Blogging the Democrats
by Jo Freeman
I wasn't going to go to the Democratic Convention this year. None of the publications I write for were given press credentials and I didn't have a place to stay.
But after making this quadrennial trek for forty years, primarily to write about women's activities and anything of interest to feminists, I couldn't stay away.
When my friend Denise, who also can't stay away, told me on Sunday evening before it started that I really should be there, I threw one good suit into a suitcase, grabbed my cameras, and caught the next cheap Chinese bus to Boston. The suit was just in case I got into something that was dressier than my photographer's vest, and the suitcase was to bring back the usual ton of paper and artifacts.
I thought I would have trouble getting into the convention, but would find a bed to sleep in by Monday night.
I was wrong on both counts. I had a press credential within an hour of arriving, but never did find a bed. The Dems had invited 35,000 delegates, staff, media and guests to Boston that week, joined by several thousand uninvited guests. Everyplace I looked there was no room at the inn. Instead I crashed in odd spots, where I couldn't take a shower, brush my teeth, or take off my clothes. By the time I returned home about 100 hours later, I was a little grubby.
It's getting harder to get press credentials, even when you are a legitimate writer. The rules change for each convention. This year the Democrats bragged that "The Democratic National Convention Committee (DNCC) is granting unprecedented access to the authors of online web logs, more commonly known as 'blogs.' " To make room for the blogs, the political science journals were denied press credentials — even the lowest level of press credential. Twenty years ago writers representing political science journals got the same press credential as political journalists, though not as many. Then they were bumped down to the equivalent of "student newspapers." In 2004 the Democrats (but not the Republicans) bounced them out altogether.
Since the closest I've ever come to representing a "mainstream" press organization was when I wrote about the 1976 conventions for Ms. Magazine, I've always worried about getting squeezed out. It happened this year. Some web pages got press credentials, but Senior Women Web, which I've written for since the 2000 Democratic Convention, did not.
However, there are some advantages to being around a long time and this year I reaped one of them. When I walked into the Periodical Press Gallery office in the Westin Hotel soon after arriving in Boston, towing my suitcase behind me, I saw Ed Pesce, its Director, sitting behind a table, looking somewhat haggard. He has a hard job. Demand always exceeds supply, and he has to deal with the "problems." "Hi Ed," I waved, thinking I was going to be one of those "problems." "I'm here to beg."
I didn't have to beg very much. He recognized me from past conventions as a "regular," and gave me a "no show" — one of the passes that hadn't been timely picked up by whomever it had been assigned to. It was good for the week. I could get into events as press and sit in the writing press stands of the Fleet Center that flanked the podiums (there were two this year) from which I could see the delegates react to the speakers.
Covering the Convention
For the past few conventions I've had press credentials early enough to get all the media mailings, find a comfortable place to sleep at night, prepare a list of events, recruit a couple assistants to help me cover the three-ring circus, and even find transportation if necessary. I've also worn myself out trying to be everyplace and find out everything of relevance to women, especially feminists.
Not this year. Since the Democrats prefer blogs to facts and anecdotes to insight and analysis, I'm going to write about my impressions and toss in a few vignettes instead of my usual fact-packed, detailed reports.
Writing those reports has become harder as the conventions have evolved from political events to media events in the forty years I've been going to them. Now that the conventions are one big infomercial, reporting them is more like reviewing a broadway show, and that's not my beat.
I will review Teresa Heinz Kerry, since she is the most controversial figure in the 2004 campaign. The controversy is undeserved: Teresa Heinz Kerry is no Hillary Clinton. I heard her speak several times and underneath her exotic image Teresa Heinz Kerry is a traditional political wife, which Hilary wasn't. When she told the gay meeting that if her husband was elected they would have a mom in the White House, she meant it. Supporting other people is what she likes to do.
The national nominating conventions of both parties ain't what they used to be and neither are the parties. Some changes have been for the better, but a lot of what made them magnets for political connoisseurs has been lost. Between 1964 and 1980 the Democratic Party underwent a revolution which saw a shift in its base, its priorities, and its procedures. That was fascinating to watch. Most of what's happened since then has been a tidying up of loose ends while trying to elect a ticket. The Republican Party also underwent a transition, but not as thorough.
The quadrennial conventions no longer nominate; that is done by the primaries (and sometimes before the primaries). In 2004 the Democrats dispensed with nominating speeches, which in the past at least allowed the virtues of the also-rans to be put before the public.
The DNCC put all the other candidates on the program, but they mostly spoke about John Kerry. The excitement of the roll call, even when you know who the winner will be, is gone, as is the "real" delegate count. The DNCC held a proforma roll call on Wednesday night after the program was over, but few delegates voted their preference or their commitment before shifting to the designated nominee.
Nor does anyone debate or even listen to the Platform. The Platform is written by the campaign committee of the nominee-to-be long before the convention. The official Platform Committee meets well before the convention and suggests small changes, but doesn't make any without the campaign's approval; 1992 was the last time there was a minority report and the debate it generated was bland.
Watching disagreement over the Platform and disputes in the other convention committees used to provide a window into intra-party differences, but no more. Everything is carefully scripted to minimize surprise and divert dissent away from the candidate. Political conventions are no longer political.
The rules of engagement for the Fleet Center were posted on a large sign outside the entrance to the metal detectors. Among the items prohibited from entry into the hall were "banners, signs or placards." The convention co-ordinators made all the signs they wanted to be seen by the ever present TV cameras. On cue, dozens of yellow-vested sign cops passed them out in quantity and signaled when they wanted them raised or lowered. Some speakers were honored by thousands of waving signs bearing their names; some only saw them flashing from the states they represented; some had to make do with applause.
The Democrats put on a good show. mixing speeches with entertainment, live and video segments. Even though I couldn't see the screens where the video portions were shown from the writing press stands, they sounded good. Jeff Kent, who is in charge of photographers at the Conventions, let me have a photographer's floor pass for an hour while Ted Kennedy was speaking so I could shoot some local color and get closer to the podium than the upper balcony.
The Democrats tried to co-opt the Republican themes of family values and national defense through the use of symbols and speeches. Having both wives and some of the Kerry and Edwards children speak to the multitudes was a convention first. Having those military flag officers stand up for Kerry and triple amputee Max Clelland introduce him may not have been a first, but was intended to highlight the fact that Kerry went to war (a war he later denounced) while Bush was dodging the draft.
The Special Interest Group Meetings
The Democratic Party is and always has been a pluralistic party where interest group identification is encouraged. Groups are harnessed to charge in the same direction — toward victory in November — though there have been years in which they pulled the party apart (e.g. 1968). However, the nature of the groups has changed over time. The revolution in the Democratic Party began in 1964 over the issue of representation when the racially integrated Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) challenged the right of the all-white Mississippi regulars to sit in that state's seats at the convention.
By the time the revolution was over in 1980, demographic representation had been added to geographic representation as a mandate. The national Charter & By-Laws of the Democratic Party written in 1974 that prohibited demographic discrimination was amended in 1980 to require equal division between men and women in all national committees and conventions, and all state central committee.
1980 was also the year that a significant "gender gap" appeared in a Presidential election for the first time since 1932. The year that the party mandated that women be 50 percent of all national party bodies, women become 60 percent of the Democrats electoral base.
The DNC sponsored numerous special interest group meetings on the second floor of the Sheraton, the headquarters hotel. These were open to anyone, not just people with credentials. The women's meeting has always been the largest, and previously met on all four convention days.
This forced women who were also black, hispanic, lesbian, etc. to chose between the women's meeting and the other special group caucuses; ethnic women generally chose their ethnic caucus while lesbians left the GLBT meeting to the men.