptance address than had tuned into the Olympics) were the previous appearances at the Denver convention by other leading Democrats.

There was Hillary Clinton's triumphant address of Tuesday night, the last of several leavetakings from a presidential contest she had come close to winning — making the phrase "18 million" (the number of those who had voted for her in the primaries) as familiar as any other uttered in the course of 2008.

And, on the next night, there was yet another hurrah from former president Bill Clinton, who had voiced the unstinting praise of Obama that was required of him (and that Hillary's gracious apostrophes to her conqueror on the night before had prefigured). And in laying it on equally thick for Obama's veep choice, Clinton was in effect making two concessions at once — it being widely known that he had lobbied hard to get wife Hillary that consolation prize.

"His first choice [of Biden] was a home run," Clinton said. It was a perfect grace note, and in exchange, the former president had a formal certificate of greatness conferred on him by the convention. The prolonged applause that greeted his appearance at the dais was the largest appreciation given anybody in Denver, and it brought the former president to unabashed tears. A fair trade, from Clinton's point of view.

Massachusetts senator John Kerry, the Democrats' ill-starred 2004 nominee, earned Best Supporting Actor on Wednesday night with an unwontedly impassioned performance in which he was able to excoriate Republican presidential nominee-to-be McCain for a series of purported flip-flops that rivaled his own alleged ones from the campaign of four ears ago. "Talk about being for something before being against it!" Kerry noted with evident relish about one of these, thereby exorcising one of the gaffes used against him in 2004.

And then there was Biden, Obama's vice-presidential pick, who — for all his Beltway prowess and frequent-flyer hours logged on Sunday-morning political talk shows — had up until now hovered just beneath the threshold of the national consciousness.

Not any longer: Biden's Horatio Alger-like story of hard-won success against a background of personal tragedy got a goodly workout from several other convention speakers before the Delaware senator himself took the dais to recapitulate his story, from birth in Scranton, Pennsylvania, and a hard-times working-class upbringing to his long career as Senate mainstay and foreign-policy maven.

The keystone of Biden's saga was an automobile accident which killed his first wife and his first-born daughter and seriously injured his two sons — all this happening just after his 1972 election to the Senate and before he had taken the oath of office. Others, including one of those sons, Beau, now the attorney general of Delaware, had described to the convention audience (and to the presumed millions of TV watchers elsewhere) the circumstances in such detail that Biden was able to restrict himself to a brief account of how he subsequently dedicated himself to the raising of his surviving sons and had to be persuaded to take his Senate seat.

Biden's persona, as well as his story, clearly resonated with his audience, and, when Obama himself made a surprise late appearance to embrace his running mate and to summon the extended families of both candidates onstage for an ensemble farewell, everything had been done that could be done to foreshadow the final act of this convention, that climactic acceptance address by Obama himself.

On Friday late, as the sparkle and glow from Thursday night's Obama-rama spectacular at Invesco Field was receding slightly to something like mortal dimensions, a group of Democratic stragglers from Tennessee were hanging out in the downstairs lounge of the Marriott Tech Center Hotel. They fell to talking about McCain's surprise choice of Palin as his vice-presidential running mate.

Two members of this tight little group were Will Cheek of Nashville, a former state party chairman and a Democrat's Democrat, and his equally committed wife Joan. Amid what was otherwise a self-congratulatory chorus of dismissal of Palin as a scandal-marred and ultra-conservative nonentity, Joan Cheek demurred.

At 44, she observed, Palin was quite literally a fresh face, not unattractive, and, behind those schoolmarm frames of the governor's glasses and underneath the hint of cascade in her brunette locks, Joan Cheek saw something else, a still resonant image from vintage popular culture.

"Wonder Woman!" she announced it, not with relish but with what appeared to be sober trepidation.

Yes, she's relatively inexperienced and maybe a little naive, but Democrats, for obvious reasons, have to walk gingerly on them there eggs. Anything that goes to signify Palin as an "empty-headed woman" will become that most treacherous of memes, the kind that boomerangs back onto its launchers and enables Palin to make inroads, however modest, with a feminist constituency that her pro-life beliefs and hard-right proclivities would otherwise preclude her from.

Wonder Woman, indeed. Joan Cheek is no sympathizer with Republicanism or credulous sucker for cartoon caricatures. She is a veteran of the entertainment industry who worked on the other side of the camera from the likes of Morgan Fairchild (who, incidentally, made a cameo appearance in Denver). Cheek has labored on the production end in Hollywood, where meme-making was first practiced and first perfected. What she sees in Palin is an image that could go either toward the banal or toward the heroic but on a giant Imax screen either way. Depending on the reviews and the audience response (and on the memers and counter-memers of either side), she could be leading lady or flop, in either instance transforming the history of the Republic.

