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Dispatches from Denver

Day One: Isn’t She Lovely?

For a mere voter-observer, it was frustrating to watch the over-determined and utterly predictable spectacle that is the party’s nominating convention lumber to life tonight in Denver. Our excitement at Barack Obama’s rise, from his incandescent keynote speech at this convention four years ago, to his unlikely early victories and impossible triumph in the interminable primary, led us to believe that something, everything, had changed, and that perhaps even this hapless ritual might be transformed into a better version of itself. But it was not to be, at least not yet. Just as the opening ceremonies of the Bejing Olympics went all North Korea on us despite extraordinary individual feats, the first night of the Democratic National Convention insisted on flogging us with Ken Burns without realizing that it had everything it needed in Malia and Sasha Obama.

Photography: Jon Winet and Allen Spore.  The Electoral College,
Photography: Jon Winet and Allen Spore. The Electoral College,

Something felt wrong from the beginning; not just the self-conscious mawkishness, but something deeper, lurking under the dead end of identity politics. It was as if the worst tendencies of the 1980s had come out to make one last attempt to stifle the future. Race vs. gender. And the hall was haunted by other specters of past presidential failures: Ted Kennedy, Michael Dukakis, Howard Dean, John Kerry, Howard Dean. I’m sure we’ll see Al Gore soon. There is something inside American liberalism that forgives too much and gives up too soon. A compensatory, defensive liberalism that refuses to win. Is the Obama campaign a real political movement, or just another empty promise? Having gotten our attention, will Obama Democrats, like their predecessors over the last 30 years, find a way to lose?

This time, the stakes are just too high. Barack and Michelle Obama realize this. They are real leaders, not empty vessels that must be filled up with platitudes, and tonight showed that the Democratic establishment hasn’t yet figured that out. Watching Michelle Obama give that speech was like watching a great miler run through tapioca. I think she came through anyway, but why put your best through that?

If American voters again decide that they want someone in the White House who appeals to their worst selves, who they can feel “comfortable” with, the Obamas will lose. But if they agree with Michelle Obama that “the world as it is just won’t do,” then this spectacle is just a distraction. In his speech at the convention in 2004, Barack Obama invoked “the true genius of America” without irony or cant. If that genius survives, it needs to rise now, and push aside the party faithful. “We are the ones we have been waiting for.”

Filed Monday, August 25, 2008, after the first night of the Democratic National Convention.

Day Two: The Fallen

The principal drama of the conventions is the relation between the press and the politicians. This entire spectacle is built for and caters to the media and the media cannot get enough of it. This year Wolf Blitzer and CNN have set themselves up in the middle of everything, right down on the floor rather than suspended above it. CNN pundits James Carville, et al. wear black Madonna headpiece mics so that they can hear themselves and each other above the din. They look like astronauts in New Guinea.

After eight years of Bush/Cheney-style bunker mentality and press blackout, the conventions are orgies of access, and the MSM is bleary-eyed and gooey with the surfeit.

Last night, the stage belonged to the Clintons, and they showed (if anyone remained unconvinced) just how masterful they are at this kind of stagecraft. Chelsea introduced her mother with a film that almost managed to make Hillary look hip, and Hillary gave the best televised speech of her life, artfully intercut with close-ups of weeping women delegates and extreme close-ups and reaction shots of Bill Clinton (often even in splitscreen) laughing, loving, earnestly rapt, and tearful. The words said “Vote for Obama,” but the images said “Look you now upon the President and First Gentleman who could and should have been, and weep.”

Filed on Wednesday, August 27, 2008, after the second night of the convention.

Day Three: The Machine

I’m writing to you from inside a machine for producing words and images. If anything happens here at the Pepsi Center that is not recorded, it is a wasted act, a kind of sin. Everyone here is divided into use-groups, indicated by the colored tags hanging from their necks. Security forces check the tags constantly to insure compliance.

First, there are the Politicians, the stars, the reason we’re all here. Some of them are so important that they don’t even wear tags. Their images are so ubiquitous and recognizable that they transcend the need for secondary identification.

Next comes the Designated Crowd, also called delegates. Their job is to dress extravagantly and react enthusiastically to everything the Politicians do. They must act as if they’re on-camera at all times, even in the most supposedly private of moments, because when you become part of the Designated Crowd, you sacrifice your identity and image to the greater Image.

