Monday, July 26, 2004

Why I'm Not There

I watched my first Democratic convention on television in the summer of 1960. I was 14, an age for heroes, and I had one: John F. Kennedy. It was an exciting convention, in the conventional sense: the outcome was in doubt. Kennedy had won the most primaries, but not enough to assure him the nomination. There was powerful opposition from the party elders: none other than Eleanor Roosevelt and Harry Truman included. They favored their two-time loser, Adlai Stevenson. Kennedy was too young, and his Catholicism was the unspoken fatal flaw. By the night of the voting, the Huntley-Brinkley and Walter Cronkite conventional wisdom was that if Kennedy didn't win on the first ballot, he might not win at all. So the first roll call of the states I ever saw was one of high drama as well as high theatricality. While reporters tried to keep up with Robert Kennedy's visits to key delegations, Kennedy did win on the first ballot.

Conventions since then haven't had that kind of contest, although they had plenty of drama in 64, 68 and 72. Except for 1968, when my candidate was dead and I was outside the Chicago hall in spirit and for a couple of nights, in fact, I always enjoyed watching the conventions on TV. I liked the speeches, the hoopla, the roll call of the states, the celebrations. I projected myself inside them, fantasized being part of them. But though I labored to one degree or another in various presidential primary and general election campaigns, I'd never been to a convention. So you'd think if I ever had the chance, I'd take it.

My chance came, as chances often do, as a surprise, or a series of surprises and accidents. About a year before the 04 campaigning actually started I had coffee with a new friend I'd met during the 2000 election campaign, who was soon to become the chair of the Humboldt County Democratic party executive committee. We talked about possible 2004 candidates and I mentioned John Kerry. It was the first he'd heard of him as a possible candidate.

By the by, a couple of summers ago when I was in Washington, eating the very good pasta cooked for us by the former Chief of Staff to Bill Clinton-and former classmate of mine at Knox College---John Podesta, I ventured to suggest that John Kerry might be the 04 candidate. Podesta thought not.

Anyway, as the California primary came closer, I responded to a meet-up invitation for Kerry here in Arcata. It was a very small gathering. There was my friend from the Dems, who'd become a Kerry enthusiast, and a few others. This is Green country, and Democratic activists tended to favor Dean and Dennis the K. The party wasn't terribly interested in the presidential primary, since Kerry seemed to have the nomination nearly locked up, and the chances of Bush winning California depended on the Democrats nominating, say, Osama bin Laden. So I found myself one of the few people willing to actively support the candidate most likely to win the nomination.

Brian Mau, my Dem friend (also known as Chairman Mau) had to find someone to speak for Kerry at a university forum, and at the county Democratic convention. As Chairman Mau, he couldn't do it. So I did, as I've described in an earlier entry. He also needed people to run as Kerry delegates to the convention. Only one other person was willing to do this, so I said I would, too, just so there would be Kerry delegates.

This delegate election turned out to be almost as private an affair as our meet-ups. But there were actually two elections to poll registered Democrats who showed up: one up here in northern Humboldt, and one in the southern part of the county. I believe there were slots available for two men, three women, and one male alternate. Everyone up here voted for the two of us who were there, and everybody down there voted for their folks. They however had more people at their polling place. If I had invited a friend or two, I would have won, but even in this odd arrangement, I was elected as the alternate.

I almost didn't run at all---for as I was filling out the form, very close to the end it mentioned that the delegate would be responsible for his or her own convention expenses, including transport and housing, and that this would be about $1500. However, delegates could raise funds from others to pay their way. $1500 is a major chunk of change for me these days. But I figured I'd cross that bridge when I came to it.

Having been unreliably informed that as an alternate, I wouldn't be going to the convention anyway, I relaxed. It was only much later that I learned I was not only eligible, I was expected to attend. And that $1500 figure turned out to be an estimate from some prior century. It was likely to be double that.

By that time I'd made several commitments for work that was actually going to earn me something, and that looked like it would take me through July to accomplish. It seemed to be what they call a no-brainer, which usually means an obvious practical decision based on balance sheet figures.