Joan Cheek's fellow Democrats, like Palin's fellow Republicans and the rest of us, will just have to wait and see.

After the suspension of Monday's opening-day events was announced, national Republican Party chairman Rick Davis offered this cold consolation: "At some point between Monday and Thursday evening, we will convene once again to complete the activities needed to qualify Senator McCain and Governor Palin for the ballot in all 50 states. Beyond that, all we can say is that we will monitor what is happening and make decisions about other convention business as details become available."

Because of Hurricane Gustav and the rescue and responder efforts they have publicly committed themselves to, the Republicans gathered in Minnesota for their national nominating convention have stressed what everybody from McCain on down has called "taking off the Republican hat" and "putting on the American hat."

McCain's statements, of course, were issued from spots in the danger zone, where he, along with Palin, went as soon as the emergency began to develop. And all of the Republican governors of the states under siege by Gustav were down home on Monday, conspicuously — even ostentatiously — doing their jobs. And all of them save for Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal, who was said to be (and probably was) too busy, took time out to address the convention via video messages during the first actual delegate session at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul.

Governors Rick Perry of Texas, Bob Riley of Alabama, Haley Barbour of Mississippi, and Charlie Crist of Florida all reinforced the sense of nonpartisan mission by what they said and by the incidentals of how they said it. Perry did his stand-up while members of a task force team were visibly evacuating people from an aircraft behind him. Barbour wore a shirt emblazoned with the initials M.E.M.A. (for Mississippi Emergency Management Agency) and Crist posed outside with strong winds swaying the palm trees around him.

None of these good deeds or fine intentions managed to completely put aside the Republicans' ongoing combat with the opposition party, however. Nor, partisan politics being what it is, should they. There were clear signs all over that the delegates and attendees to this convention had rancor and contempt to spare for Democrats and other ideological opponents and were just biding their time before giving it full vent.

Robin Smith, the chairman of the Tennessee Republican Party, opened the first formal delegation breakfast Monday with an admonishment to the delegates and alternates and other Tennesseans that they give a cold shoulder to members of an anti-war, anti-administration veterans group which occupied several rooms in the same hotel, the Ramada Mall of America, as the delegation.

"Ignore them," she said, advising the faithful not even to look at the literature left around the hotel by the vets' group. One GOP insider privy to some maneuvering that had gone on behind the scenes, passed the word that action had been taken.

"You notice that most of them [the vets] aren't here any longer," he said, smiling in serious and secret satisfaction. "You got the hotel to turn them out?" he was asked. The only response was a deepening of the smile.

Although stragglers to the breakfast meeting had missed it, Smith claimed also to have run off would-be attendees from the Daily Kos blog, that online lynchpin of left-of-center sentiment.

The sense of being under siege was accentuated later when, as a chartered bus transported members of the Tennessee and Alaska delegations to the Xcel Center, a uniformed St. Paul policeman named Mike informed riders that there was potential trouble in the streets and that, if it developed, he would take over command of the vehicle.

Mike's wife, also a St. Paul police officer, had been called up on her day off for special duty, and she had passed on some alarming intelligence about demonstrators who might be encountered on the way to the arena. "They've got weapons and ..." pause "... bags of feces," Mike announced.

That sobering news took a few seconds sinking in.

"Damn Democrats!" someone said.

"Tell me about it!" Mike said.

Still later, a group of Memphis delegates, who had waited in vain for some promised box lunches at the Xcel Center, went foraging in search of food. Although signs had been posted indicating that a buffet site was nearby, none could be found, despite some determined searching. Finally, the Memphians arrived at a stand that sold hamburgers and the like but after they'd waited in a lengthy line, they could find no place to sit down with their fast-food booty.

Ultimately, they grouped around a tall-boy trash can, one that had a flat top and levered sides through which refuse could be dumped. They used the lid for an ad hoc tabletop and stood around the receptacle munching. A passerby came along, looked at the group and shook his head sympathetically.

"The accommodations in this place were set up by Democrats!" he declared.

That particular j'accuse might not have made sense, but it plainly did the man good to say it, and the exasperated GOP delegates he said it to just as obviously enjoyed hearing it.

Politics, like war, requires an enemy, and, for all the high-minded testimony on the convention's first day, it was a good bet that some good old catharctic mud-slinging was just around the corner.

And that would be from both corners, the Democrats, already on the attack against purported shortcomings in Palin's family life (despite admonitions from Obama himself not to go there) and the Republicans, where the ghost of Karl Rove is never very far away.

Editor's note: Check memphisflyer.com for continuing coverage of the Republican convention from Jackson Baker and Chris Davis.



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