The Press is here to record and interpret every act and gesture of the Politicians and the Designated Crowd. The Press is divided into Word People and Image People, and in this setting, the Image People have the upper hand. The Press is also divided into the Mainstream Media and the Bloggers. The MSM have whole buildings (called Media Pavilions) dedicated to their every need or want. They have lounges and cafes and bars. And they have degrees of unlimited access. Some of them have such recognizable images that they have themselves become stars: Wolf, Anderson, Katie, Cokie, Matt. One sees them on the Floor, perfect and motionless, until the cameras roll and they spring to life.

The lowest caste of all is the Bloggers. They are image-less drones, crammed into crowded warrens in tents, outbuildings, and basements, plugged into their pitiful terminals, eating scraps falling from above. They exist at the outer edges of the Machine for Producing Words & Images, closest to the Unwashed, the Irrelevant, the People.

Tonight, the Machine moves.

Filed on Wednesday, August 27, 2008, after the third night of the convention.

Day Four: Signed, Sealed, Delivered

As we approached Mile High Stadium on the press bus at 3pm, we looked out to see tens of thousands of people walking in columns, filling the roads, elevated highways, and bridges, streaming toward the arena. We were told that some of these people started walking five hours ago, to get here on time. Inside, the tv networks were already set up on platforms erected around the stage. Security was relatively light, and our Brooklyn Rail credentials got us all the way inside, onto the field, where we stayed for the entire spectacle.

Over the next six hours the scene inside the stadium gradually changed, but it was clear from the beginning that this gathering was very different from those at the Pepsi Center the previous three nights. Down on the field, politicians and celebrities mixed freely with the press. Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, and John Lewis all held court, surrounded by a gaggle of cameras and microphones. Gwen Ifill and Judy Woodruff were busy interviewing and being interviewed. At one point, it seemed that everybody was interviewing everyone else, except Charlie Rose, who strolled around smiling, taking it all in.

As the stands began to fill up, the most enthusiastic celebrators came down closest to the field and began dancing, waving signs and banners, and chanting. Some groups developed elaborate routines that caught the attention of the photographers and tv people on the field, and the tables turned: the stands became the stage. The mood was buoyant and expectant. Everyone was having a good time.

Up to now, this convention has consisted of roughly 5,000 delegates and 20,000 media people. Today, these groups are outnumbered two-to-one by more than 50,000 regular citizens, who are more diverse in age, color, and class, reflecting the demographic shift in the electorate that might just make an Obama presidency possible.

At about 5:30, took the stage to do a version of his “Yes We Can” sampling YouTube hit, and the crowd came together. Looking at them, I realized that this was no conventional political party crowd. These were new people, coming into something they had no doubt was their own. They weren’t asking for anything. They were claiming, and were here to celebrate, what was theirs.

I don’t think the Democratic Party, per se, gets this. They are proceeding as if this is just another campaign, and that’s fine with the Obama people. They need the Democrats. But this time, to win, they’re going to need something else.

When the film about Obama’s life began, this capacity crowd of 84,000 fell absolutely silent. Not a sound. And when their candidate appeared on stage, they erupted, causing the stadium to shudder under our feet.

This was not the best speech Obama has given. It wasn’t even the best speech given at this convention. There was little in the speech that he hadn’t said before in the campaign. I think “No Drama Obama” (as his staff calls him) actually took something off of his delivery, in order to keep things real and play against the spectacular setting. After all, this speech was not primarily for the people in the stadium. It was for the record nearly 40 million people at home who tuned in to see it.

But this in no way lessened the effect on the crowd at Mile High. When Obama spoke of the debacle of the last eight years of American politics and said “We’re better than this,” people knew he meant them. They don’t love him because they think he’s better than them. They love him because he makes them want to be better themselves. And they know that it’s no use blaming Bush/Cheney and Co. for what’s happened to our country. They were just doing what they do. But we need to recognize and mourn what we did and didn’t do to stop them, and we need to make sure it doesn’t happen again. Obama says “Enough!”

Al Gore is right about one thing. The real power in this country is afraid of an Obama presidency, and will do their best to prevent it. The only way to overcome that is through sheer political will, extremely effective communication, and the force of numbers.

Filed Thursday, August 28, 2008, after the final night of the convention.


David Levi Strauss

DAVID LEVI STRAUSS is the author of Words Not Spent Today Buy Smaller Images Tomorrow (Aperture, 2014), From Head to Hand: Art and the Manual (Oxford University Press, 2010), Between the Eyes: Essays on Photography and Politics, with an introduction by John Berger (Aperture 2003, and in a new edition, 2012), and Between Dog & Wolf: Essays on Art and Politics (Autonomedia 1999, and a new edition, 2010). He is Chair of the graduate program in Art Writing at the School of Visual Arts in New York, and he is on the faculty of the Milton Avery Graduate School of the Arts at Bard College.


The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2008

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