Still, I put off a final decision until I was getting so many emails and phone calls from the state and national Dems and the Kerry campaign that I had to commit one way or another. By that time I was deep into this work. I had a moment of enthusiasm about going to the convention, of realizing it was a once in a lifetime opportunity, and even that because I knew Boston and knew some people who might put me up, the expenses could be cut down considerably. But then all the noise about security and traffic, and security checks on delegates. And all the emails I was getting that cast being a delegate as being a fund-raiser. I don't actually know who the delegates are, but it seemed they were either fund-raising types, or members of unions and other organizations who were footing the bill for their attendance. (Politicians and officeholders have their own delegate slots.) And I can't say I felt a whole lot of encouragement to throw caution to the winds and go.

So I had to actually resign as a delegate, and thanks to the layers of organization involved, I had to do it at least twice. It was a bummer. I had a day of very gloomy second thoughts about it. What was I thinking? I thought. So what if I wasn't a typical delegate---I am a writer, I could write about it, right? When I was younger there wouldn't have been any hesitation. I would be off on the adventure. Now I thought about the physical demands: the travel east, jet-lag, the T to the convention, the standing around, the foot-miles in the city, etc. Even from a career point of view---I'd meet more and different people than I will sitting at home. What's wrong with me?

Then the mail started coming. I have a shopping bag full of it: from Americans for Democratic Action, Yankee the Magazine of New England Living, the Democratic Party Visa Platinum Card, the Mayor of Boston, American Association of Registered Nurses, Planned Parenthood, Greater Boston Convention and Visitors Bureau, Senators Dianne Feinstein, Barbara Boxer and Edward Kennedy, Southern California Edison, National Democratic Ethnic Leadership Council, etc. etc., with invitations to cocktail parties, receptions, galas, breakfasts and a No Carb Lunch. As flattered as I might be, I somehow couldn’t believe I’d make much of a lasting impression.

Now that the convention is about to begin, I am only slightly uncomfortable. I realize that I could have combined a sentimental journey back to Boston and Cambridge and the Italian North End with witnessing some unique moments---Hillary and Bill Clinton, Edwards, the most important speech of John Kerry's life so far, plus all those balloons. And maybe if things had happened a bit differently---if I'd realized sooner that I was eligible to go and maybe found some support or at least thought about it more, if I hadn't happened to get more work this summer than I've had in many months, etc. When I was most upset about not going was when I was most upset with myself for letting the environment dull my sense of possibility and adventure, the lack of an echo chamber for my enthusiasms keep me from even considering them as legitimate.

But this didn't last long. Maybe it's just ego to recoil from the given role as delegate cog, assumed fund-raiser, with no voice except to say hooray. Or maybe I'm giving into my introversion, combining it with the age-related reluctance to push physical limits for vague purposes, and coming up with timidity. I do know one thing: I felt it would be lonely. In a city where I once belonged but do no longer, peopled by ghosts, and by people who no longer would take my calls. I would be a member of the California delegation---none of whom I know or who know me-- and of nothing else. I have nothing to offer lobbyists except explanations for why they ought not waste their time lobbying me. It would be noisy, frenetic and filled with people. Not everybody's definition of lonely, I admit, but for me it's not necessarily a contradiction.

There will be thousands of people writing about this convention, and if they are anything like the commentators on TV, they will be largely saying the same things. I don't think they need me there to add either to the noise or to the silence (since it's unlikely I'd get published anywhere but here.) I'll watch the speeches on TV, mostly on C-Span, where they won't be background noise for perky analysts chatter. I'll watch the roll call of the states, I guess. But if I don't want to watch it all, I can do something else. I suppose I can't really explain why I'm not there. Maybe it's as simple as being of the age to view resources---of money, energy, time and emotional resilience---as having limits. Or let's just say I didn't feel finally that it was my fate to be there. I have responsibilities here, and they are real. Though not all of them are very important in any greater sense, they are personal to me, while my presence was not required in Boston except as a body to fill a folding chair. I hope they got somebody to fill it who can clap loud and yell continuously for hours. That's the job, after all.

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